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Monday, February 28, 2011

Awake the State

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I watch the Oscars because I enjoy watching people win.

Yet, for those nominated that don't carry the gold trophy home, to lose is also to win. The recognition simply rockets their careers forward.

Funny thing, recognition, when it's given and the reasons why. Take teachers, for example. Or state workers. Or public service personnel. All people who work quietly behind the scenes of their communities, entrusted with the education of our children, the running of the state and at times, our very lives when we are faced with risk.

Here in Florida, the recognition of those who keep the sunshine in this state has most recently come via the pointed finger of our newly elected governor, a short term resident who doesn't think too much of public workers.

Time to wake up Gov. Rick Scott.

Time to Awake the State.

On March 8th--the first day of the Florida Legislative session--rallies throughout the state are planned to demonstrate support for those who are working for us all.

The Brevard County-Melbourne Rally will take place at School Board Headquarters, located at 2700 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera, FL 32940, 4:30 PM-7:30 PM.

For readers outside the Brevard County area, click here to find a rally near you.

For those who still believe that the holes in this state's financial shortfalls must be made off the backs of teachers, firefighters, police officers and state workers, take a look back at 2003 to truly focus on one reason in particular that has helped lead Florida citizens to these dark financial days.

The St. Pete Times:
(...)

At a time when Florida is scraping for every dollar to improve education, build roads and prisons and buy prescription drugs for the poor, Florida's corporate income tax is all but dead.

** Corporate income tax collections as a percentage of state tax revenue are at their lowest point since 1972-73.

** In 2001, Florida lost a larger percentage of revenue because of questionable tax shelters than all but two of the 45 states that impose a corporate income tax, according to a recent study.

** The system is increasingly inequitable for businesses, with just 5,000 companies paying almost all of the tax.

** As the corporate tax percentage declines, the state's reliance on the sales tax - which hits the poorest Floridians five times harder than the richest - is growing.

** By one state estimate, legal exemptions, credits, deductions and loopholes cost Florida $1.2-billion a year - more than the corporate tax generates.

In a state with a $53.5-billion budget, $1.2-billion would be enough to hire 28,000 teachers or build 3,500 classrooms or bring teachers' salaries in line with the national average.

It would be enough to build 30,000 prison beds or 425 miles of two-lane roads. Or enough to provide prescription drug coverage for 50,000 seniors for more than a decade.

How do so many businesses pay so little or nothing? The answer is aggressive tax planning, a state tax code full of loopholes and politicians unwilling to plug them.


And don't even get me started on the intangibles tax (or lack thereof).

Upon winning the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia in 1994, actor Tom Hanks credited two high school teachers for his success.

"Here's what I know... I would not be standing here if it weren't for two very important men in my life, two I haven't spoken with in a while but I had the pleasure of just the other evening - Mr Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me 'Act well the part, there all the glory lies', and one of my classmates under Mr Farnsworth, Mr John Gilkerson....to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends."

As our politicians like to say, do it for the children.

Awake This State.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Weekend Zen



And I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know...

...ain't no sunshine when she's gone, only darkness everyday.

Bill Withers. 1971.

Ain't No Sunshine.


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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Short Shorts: Power Grab

http://www.fashionrat.com/images/fashion-shorts1.jpg

It's all about the power, baby.

Democratic Apathy Gets a Lift from Wisconsin: Jonathan Alter (Businessweek, 2/24/2011).

(...)

If Walker was honest about his motives, he would be looking better. As a conservative, he wants to neuter the public employees unions by allowing them to negotiate only for wages, not benefits or working conditions. This would effectively smash organized labor in his state.

But Walker can’t say that he’s a union-buster, so he’s pretending that he’s taking drastic action only because his state faces a budget crisis. In fact, Wisconsin is in better shape than most states -- or was, until Walker rammed $117 million in tax cuts for corporations through the legislature, now controlled by the GOP. Those tax cuts take effect in July, making a difficult budget outlook even worse.

Walker’s true intentions were made clear by his hands-off treatment of those police and fire unions that supported his candidacy last year. Their benefits are no more reasonable than those of teachers and state workers, maybe less. This is a power grab. Republicans want the pesky unions that support Democrats out of the way.

***

Brevard County's version of ex-Rep-for-hire David Brock, Media Matters.

Randy Ball: Farewell, Republican Party (FLORIDA TODAY, 2/24/2011)

(...)

My Tallahassee home will go into foreclosure in a month. My credit score of 801 will go to 8. Let’s talk about Republican failure to regulate bank innovations and the debt-fueled real-estate bubble.

I have returned to Brevard, now an independent, where I’ll grow a beard and long hair and write, and not without a spasm of pain when I think of the hope Republicans once brought me and, I believed, America.

Farewell, Grand Old Party, I love your values — the old ones.

The new ones scare me to death.

Ball is a former Republican state representative from Mims who served in the Florida Legislature from 1994-2002.

***

The Republican "deficit" claim goes local.

Ex-Clerk Defends His Tenure (FLORIDA TODAY, 2/24/2011)


The current Brevard Clerk of Court and his new cronies continue to spread the story I left them with some huge budget deficits, necessitating all the panic moves and blunders they’ve accomplished since being sworn in.


Not needing my Magic 8 Ball, I knew from prior campaigns the tendency of current clerk Mitch Needelman to rewrite history when it’s unfavorable.


I left office Dec. 31 with the courts running a $350,000 surplus. A projected $300,000 fine fund was in reserve. We’d been notified of a $400,000 reduction in July and scaled back to meet the new budget.


If the new clerk truly believed in the large deficit, he’d not have spent $250,000 to hire two campaigners as the highest paid employees. The waves of layoffs are to free funds to hire more cronies and divvy up new contracts amongst the favored.


Four people fully county funded, at a cost of $300,000, were released in finance, and these monies cannot even legally be used for courts.


There was no $1.9 million or any other deficit and no direction from Tallahassee to reduce the original budget. The whole show is a charade to take people’s eyes off the political retributions and newly spent money.

***

Talk to Me.

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Aint't No Sunshine When She's Gone




Ending the month long look at the first year of Talk to Me leads us to right back to where we are today.

Back in 2007, signs of the Florida's impending economic crack-up were quickly becoming evident.

The Break-Up (Talk to Me, June 12, 2007)

(...)

-Public school enrollment, expected to climb by nearly 49,000 students last school year, dropped by 3, 571, the first decline in 24 years.

-The number of Florida drivers seeking licenses in other states has increased since 2005, while the number of out-of-state drivers moving to Florida has fallen.

-Three of the nation's largest van lines moved more customers out of the state than into it last year, reversing a decades long trend.


Sunshine
didn't then and doesn't now pay the bills.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: PUNKED




Appears as if the governor dubbed by some conservatives as a hero fell hard and quite publicly for his own hype.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker found himself at the receiving end of what his office soon learned was a prank phone call from a New York blogger rather than a conversation with David Koch, a conservative billionaire businessman who along with his brother, contributed millions to Americans for Prosperity, known by any other name as the Tea Party.

(...)

Koch and his brother, Charles, own Koch Industries, the largest privately owned company in America and one with significant operations in Wisconsin. Its political-action committee gave $43,000 to Walker's campaign, and David Koch gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which funded ads attacking Walker's opponent in last year's election.

(...)

Posing as David Koch, Murphy makes inflammatory statements on unions and Democrats. Walker says Wisconsin is at the vanguard of a set of states in which conservative governors are battling with workers over union rights. Walker agrees with the impersonator that Wisconsin is the "first domino."

"This is our moment," he says on the recording.

Walker also explains potential tactics for breaking the deadlock, including trying to lure Democratic senators who fled the state back to the Capitol to negotiate and then pushing the bill through while Republicans have the quorum needed to move the measure.

"If you had heard that I was going to talk to them, that would be the only reason why," Walker says on the recording.

The governor also said he planned to announce Thursday that state workers would start receiving notices that they're at risk for layoff. Walker says 5,000 to 6,000 such notices could be sent.

(...)

Democrats seized on the recorded comments as evidence that Walker plans to go beyond budget cuts to crushing unions. "This isn't about balancing the budget. This is about a political war," Rep. Jon Richards yelled Wednesday on the floor of the state Assembly.

Read more over at The Seattle Times.

Read the transcript and listen to the audio of Walker's credibility crashing at The Beast.

And my reaction here.

***

"I call it like the domino theory of reality. If you can go one step at a time and it seems to make sense, you can then take your audience into an area that is relatively outlandish."

Ivan Reitman


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Union




I've watched the Madison protest with a sort of macabre fascination.

My dad job-shopped early in his career, moving here and there before we kids were enrolled in school and once upon a time, he accepted a position that landed us in Milwaukee.

But having been stationed at Patrick AFB, he had the sand in his shoes and the drive to explore where no man had gone before, which brings me to my point.

If the space industry had been located in Wisconsin instead of Florida, my roots would be there instead of here. Instead of pondering what passes for a contract here at home, I could very well be one of the educators presently crowding the capitol in protest, something we in Brevard don't do very well, if at all.

Collective bargaining is protected within the Florida constitution. That being said, the state is a right to work state, a fact the Tuesday caller to local radio show might have researched before claiming all are forced to join a union.

(...)

The right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or non-membership in any labor union or labor organization. The right of employees, by and through a labor organization, to bargain collectively shall not be denied or abridged. Public employees shall not have the right to strike. (Constitution Amended by General Election, 1944; Revised by General Election November 5, 1968)


As a result, such protection tends to melt the ice in the cooler of protest around these parts. Employees become complacent, even at this point with Guv Scott planning to shred our pension into paper strips.

So, I'll protest on my own when I cast my NO vote on the offered Brevard Public Schools contract. Sure, I could take the high end of the bonus and buy an appliance for what passes as a kitchen in my house.

Instead, I'll be thinking of my twenty and thirty-something colleagues and their future as Florida educators.

As I scrawl my dissent across the face of the ballot, my thoughts will be of Wisconsin and those Democrats working on their behalf, specifically Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee. Just yesterday, the state legislator had this to say about the unionized workers standing together in solidarity.
"Can you hear that?", she screamed into her microphone. "Can you hear the cheers? Can you hear the chants? Can you hear the voices of the people who elected you? How can you not hear that?"

Yes, Tamara.

Loud and clear.

Talk to Me.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Nation's Greatest Public Works Project




I've heard much comparison of high speed rail to the interstate highway system these last couple of weeks. But I pondered whether or not the development of the interstate received the same kind of resistance as we are witnessing with Guv Scott and other Florida elected officials.

Although President Dwight Eisenhower is given credit for cutting the ribbon on the initial construction of this nation's highway system, the development of the idea actually began back at the 1939 World's Fair Futurama exhibit, sponsored by General Motors. As noted with high speed rail, funding the construction held up the works for years.

And the project was not without its detractors.

(...)

The construction of a vast new highway system affected the lives of millions of people. While many welcomed the new roads, others disliked them as symbols of runaway modernity that chewed up landscape and/or urban areas. Protests against highway building led Congress to shift control of highway construction away from state and federal engineers. As early as 1959, residents and political leaders in San Francisco blocked construction of the Embarcadero Freeway. Starting in 1962, residents of Baltimore banded together to protect city neighborhoods from destruction by highway engineers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, upper-income residents of Northwest Washington, D.C., made use of political savvy and legal know-how to block construction of the Three Sisters Bridge across the Potomac River. Authors of books with titles such as The Pavers and the Paved and Superhighway-Superhoax attracted national attention to this "freeway revolt" taking place.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Read more about what Florida Atlantic University history Professor Mark Rose calls "the nation's greatest public works project" here: The Interstate Highway System 1939-1991.


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Monday, February 21, 2011

From the Inbox: Brevard Democrats Plan Action Alert at Embraer Event




ACTION ALERT

Show Your Support for High Speed Rail


U.S. Senator Bill Nelson will be participating in the Embraer ribbon cutting at the Melbourne airport on Apollo Boulevard, near the Melbourne Police Department tomorrow, Monday, Feb 21, at 11:30 AM to 1 PM. Also in attendance will be Senator Mike Haridopolous and Governor Rick Scott.

We are asking that as many of you as possible attend and bring signs or banners supporting high speed rail.

The signs or banners need to say:


Central Florida needs high speed rail!
Rick Scott destroys jobs!

Lets show them how we feel about Governor Scott's job killing decision and support Senator Nelson as he tries to bring jobs and solid infrastructure to the state!

EVENT INFO


WHAT: Embraer ribbon cutting

WHERE
:Melbourne airport on Apollo Boulevard, near the Melbourne Police Department

WHEN: Monday, Feb 21, at 11:30 AM to 1 PM

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The Guv's in Town


Guv Rick Scott will score a touchdown in Melbourne today, as he scissors open for business the Embraer aircraft facility.

Shadowing the governor, Senator Bill Nelson.

Per the St. Pete Times, the Senator has managed to do what seemed quite improbable last week-- cracked open the Scott just say no to high speed rail defense.

Reportedly, Scott "...would be willing to look at a plan that alleviates financial risk to the state."

He remains highly skeptical, so Nelson better get his game on or kiss the $2.4 billion in federal funding good-bye.

The clock runs out on Friday.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pension Tension: Do you agree with Gov. Scott’s plan to cut pension benefits in the Florida Retirement System?



NO: Scott not telling truth about impact

Gov. Rick Scott proposed that public service employees contribute 5 percent of their salaries toward retirement to help offset the state’s $3.6 billion budget gap.

The recommendation is based on a 2010 report published by the Florida Legislature’s research unit, the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability.

What’s interesting about the report is what the governor did not reference. The actual OPPAGA recommendation stated all FRS members be required to contribute 1 percent of their salaries, not 5 percent.

Furthermore, OPPAGA stated the major disadvantage of such an option is the immediate reduction in employee compensation “unless salary rates were increased to match the level of required pension contributions.”

If Scott is playing loosey-goosey with the recommendations, what other information about his retirement proposals is he withholding? As a businessman, has he mentioned each dollar invested by Florida taxpayers toward the pension plans supports $5.87 in total economic activity in the state and that every dollar paid out in pensions supports $1.41 spent here at home?

Did Scott relate the lesson learned by West Virginia?

In 1991, the state ended the defined benefit program for educators, a guaranteed fixed benefit upon employee retirement. The Teachers Retirement Plan was frozen and all subsequent hires were enrolled in the defined contribution plan affording employees the management of their own investments.

By 2005, it became clear this plan did not enable teachers to accumulate enough money toward retirement. New hires were enrolled back in the defined benefit plan while those teachers caught in the 1991-2005 years voted on whether to stick with the plan or switch.

Seventy-nine percent of impacted teachers voted to return to the defined benefit plan. Of this group, 75 percent of teachers younger than 40 chose to switch, overturning a commonly held financial belief that younger workers prefer contribution plans over benefit plans.

Scott made his fortune through investments in the private sector. As governor, he must realize it’s the human investment in public service employees that encourages and rewards years of commitment through an earned, dignified retirement.

--Sunday Debate, FLORIDA TODAY (2/20/2011)

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Weekend Zen



I hear the train a comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend,

And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when.


Folsom Prison Blues

Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

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Reading for the Frustrated



The weather is warming the afternoons of my old Florida home and what could be better than lazing out in the sun with a good read.

Enjoy these page turners while swaying in the hammock.


The President's Fiscal Budget for 2012


Train Wreck of a Governor (The St. Petersburg Times)

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (Scientific American)

Winds of a Recall Swirling About Florida's New Governor (13 news)

Freedom has Liberal, Conservative Faces (Matt Reed, FLORIDA TODAY)


And join the discussion between Marshall Frank and I regarding the pros (him) and the cons (me) of Guv Rick Scott's pension-busting changes this Sunday Debate. Meet us online over at the FT Opinion page or check us out in the print edition.

Happy Weekend.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Your Turn




Thinking back over the first year Talk to Me ran in 2007, I posted a regular Your Turn post feature inviting readers to vent about what griped them most over the past week.

After Guv Scott and his decision regarding what I shall refer to forevermore as The High Speed Rail Incident, well, this week sounds perfect to let it all out.

Hey Brevard County.


It's your turn.

What pushed you close--if not over--the edge this week?

Let's hear from you.

(FYI. Florida Senator Bill Nelson is meeting with Department of Transportation attorneys to determine if the high speed rail money can be recouped and distributed to the constituted high speed rail authority or to the cities of Orlando and/or Tampa, effectively bypassing the Tallahassee albatross wrapped around our collective necks. Read more here).

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Short Shorts: High Speed Rail



After learning of Guv Rick Scott's latest decision to just say no to high speed rail, I've come to conclusion that this Tea Party governor wants to revert Florida back to the third world days that the Founders walked this earth.

What's next? Ax Disneyworld?

What's funny about this guy is he thinks the funds designated for HSR can be utilized to fund some other form of transportation project, perhaps to add a few lanes to the death trap we locals know as I-4.

Federal Funding 101. The dollars fund the project for which allocated. It's not petty cash, Rick.

Not only is the governor wearing his naivete on his shirt sleeve, he's ticking off his in-name-only Republican brethren, many of them quite powerful. John Mica worked for years on high speed rail as did many local leaders who hoped to jettison Florida into some sort of transit future.

(...)

"I am deeply disappointed," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican whose district reaches from Orlando to the Atlantic Coast, where the rail service could have been expanded. "This is a huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry."

Not to mention those locals who might've avoided the I-4 commute through utilization of the system or the creation of Florida jobs that Scott's always yapping about. For those of you interested in rail work, best catch the Amtrak to California because the allocation is distributed to any state interested in the job project once the doofus state gives up the cash. In this case, CA is yelling, show us the money and let us rail away.

I give Scott one year before he pulls a Palin and heads back to Naples to count his cash.

Read more about Scott's latest fumble here.

***

For those whose inner Egyptian is about to jump out of their skin, focus, focus, focus and head over to Facebook, "like" Awake the State on Facebook and get ready to rally.

No Floridian can afford more budget cuts. There is a better way. It's time to Awake The State on March 8th.When the Florida legislature convenes on March 8th, 2011 our state faces a critical choice. Do we continue to cut and harm Florida's children, our police officers and our firefighters, the uninsured, and our natural resources? Or will we finally say enough and close down the unnecessary and unproductive exemptions and loopholes that cost Floridians more than $12 billion a year and balance Florida's budget responsibly?

It's time to Awake The State with local rallies around throughout Florida urging our state legislators to reject budget cuts and invest in Floridians again.

That's what I'm talking about.

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Brevard Teachers Get the Short End of the Financial Stick (Again)




Just like the private sector, Brevard Public Schools teachers and support staff have been offered a bonus by their employer.

Yet the dollar figure banged out between the union and the Brevard School Board doesn't quite cut private sector muster.

Divided by the 26 pay period, this $200-$1200 "bonus" breaks down to approximate $8.00-$46.00 per paycheck.

Brevard Federation of Teachers union officials say the reality of budget constraints prompted them to reach a tentative agreement to accept Brevard Public Schools' offer of one-time bonuses. The agreement, however, adds an extra $100 to $200 to each of the amounts initially offered.

(...)

Teacher bonuses would range from $200 or $400, respectively, for part- and full-time teachers with the least experience to $600 or $1,200 for those with 21 or more years of experience. That's up from the district's initial offer of $100 to $1,000 last month.Most teacher bonuses would fall in the $800 range, according to the district.

The Brevard Federation of Teachers promises next year won't be any better.

Of course it won't.


Because we keep settling for less.

Check out these couple of thrown bones.

(...)

Other proposed changes under the teachers' contract include adding two early-release days for end-of-year planning and downsizing from three health insurance options to one and increasing co-pays for certain services. Most premiums would stay the same.

(Insert laugh track here).

Read more about the insult to injury here.

And vote NO on this offered contract.

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Jobs and Rhee and a Puppet Named Oscar




What is it about jobs that Republicans just don't understand, be it those hanging out up Washington D.C. way or the equally inept polluting Tallahassee in the ways of the wicked right?

For the past year, we've heard nothing from the Right but jobs, jobs, jobs.

Yet, here at home, the Rick Scott strategy of job creation apparently includes firing as many state workers as possible.

Congressional Republicans obviously got their hands on the same talking points as Scott because the latest brainstorm out of that bunch is to maintain tax breaks for oil companies and the wealthy while cutting medical research, community policing and (if you can believe it) funding for Sesame Street.

"If some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "We're broke."

R-i-g-h-t. (No pun intended).

Stay tuned, Brevard. As Oscar the Grouch once said, "There'll be more Trash tomorrow."

***

Whoops.

Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools may need more than a little help from Superman.

Rhee, an education reformer who has nothing good to say about the public school system and unfortunately for Florida schools, has caught the ear of our new Guv with her controversial ideas, has a bit of explaining to do.

Rhee has been charged with cooking her own books.

(...)

A former D.C. math teacher, Guy Brandenburg, posted on his blog a study that includes test scores from the Baltimore school where Rhee taught from 1992 to 1995. The post, dated Jan. 31, generated intense discussion in education circles this week. In it, Brandenburg contended that the data show Rhee "lied repeatedly" in an effort to make gains in her class look more impressive than they were.

Rhee, who resigned last year as chancellor, denied fabricating anything about her record and said Brandenburg's conclusion was unfounded. But she acknowledged this week that she could have described her accomplishments differently in 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) selected her to be chancellor.

At issue is a line in Rhee's resume from that year that described her record at Harlem Park Elementary School: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."

(...)

The study found modest, uneven gains in various grade levels at the school in a review of results from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. There were no separate results for Rhee or any other Harlem Park teacher. The study also noted that many students at the struggling Baltimore school were not tested.

But the results were presented in enough detail to raise questions about whether any single class could have made strides of the magnitude Rhee depicted on her resume.

Rhee said she taught second grade for two years, then third grade in 1994-95. In that year, Rhee said, her class made a major leap in achievement.

The study found that third-graders overall at the school made gains that year in reading and math. But they finished nowhere near the 90th percentile.


Hmmm. How do you spell t-h-e-r-e g-o-e-s m-y c-r-e-d-i-b-i-l-i-t-y?


But I betcha, Rhee paid towards her own pension.

Talk at Me.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

No Pension Phase-In



His way or the highway.

When approached by Republican legislators with the idea to phase in pension contributions to alleviate financial distress associated with the direct hit on salaries, Guv Scott! Scott! Scott! had this to say about that.

Not going to happen.

“It’s only fair. The private sector, they fund their retirement benefits so the public sector ought to be doing the same thing,” Scott said. Asked if he was willing to negotiate on the phase-in, Scott’s response was terse: “No.”

If Scott gets his way, Florida public service employees and state workers will contribute 5 percent of their salaries to the pension plan.

Could it get any worse?

Yes.

For a state worker making $50,000 a year and receiving 9 percent of his or her salary in annual retirement benefits, the change would mean he or she would pay $2,000 after taxes in retirement fees and the state would pay $2,000.

Definitely sounds like the contribution is coming directly out of our take-home pay.

Per Investment-FAQ:

After-tax contributions are quite different from pre-tax contributions. If an employee elects to make after-tax contributions, the money comes out of net pay (i.e., after taxes have been deducted). While it doesn't help the employee's current tax situation, funds that were contributed on an after-tax basis may be easier to withdraw since they are not subject to the strict IRS rules which apply to pre-tax contributions. When distributions are begun, the employee pays no tax on the portion of the distribution attributed to after-tax contributions, but does have to pay tax on any gains.


Which is likely, considering the luck we public employees are having of late.


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Monday, February 14, 2011

If I Were Governor of Florida



I finished up my 2/20 Sunday Debate NO column stating my case against the Guv's ideas on pension reform and my head is chock full of ideas that didn't make the 350 words cut.

Like, what changes I would make in the Florida pension system if I were governor.

For instance, early retirement at 25 years would not only permitted, it would be encouraged via incentive to retire without early penalty reduction. Currently, retirement benefits are reduced 5% for each year an employee's age at retirement is under the employee's normal retirement age (62) or 30 years of service, whatever comes first. Retire these days at 25 years, 25% of your earned monthly check is reduced. (Not what one would have earned at 30 years, but what one earned at 25 years). For the long-timers, for all those educators who entered the profession in their twenties or earlier thirties, this recommendation is for you.

And for those hanging on until Medicare kicks in, I'd adjust the miserly Health Insurance Subsidy (at this point, $5 for every creditable year or service worked) with earned health care for life.

For those out there who can't quite figure out why Brevard teachers aren't jumping through hoops to grab the bonuses offered this year by the School Board, it's all about the base pay. Bonuses aren't included in the calculations toward retirement as is neither summer school salaries or merit pay or any other supplemental school-related income; however, my understanding is the same doesn't apply to my public service brethren, i.e. public safety workers who work hard at all those extra details.

And because of such, my last decree to help educators save money toward retirement in "the now", is repayment of outstanding student loans taken out to cover costs for the Master degree all are required by law to hold.Yep, I'd pay those babies off...


Check out the basics of Retirement 101 here.

Talk to Me.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Weekend Zen



Whammer Jammer let me hear ya, Dickie!

Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz, harmonica player for The J. Geils Band.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

TD Bank



Looking back over the 2007 Talk to Me archives only serves to remind that these days really aren't much better than those days.

Take debit cards. This piece of plastic helped wean many off the mean mamba-jamba called the credit card. In my case specifically, the gas credit card. No woman wearing heels after a long day at work wants to walk any more steps than absolutely necessary and that includes trucking into a convenience store to pay cash when, voila, she can stretch her oh so tired legs while paying at the pump.

And pay and pay and pay the high finance charge for who knows how long. Enter the debit card and self-service became a lot less costly for this tired working gal.

It didn't take long for businesses and financial institutions to figure out a way to raise revenue off those debiting dollars from their personal accounts.

Back in 2007, Hess experienced a bit of bad PR when the following story hit what was fast becoming the 24/7 media of the future.

Hose Job (Talk to Me, March 15, 2007)

(...)

"My checking account was debited 75 dollars." My attention turned to the radio as the female caller continued. "And I didn't even know it until my checks started bouncing."

As a person with a financial picture that teeters toward red more often than black, I turned up the volume as the talk show host questioned the caller further.

Apparently, the Gas Station with the Big Green Capital Letters logo, put a financial hold on her bank account for 75 bucks even though the gas purchase cost far less.

The hold was released when the caller's transaction cleared, which took a couple of days.

Meanwhile, the caller could not access her own money and her checking account became overdrawn.

The policy is in place to protect the banks assuming the risk that a consumer actually has the cash to pay for the gas while also making certain that the gas retailer gets payment for the purchased gas.

Who could have guessed back then how further banks would go to protect themselves a couple of years down the road? Yet even after the federal bailout, the shenanigans financial institutions play with our debit cards is still in evidence.

Readers who once banked with Riverside Bank know absolutely what I'm getting at. Since TD Bank took over the local community institution, many customers have paid the high price of unanticipated overdraft fees.

Having heard a few rumors about the new owners and as the type of customer who shaves the copper off her every last penny, I closed my accounts before the new policies went into effect come New Year 2011. But never would I have expected that when one deposits a local check (including paychecks) into their banking account would the funds not be immediately available.

Sort of like Hess, the Canadian bank, touting 7 days a week access, reportedly holds some deposits made by customers, who immediately draw upon those deposits through use of their debit card, thinking (call them kooky) that their money is actually still their money, just safely tucked inside the vault. Those who didn't familiarize themselves with the new operating procedures soon found accounts not only overdrawn due to the debit purchases, but way overdrawn due to the held deposits and overdraft fees gone wild.

Per the Complaints Board:

My husband and I opened 2 checking accounts with TD Bank a year and a 1/2 ago, right before they merged with Commerce Bank and at the time there wasn't a monthly maintenance fee or fees for using the ATM. Now, we have a fee every month and on top of that extremely excessive overdraft fees! I have been charged over $1, 000 in fees this summer because they balance they keep isn't accurate. On top of that they deduct transactions from highest to lowest, not in the order that they were done! Not only that but if you're overdrawn for 5 consecutive days you will be charged $35 and continue to be charged $35 every 5 days until a deposit is made! And this is the best one, I was charged a $35 overdraft fee for a $18 transaction from Netflix because when it was authorized I only had $11 in my account (it's automatic every month) and then when it came out of pending and it actually "posted" to my account I was charged $35 again! I called customer service and the rep said that they will mail me the "Schedule of Deposit Account Charges" for me to review.


The above scenario took place in Connecticut. Follow this link to read a complaint from a Titusville, Florida resident and former Riverside customer. After reading through the complaints, the average dollar loss to a customer prior to closing accounts seems to average $500.00.

This guy is suing TD.

(...)

Customer Donald Kimenker claims in his complaint that TD Bank “deceptively reorders” an account’s debit card transactions in its computers to maximize overdraft fees. Such fees are processed from highest dollar amount to lowest, rather than in chronological order of purchases, according to the complaint.


Notice the bank did not credit these customers.

What hasn't changed since 2007?

We all work way too hard for our money to have our pockets picked.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rally on Tallahassee

blog post photo

Who out there is ready to walk like an Egyptian?

Those interested in organizing a Tallahassee rally against the Scott budget, Talk to Me. And I'll to talk to those who organize these types of shindigs.

In the interim, may be fun to gather a list of places where future Florida ex-pats could pitch a tent.

Let the games begin.

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Short Shorts



Took my fingers tapping through the online version of the Florida Constitution to discover that yes indeed, Sunshine State governors can be impeached. Takes only a misdemeanor while serving in office and in this state where almost everything is against the law, that should be easy with someone with a background like Rick Scott.

(...)

(a) The governor, lieutenant governor, members of the cabinet, justices of the supreme court, judges of district courts of appeal, judges of circuit courts, and judges of county courts shall be liable to impeachment for misdemeanor in office. The house of representatives by two-thirds vote shall have the power to impeach an officer. The speaker of the house of representatives shall have power at any time to appoint a committee to investigate charges against any officer subject to impeachment.


Check out Section 17 here.

***

Meanwhile up at the farm, legislators are engaged in bipartisan shredding of the Scott budget, asking where's the beef?

(...)

The bipartisan concerns underscored a growing sense in the Legislature that Scott’s proposal is rooted in unrealistic political calculations, not the subtle calculus it takes to run the nation’s fourth-most populous state. In the House K-12 budget committee on Tuesday morning, eyebrows arched and heads shook as lawmakers tried digesting Scott’s plan to slash state-paid per-student spending by 10 percent.


Read exactly what lawmakers had to say here.

***

And Dave from Cocoa (a state employee) engaged the host of what passes for morning talk radio around these parts (a former police officer who I just bet is pulling a pension, someone should ask him) in a conversation about how passing the Scott budget is all good because doing so will guarantee the Guv a single term.

If we can't impeach him first.

Listen for yourself here.

***

Look for the Florida Today website to undergo a face change sometime this week. The word is the blogs will be easier to find, but if readers run into any snafus, feel free to drop me an email and I'll pass the concern along.

Happy Wednesday.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Four Scott Swans A-Honking and A-Flipping




A bit of additional information regarding Guv Scott's flip-flopping Swan Song of a Budget:

"Quite a day: Rick Scott rolled out 2 budgets in one and flip-flopped 4 times when it came to school spending, property taxes and cutting pension benefits.

First, school spending. On Thursday, he said he would essentially hold schools harmless and keep "school budgets the same." False. On Monday, his budget showed overall state spending on all education would be $4.8 billion less, and that per-student K-12 spending would be $703 lower (a 10 percent reduction).

"It's not going back on anything I promised," Scott insisted Monday. "What I said throughout the campaign and what I'm saying today is we're not cutting any money that came out of the state general revenue -- we're not cutting that. Any money that relied on federal bail-outs, that was different."

None of the reporters who covered his campaign could remember this "general-revenue" distinction he insisted on drawing Monday. The only time "general revenue" was mentioned in relation to his tax-cut plan and his tax-cut plan was in a July Palm Beach Post article that said "Scott says a larger share of sales taxes and other general revenue would be shifted to schools to avoid a reduction in education spending."

Regardless, Scott's claim that general-revenue would be the same is also false. His budget spends $160 million less in GR on education next year.

Flip-flop three: His property-tax cuts that pay for schools. Scott said he'd trim 1 mil, or about $1.4 billion his first year and another mil over the next seven years. His office, though, put out a power point showing the cut would be less the first year, $572 million.

Flip-flop four: Cuts to law enforcement pensions. Rick Scott said on the campaign trail that he would "absolutely not" cut law enforcement pensions, and suggested he only called for all state workers to contribute 5 percent of their salaries annually their pensions. But Scott's budget and statements so-called "accrual rates" for law-enforcement officers."

Read more here.

Honk.

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Rick Scott's Swan Song of a Budget




Governor Rick Scott introduced his budget before the Tea Party season ticket holders and he really doesn't want too awfully much.

Per the St. Pete Times, Scott only asks that the Florida Legislature focus on seven issues: cutting taxes, cutting spending, eliminating some regulations, restructuring budget trust funds, transforming Medicaid, merging state agencies and cutting state-worker pension benefits, an item he drivels on about incessantly, which quite frankly is causing the new guy to sound like someone who can't get over having his milk money stolen as a grade school kid and now as an adult with purchased power, is out to make all governmental agencies pay because he's still crying over some long ago lost pint of T.G. Lee.

But for all his throwing of government workers under his private jet, the Legislature is at the very least, dubious of our glorious state's new leader, especially given the fact that Scott wants $5 billion cut from the budget.

In one session.

Not that a $5 billion cut can't be accomplished. Our lawmakers have certainly cut that much before...over a period of 5 years. "It's wonderful to do big, but the more detail we get, the more helpful," said J.D. Alexander, the Senate's budget chief. Meaning, you're dancing too fast, Guv, caught up in your own spin. How about you come down off your pirouette and provide the Tallahassee ballerina corps with a well-executed plies, as in specific details?

My impression of Scott is he is more of a solo act, doesn't kowtow and views consensus-building as a sport for those with weak ankles, so I doubt he will dance well with our elected lawmakers, specifically his Rep conga line, who never boogied to his cup of tea in the first place. And just wait until he starts getting jiggy with Florida's lobbyists. Should prove entertaining to watch.

Former Governor Bob Martinez offered Scott a bit of advice regarding his choreographed budget, indicating "...governors often get much of what they want if they work hard enough. As far back as I can remember, they (budget) were dead on arrival."

Translated: The newly proposed budget could be the Governor's swan song.

Peruse Scott's budget proposal here. (I got a dead link the first few attempts, but eventually connected).

Talk to Me.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Out Super Bowling




Caulked a bathroom and cleared a virus from my computer Sunday morning, spent three hours on school stuff mid-afternoon (free of charge to the taxpayer) and kept my evening free for what many refer to as the biggest show post-Christmas ...

...The Super Bowl.

The closest I've ever been to an actual Bowl game is the time Joe Namath breezed by me at the Coral Ridge Penney's back in the '70s. On second thought, I witnessed an infatuated fan throw herself on Dan Marino's Corvette as he tried to head home after a long Sunday of work, so I guess that brings me within two degrees of quarterbacks to the Big Game.

With 4:46 in the 4th, it's 25 Steelers, 28 Packers. And Green Bay is on the eight.

I'm outta here.

See you Tuesday.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Weekend Zen

blog post photo

...got his own jet airplane.
...he's a millionaire.

We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these color TVs



Dire Straits.

Money for Nothing.


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Dirty Harry (Hari)



This post made my day.


"Liberal activists showed up this morning at an Orlando fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Mike Haridopolos and tried to pass out hand sanitizer.

Their point: Haridopolos is "dirty."

The stunt was planned in conjunction with a website, dirtyhari.org, that pulls together some negative headlines about the president of the Florida Senate.

Haridopolos told the Buzz he has still not decided whether to raise money during the session but noted that other officials seeking federal office have. And he'll need to get cracking. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is starting the 2012 cycle with a healthy $3.1 million in the bank."


Read the commentary over at The Buzz.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Talk to Me Looks Back After Four Years



Talk to Me
turns four years young this month.

To celebrate, I thought it might be fun to look back every Thursday in February to take a glimpse at what was happening in 2007.

One of the first Talk to Me posts blogged the exact opposite of what is happening today. Brevard County Utopia (2/28/2007) examined why those who served their communities through public service--teachers, nurses and public service personnel--could not afford to buy a home in the the area where they worked.

The Brevard County Commission had thoughtfully considered a proposed ordinance encouraging the development of affordable housing for those who serve others, a sort of Section 8 for service professionals, which I envisioned back then as "...modern day flower children living together in communal peaceful harmony."

The Commissioners hoped affordable housing would cause professionals to consider throwing down permanent roots and as a result, establish "...top notch schools, quality health care, and public safety personnel..." all big pluses when making a sales pitch to businesses hoping to relocate to sunny Florida.

These days, public servants hold the stable jobs, cash the steady paycheck and find themselves in the sellers' markets of their dreams, buying homes that once upon a time they would have otherwise not been able to afford. I myself, am one of those people.

What I have observed during these poor economic times is the backlash against people like me who chose the community path. As so recently exhibited by Florida's new Guv Rick Scott and his war on the pension plan, it's easy to drum up broad anti-sentiment against those who chose a stable public sector career path years back while others chose, rode and profited off the dot com express, flipped houses for a quick buck, owned their own business or played Wall Street for the big bling and once the party was over, found themselves on bad times.

Today, many would give their eyeteeth to receive a regular paycheck with benefits that will eventually culminate in an earned retirement check. And just as many strike out against those of us who do because we chose the slow and steady race toward financial independence.

As far as I know, the housing ordinance never caught fire. But the employment envy is seething just below the surface.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rick Scott's Bad Case of Pension Envy



Hope all those state and local workers who voted for Rick Scott are okay with his hand picking your pocket.

Because the Guv thinks it's about time those who work for the Sunshine State contribute toward their own retirement, 5% of our salaries to be exact. Old Rick figures such contributions will save the state $2.8 billion over the next two years.

This guy just doesn't get it.

Florida is the Scrooge of the United States. The salaries of those who work for the state are embarrassingly low. Because basically one can't get draw water from a rock, the state contributes dollars towards worker pensions and does not require the contribution be matched by the employee, a match which would cut into the already low paycheck.

Be mindful, this "perk" not about benevolence, but rather saves the state from actually putting the cold hard cash into salaries. The promise of an earned pension also keeps people living, working, buying and paying sales and property taxes to the state of Florida.

But now Scott has gone and made his pension envy public with the suggestion to take take take from those who cannot afford the hit. Not too mention, most public employees haven't seen a pay raise in several years.

The Scott Master Plan is to end the pension plan altogether, offering new hires no choice but a 401(k)-type investment plan (which by the way, is presently an option to the defined benefit plan). Additionally, he wants to end DROP by July 1, reduce the annual service credit to 1.6 percent for most members of the Florida Retirement System (special risk class members, to 2 percent) and eliminate the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for employees currently in the system but offering no cost-of-living adjustment to new hires.

Note to the Governor. Do your homework. Many state employees currently work with private sector financial planners to creatively contribute whatever few dollars we have left towards Roth plans, tax-deferred annuities, and other investment vehicles, simply because no one can actually live off what a pension pays in this state after (in my case) 30 years of service.

Fortunately, a few Republicans members of the GOP-locked state legislature are not so keen on Scott's recommendations, which basically amounts to theft from this blogger's collective bargaining point-of-view.

I will say if Florida plans to treat those who have professionally committed to the state like something brought in on the bottom of their shoe, come my retirement in the not so distant future, my pension, my property taxes and I are headed out of Dodge to spread whatever little wealth I've earned somewhere else.

For those of us caught up in the proposed Scott Swindle, keep apprised of the latest by following the FRS Options page on Facebook.



Scott's Flip-Flop on Florida Pensions

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Health Care: Nothing Has Changed



"I must reluctantly conclude that Congress exceeded the bounds of its authority in passing the Act with the individual mandate."

And with that,U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson tossed out the whole health care reform kit and kaboodle.

Yet, he allowed the law to remain in place, until all legal appeals are exhausted.

If Vinson's ruling isn't bipolar enough, listening to Florida's new Attorney General Pam Bondi wax rhapsodic as if she actually had something to do with building the case is--for the second time this week--salt in the wound. "Today’s ruling by Judge Vinson is an important victory for every person who believes in the freedoms granted to us by our Constitution," said Bondi in a statement. "This proves that the federal government requiring Americans to purchase health insurance is in fact unconstitutional."

A statement which apparently has not fazed the Administration. Word out of the White House is that the law will "...still be implemented as if nothing has changed."

Vinson's ruling certainly must take the sting out of Bill McCollum's GOP gubernatorial primary loss to Rick Scott. McCollum argued this case as his last AG hurrah before Bondi parked herself behind his desk as his successor. I imagine Bill will shop the victory about as he sticks his big toe back in the political waters for a future run, i.e. as a possible GOP challenger for Bill Nelson's Senate seat.

So, what happens next for the rest of us mere mortals?

The feds are expected to seek a stay to allow the benefits to continue uninterrupted until resolution is reached.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein reminds us what's at stake. The judge "thinks" his ruling can "...stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the 26 states named in this suit. If he's right, it's not just implementation that stops. It's current benefits."


(...)

That means the small businesses that are getting tax credits to buy their employees health-care insurance will stop getting those tax credits. It means young adults who went back on their parent's health-care plan after the law allowed kids up to age 26 to qualify as dependents might be kicked back off. It means the rebate checks being sent out to seniors in the Medicare donut hole will stop. It means insurance plans will no longer have to cover preventive care or be barred from rescinding coverage.


The latest ruling holds true to the trend, with Democratic judicial appointees upholding the law with Republican judicial appointees striking it down.

Judge Vinson--appointed by Reagan--ties up the lawsuit score with his ruling: Obama: 2 Naysayers: 2

Read the decision here.

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