Thursday, October 30, 2014

Empower Mississippi

*First appeared in the Oct. 29 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

My friend and Laurel-native Grant Callen has a new job: Founder and President of Empower Mississippi, a new grassroots advocacy organization based in the Metro Jackson area.

The group’s lofty name is matched by its lofty goal: “To create opportunity and make Mississippi the most free and prosperous state in the nation.” To do that, they’re empowering citizens with tools and information to engage in the public policy process, holding the Legislature accountable through initiatives like scorecards, and pushing for reforms that align with their mission.

Initially, the group will focus on education choice, meaning they’ll be fighting for legislation and other regulatory changes that empower parents, not bureaucrats, to make educational decisions for their children. The group’s very existence is a threat to the status quo, which, by the way, is already hollering.

About a week ago, I got a press release announcing Empower’s first-ever education choice scorecard based on votes taken during the 2012, 2013, and 2014 legislative sessions. Just a few days later, I saw an email from another education group imploring readers not to be fooled by “the great lie that is school choice.”

Coincidence? I doubt it. Like many Jones Countians before him, Grant has successfully ruffled some feathers. In the education realm, that’s the telltale sign of doing something right.

Empower’s Education Choice Scorecard grades Mississippi legislators on key education votes involving bills related to dyslexia scholarships, charter schools, speech language scholarships, and special needs education. Here’s how Free State legislators scored:

On the House side, Reps. Bo Eaton and Omeria Scott both received the lowest grade possible (F). Rep. Johnny Stringer received a D minus. Reps. Bobby Shows and Gary Staples both received a score of A plus.

On the Senate side, Sen. Chris McDaniel received a score of A plus, but Sen. Haskins Montgomery received an F.

A full list of scores and the methodology used to determine rankings can be accessed at their website, www.empowerms.org.

In addition to the scorecard, Empower Mississippi will track legislation, alert citizens to key votes, and help connect citizens with legislative leaders. While education choice is the group’s initial focus, Empower is also dedicated to advocating for economic freedom and a fiscally responsible state government.

With Callen at the helm, Empower is currently touring the state, bringing its message of education choice to parents, teachers, community leaders, and citizens statewide. Groups interested in hearing from Empower can make that request on the organization’s website. (And, if I had to guess, I bet Callen would make a special trip to his native city to share the Empower message.)

In the organization’s press release, Callen explained that empowering parents with education choice tears down “barriers and [helps] ensure that every child in the state has the opportunity to receive a quality education. Implementing policies that promote economic freedom…[removes] obstacles for people to earn a living in a field of their choice and [promotes] long-term economic growth for the state.”

Over the years, I have developed a healthy dose of cynicism about organizations and their true intentions. But having an opportunity to get to know and work alongside Grant Callen the past few years has shown me he’s a man whose sincerity I ought not question. Callen is a true believer – he’s got a passion for empowering citizens to take control of their destiny, and, in his mind, that starts with education choice.

I tend to agree.

Hats off to my fellow Laurel native who’s using his talents to help give parents a choice. Then again, it’s not about the parents, is it? To quote Callen: In Mississippi, “greater choice is needed. For the children trapped by a failing system, help can’t come soon enough.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Surfin’ the Net: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Miss.) Galaxy

*First appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Ever find yourself browsing the internet for updates on Mississippi trends but don’t know where to go?

Don’t panic. Here’s a list of some of the sites I visit to keep up with politics, policy, gossip, and just good old fashioned news. (Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with 42 websites, for those of you paying attention.)

Let’s start with what is probably the most popular political website in the state, if paid political ads are the measure: Y’all Politics (yallpolitics.com). YP has multiple contributors and includes political videos, original content, summary of breaking news, and a nice collection of blogs in the state. Its content is divided by category (“2014 MS Election” or “Senate 2014”). For the political newcomer, YP is a must-visit site.

Another high-traffic website is Jackson Jambalaya which, as its name indicates, focuses on the politics of Jackson and the Metro Area, in addition to Miss. politics. This blog is known for diving deep into issues (such as state retirement) and is usually among the first to report breaking news. The blog is maintained by the “Kingfish,” a name referenced in its address: kingfish1935.blogspot.com. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed.

The political reporting team of the Clarion Ledger maintains the Political Ledger blog (clarionledger.com). Geoff Pender, Jimmie Gates, Clay Chandler, and Sam Hall “bring you the inside scoop on politics,” according to the daily newspaper. Sam Hall used to maintain a separate blog (Daily Ledes) but ceased writing on that blog in August. However, its content remains available on the paper’s website.

Along the Gulf Coast, internet surfers ought to check out the Crawdaddy blog (sunherald.com), a political site operated by the Sun Herald newspaper staff. Billed as “South Mississippi’s political blog,” this site has a charming logo: An exuberant lobster, clad in an American-themed tie and top hat, waving Old Glory and the Mississippi flag.

As Hitchhiker’s aptly states, “It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.” If this type of biting commentary is your style, check out the Weidie Report (weidiereport.com). Wayne Weidie operates this blog “unabashed and with unfiltered integrity.” He draws on his years of experience in journalism, politics, and government affairs to provide readers with an honest assessment of Miss. politics.

Columnist and political jack-of-all-trades Brian Perry maintains the Capstone Public Affairs Blog (capstonepublicaffairs.com/blog). This blog provides a look at state, regional, and national politics and often provides further context on Perry’s columns which are published statewide – including in this newspaper, on occasion.

Switching to policy, here are a few websites for the weary political traveler looking for more substantive (translation: nerdy) commentary.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy is a conservative think-tank which works to “advance the ideals of limited government, free markets, and strong traditional families by influencing public policy, informing the media, and equipping the public with information and perspective.” The website (mspolicy.org) contains a link to its MCPP Commentary which features radio clips from the organization as well as explanations of relevant policy issues and how they affect individual liberties.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mississippi’s bluer residents need look no further than the Policy Matters blog maintained by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center (mepconline.org). According to the site, MEPC conducts independent research to “ensure that the needs of low and moderate-income Mississippians, in particular, are considered in the development and implementation of public policy with the ultimate goal of improving access to economic opportunity.”

Similarly, ReThink Mississippi (rethinkms.org) provides a progressive analysis of policy issues in Mississippi. RM bills itself as “a forum for insight, analysis, and debate about Mississippi’s critical long-term issues – run by and intended for the people committed to working on these issues in the future.” If you’re looking for a discussion on race, sexual identity, economics, education, or – heck – the price of an Egg Bowl ticket, this website’s for you.

This list is merely a snapshot of the sites available for those interested in perusing Mississippi goings-on. Have you read other blogs that deserve a mention? Email me, and I’ll add them to my blog (rebekahstaples.blogspot.com).

You might wonder why anyone blogs, but I think the answer is simple: We want to make our state better and know it’s a mistake to think you can solve any major problems with just potatoes – you need words, too.

SITES NOT INCLUDED IN ORIGINAL COLUMN BUT WORTH CHECKING OUT...

Red/Blue Review (Andy Taggart & Jere Nash). This is a video blog of sorts that includes conservative commentary from Andy Taggart and not-so-conservative commentary from Jere Nash. These guys not only appear on WLBT, the NBC affiliate in the Metro Area, but they've written several books on Mississippi history. Definitely worth the watch.

Statewatch. Statewatch under the direction of Mikell McLeod provides real-time tracking of legislation through this innovative web tool. They call it "in-depth legislative intelligence," and they mean it. Check 'em out if you're interested in keeping up in real-time with legislative happenings.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lessons from the matriarch of my American family

*First appeared in the Oct. 15, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper.

This past weekend marked my mom’s XXth birthday. Mom’s birthday got me to thinking about the importance of family and how lucky my brother and I are to have had a great family nest growing up. But not everyone is so lucky, and too often we see the symptoms of that larger societal problem – the breakdown of the American family – in the form of dropout rates, poverty issues, incarceration, teen/out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and so on.

With that in mind, and in honor of my mom’s birthday, I’d like to examine the lessons imparted to me by the matriarch of my American family. Some are silly, some are not – and that itself is a great reflection of my mother.

Lesson #1: “Don’t cross your eyes.”

As a child, I enjoyed making weird faces and crossing my eyes. Mom warned me against this, saying it would have bad consequences (“your eyes will get stuck that way.”). As a four-year old, I climbed on a plank, stood on one leg, and crossed my eyes (imagine a tiny kung-fu fighter in the crane position). At that point, I saw two planks (one real and one not, thanks to my double-vision) and chose the wrong plank to put my foot on. I fell dramatically to the ground, breaking my arm along the way.

No, my eyes “didn’t get stuck that way,” but I did learn my lesson. Adult translation? Actions have consequences.

Lesson #2: “Have personality!”

Gosh, if only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Before going to school, before meeting new people, before going into a job interview, her advice was the same. Mom encouraged me to put my best foot forward regardless of the situation. Be engaging, have personality, make a name for yourself – and you’ll go far.

It’s such a simple yet powerful lesson about human nature. We don’t want to be friends with the boring; we don’t want to do business with the dull. We want to hitch our wagons to those who, for lack of a better phrase, “have personality.” Think of this way – when’s the last time you voted for the boring dude at the ballot box? You didn’t.

Lesson #3: “It takes a friend to be a friend.”

This lesson is pretty self-explanatory, but my mom preached it to me incessantly when I was a kid. I suppose she thought I might treat other children like I treated my brother (with a yell and a fist). She told me the secret to having a lot of friends was being one first.

Honestly, I’m still working on incorporating this lesson into life (look, I need alone time – and lots of it). But how many children grow up without hearing this simple piece of advice?

Lesson #4: “Never leave home without fresh clothes, lipstick, and earrings.”

This lesson can also be titled, “Are you really leaving the house looking like that?” Mom believes strongly in looking your best when going out in public, which means matching clothes, brushed hair, “putting on some lips” (neutral shades are forbidden), and earrings.

I’ve taken her advice as it relates to professional activities, but wild hair and pajamas aren’t necessarily off limits in Kroger (sorry, Mom).

Knowing how to dress professionally seems like a basic skill, but it’s not. In the workforce world, this and related traits are known as “soft skills.” Today’s workers have trouble with tasks like knowing how to dress and showing up on time – things my mom taught me at an early age. This soft skills deficit leads to lower productivity and harms our economy.

Lesson #5: “You’re special.”

This has been something of a running joke in my family. I once told my mom that I wasn’t special, and she responded by giving me a teddy bear figurine that said “You’re special.” To this day, my whole family writes “you’re special” on every birthday card and Christmas present I receive.

It’s funny to us now (and I’m pretty sure my brother uses it as a taunt), but it’s a message that every child ought to hear. Children must be told they’re special. They must know someone believes in them and their future. They must be loved, nurtured, and have their dreams encouraged by parents and guardians. My mom and dad made sure that we knew they believed in us and supported our aspirations.

Mom taught me many lessons and continues to introduce new ones. Some of them will stick (like the fiscal responsibility gleaned through bargain shopping); some of them won’t (like cooking). I am thankful to have a mom who, along with my father, chose to raise their children responsibly and impart life lessons that prepared us for the so-called “real world.”

Happy birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fun with fonts

*First appeared in the Oct. 8 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to some interesting news from our neighboring state (the one that has counties, not parishes). It was a story about potential cost-savings achieved by changing the font used in official government mailings. Intriguing, right?

You could say Alabamans are trying to get with the modern times (New Roman).

According to the political website Yellowhammernews.com, taxpayers could reap at least $300,000 in annual savings by switching from Times New Roman to Garamond, based on information provided to a state legislator by the Alabama Legislative Fiscal Office.

State senator Slade Blackwell, a Republican, told Yellowhammer that Alabama “would save between 20 percent and 30 percent on ink and toner every year. Taxpayers expect us to be good stewards of their money...This is another great opportunity for us to continue streamlining and downsizing state government.”

The state reports spending about $1.5 million each year through state agency ink and toner contracts, with public higher education institutions spending even more, approximately $3.2 million annually. Switching to Garamond is expected to shave about 25 percent of these costs. More savings could be achieved by including local governing bodies, such as cities and counties.

Sen. Blackwell confirmed to Yellowhammer that he will sponsor legislation in 2015 mandating the use of Garamond for internal printing at agencies, departments, institutions, and other governmental bodies.

According to Yellowhammer, the idea seems to have come from an unlikely source: A sixth-grader conducting a school science project. The Pittsburg, Penn. student found that his school district could save $21,000 by switching fonts. Teachers were so impressed with his project that they encouraged him to send the research to Harvard, which in turn urged him to send the research to the federal government.

Uncle Sam could save about $400 million by adopting Garamond, according to the student. But others say those figures aren’t true, since contracts are often written on a per-page basis, regardless of ink and toner used.

Additionally, there are some very detailed ways in which ink output per font is measured, and experts say Garamond isn’t as legible as Time New Roman when put at the same point font. This means Garamond would have to be printed larger in order to achieve maximum legibility, thus negating any potential cost-savings.

By the way, here is a little background on our dueling fonts. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, British newspaper The Times commissioned a new font in 1931 after criticism the paper was badly printed and typographically antiquated. The result was known as – you guessed it – Times New Roman. Garamond, on the other hand, is a reference to its creator, French publisher and punch-cutter Claude Garamont. Several contemporary fonts, including Granjon and Sabon, reflect his influence.

After writing all of that, I officially feel like a font nerd.

Alabama isn’t the only state looking at fonts. Apparently Missouri is considering a similar bill. Could Mississippi be next?

Only time will tell whether this idea has merit – and if the Magnolia State stands to benefit from this unique approach to printing. In an age of governance where every idea (good or bad) has a political overtone, it’s unusual to stumble upon something as truly apolitical as font style.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The making of the state budget

*First appeared in the October 1, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Most Mississippians don’t follow the legislative budgeting process. It’s a bit wonky and not often described in a relatable way. I’ll try to remedy that in this column by demonstrating how budgeting is a lot like the courting process – the ups and downs, the thrills and chills, and the building of an institution (be it marriage or state government).

There are no storks and no pastel-colored ribbons involved in the making of a state budget, but the process required for smooth budgeting is not entirely dissimilar to the process of making a family.

We’ll start at the beginning: Speed dating. This process occurs each year during the Joint Legislative Budget Committee budget hearings. Instead of a bar, state agencies are herded into a room at the Woolfolk Building where they have about 15 minutes to dazzle the members of the JLBC. Agencies talk about what they like; budget committee members talk about what they don’t like. Then, if the agency is lucky, they’ll get matched. This could be a general agreement among JLBC members that the agency needs a budget increase or simply one legislator who decides to champion their cause.

In fact, budget speed dating began this week. By the time you’re reading this, agencies like the Dept. of Education, Dept. of Corrections, and State Board of Health have already made a pass at next year’s budget. (Don’t worry though – agencies will get their full vetting during the actual legislative session. This is just a warm-up.)

After the weeklong speed dates subside, the JLBC members must reconvene to determine which agency they’d like to take to the dance, a.k.a. the “legislative budget recommendation.” Who will lawmakers invite to dance with them? Will they choose to fund the budget increase requested by certain departments? And so forth. “Priority agencies” always find their way into the legislative budget recommendation, but priority is often in the eye of the beholder, er, lawmaker.

So we’ve done speed dating, and we’ve slow-danced at homecoming. What’s next?

In January, lawmakers officially reconvene to start working on the nuts-and-bolts of a budget. This is the DTR phase – or, “define the relationship” for those of you not keeping track with adolescent lingo.

In defining the relationship, lawmakers will revisit issues again and again and again (sounds like a relationship, doesn’t it?). Why do you need this budget increase? Where are we going with this program? What are your long-term goals? Why can’t we trust your agency? Are you the kind of agency I can take home to mom – or at least to the floor of the Senate?

Making it through the DTR phase is difficult but manageable. And, if your agency is lucky enough to navigate this process, you’ve made it past one of the hardest parts.

Marriage comes next, and that’s when lawmakers of both chambers agree to fund a particular agency or program. Budget leaders of both houses must give the verbal “I do” before a final budget can be adopted.

Yet a marriage (or, in this case, a general agreement) isn’t the final step in this family-making ordeal. This last part is the most mysterious and least understood of budgeting processes. It’s called “conference” and, like the birthing process, it entails a lot of false starts, sweat, a little pain, and ultimately a bundle of joy (a finished budget!).

From budget hearings to conference reports, the budgeting process is arduous, complicated, and altogether wonky. But it determines how your taxpayer dollars are used, and that’s why all of us have an interest in understanding these courtship-like processes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Telehealth can aid rural communities, cut costs

*First appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I had an interesting chat the other day with my friend and colleague who manages the state’s Broadband Connect Coalition, a group whose function includes mapping out ways in which increased broadband can improve the education, government, workforce, and healthcare sectors.

The leaders of the broadband group made a recommendation in 2011 that Mississippi ought to establish a trade association focused solely on health information technology, and the state obliged, albeit slowly. In 2014, the Mississippi Telehealth Association was formally established to develop telehealth policies and programs designed to improve healthcare outcomes.

When I think of telehealth, I envision chatting with a doctor via Skype. Turns out, telehealth encompasses much, much more. The federal government defines telehealth as the “use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”

In our state, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is a leader on telehealth issues. According to UMMC, residents in more than half of Mississippi’s counties must drive 40 minutes (or more) to receive specialty healthcare. This poses a serious challenge to ensuring our residents receive quality healthcare in a timely fashion.

Insert telehealth technologies. They can help bridge the gap for the residents who live in these rural areas (which is funny to say, since we’re a predominantly rural state). For example, UMMC has used online video technology to provide remote medical care, including services such as wellness care and disaster response, to more than 500,000 Mississippians since 2003. Their services include over 30 different medical specialties, such as cardiology, dermatology, emergency medicine, and stroke, and extend to more than 100 clinical sites.

UMMC telehealth services are available in all but six Mississippi counties. According to the Medical Center, Jones County-based telehealth services are provided by South Central Regional Medical Center.

Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind telehealth partnership was announced by Gov. Phil Bryant. The Diabetes Telehealth Network, a public-private initiative including UMMC, North Sunflower Medical Center, GE Healthcare, Intel-GE Care Innovations, and C-Spire, is providing remote care management to diabetes patients in the Miss. Delta with an eye toward improving outcomes and reducing costs.

In 2010, 12.1 percent of adults in this area reported a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, and 293 died from complications related to the disease. Estimates from the American Diabetes Association put a $2.74 billion price tag on expenses related to diabetes management.

Participants in the Diabetes Telehealth Network will input daily information, such as glucose and blood pressure, onto specialized tablets provided to them through the initiative. This information provides clinicians a “just-in-time” snapshot of patients’ health status, allowing them to easily adjust medical care, schedule phone calls, or set up video chats with patients as needed.

While the program is ongoing and final results are not yet available, this initiative shows great promise in improving access to quality healthcare, particularly in underserved areas like the Mississippi Delta.

Information Week expects the telehealth industry to grow sixfold by 2017, as remote patient monitoring ramps up across the nation. As telehealth increasingly becomes a part of our medical infrastructure, Mississippi must be prepared to meet challenges posed by this new delivery system. Already we know these challenges include licensure issues, such as reciprocity of state licenses, as well as universal standards of practice.

With the right support, these obstacles are surmountable. Political leaders in Mississippi have thrown their weight behind telehealth as a legitimate solution to improving healthcare. Congressman Gregg Harper has been a leader, authoring the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker have sponsored similar legislation in 2014.

Closer to home, the Miss. Legislature has also taken up the telehealth mantle. A bill passed in the last session requires health insurance providers to cover “store-and-forward” and remote patient monitoring at the same rate as in-person consultations. (Store-and-forward refers to platforms that allow providers to receive consultations from remote physicians on patient tests and scans.)

A study released this week and published in Telemedicine and e-Health shows that over a 14-year period, the use of telemedicine to manage chronic diseases yielded “clear benefits including fewer and shorter hospital stays, fewer emergency room visits, less severe illness, and even fewer deaths.”

With the ability to improve outcomes faster and cheaper, it’s no wonder telehealth is getting the attention of healthcare experts, industry publications, and policymakers.

Provided the technology continues to work as expected and keeps a sharp focus on patient care, telehealth – and all that it encompasses – is good news for Mississippians.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My thoughts on corporal punishment

*First appeared in the Sept. 17 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Adrian Peterson had a bad week. He’s been indicted on charges of child abuse related to whipping his son to the point of bleeding. Peterson, who plays professional football for the Minnesota Vikings, is fighting the charges. He’s told several news outlets that he was disciplined as a child in the same way and “never intended or thought [injury] would happen…I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”

Is corporal punishment child abuse? It depends on your perspective – and, in Peterson’s case, both the jury and injury.

According to news reports, parents are allowed in every state to use corporal punishment as a means of discipline, so long as the force is “reasonable.” Mississippi law stipulates that reasonable corporal punishment will not cause serious bodily harm, such as bone fracturing, permanent disfigurement or scarring, internal bleeding or trauma to any organ, brain damage, and impairment of any bodily function.

Roughly 19 states allow corporal punishment within public schools. In Mississippi, teachers and other district personnel may reasonably use “physical force as a means to maintain discipline and enforce school rules for self-protection or for the protection of other students from disruptive students.” It’s up to school districts to decide whether or not to employ this type of punishment.

Back to Peterson. His case will be handled in both a court of law and of public opinion, and that’s the genesis of this column. I don’t care to opine on his specific case (particularly as I don’t know all the details), but I’ve been amazed by the immediate rush to judgment on both sides of the paddle.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on corporal punishment.

The Staples Household believes strongly in corporal punishment. As a child, I was often on the receiving end of this type of discipline. Switches were my mother’s specialty, and she’d even “allow” me to pick out my own. My father offered no such choice. His trusty belt sufficed.

I was whipped so many times that I don’t remember specifics. What I do remember is that the punishment system was rigged in my brother’s favor, as he never got as many whippings as I did. (Perhaps the bigger question, then, is not whether corporal punishment is child abuse, but whether it is evenly distributed among siblings. I’ll volunteer for that case study.)

All joking aside, corporal punishment in my family didn’t do irreparable harm to my brother or me. It didn’t make us violent madmen. It served its purpose quite well: We broke the rules, and we paid the painful price. Did it completely stop us from disobeying? No, but we defied the laws of Papa Sam with a more acute sense of the risks involved.

Because of my upbringing, I don’t raise eyebrows when I hear a child has been whipped for disobedience. That’s just a normal part of childhood, based on the sum of my experiences.

But I don’t agree with those who contend all forms of physical force used on children are “reasonable.” Obviously, if you break a bone or disfigure a face, you’ve gone too far. There are some limits, and parents should be held accountable when they exceed those boundaries.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with the over-reactive group which believes all forms of corporal punishment are abusive. I don’t believe that whipping children (in a reasonable way) is cause for a lifetime of therapy or requires an immediate reporting to childcare services.

Extremists on both sides irritate me. I’m not a parent, and I’m not advocating for either child-rearing strategy. It’s up to each family to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Sure, I’ve got my biases. I grew up thinking most of the kids who didn’t get spanked were brats, and most of the parents who didn’t spank their kids were pushovers. I also got exposed to irony at a much earlier age than the non-spanked kids who never heard their parents claim, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

However the Peterson case pans out, I hope we’ll remember that Adrian Peterson’s parenting strategy is not a bellwether for corporal punishment in America.