Thursday, August 28, 2008

Patrick Byrne Sightings: What is he up to now?

I hesitate to write about Patrick Byrne anymore. For those who know him you understand what I mean. These days I get him confused with Super Dell; he embarrasses himself every time he opens his mouth. But, it's for those who don't know the name "Byrne" and what he's been trying to do for the last several years that I write. First a brief reminder.

Avid readers of Accountability will remember Patrick Byrne's involvement in last year's voucher campaign. He donated nearly $4 million to PCE (Parent's for Choice in Education) in hopes that a law allowing public funding of private schools would not be overturned by a Referendum. When the voices of the people were heard and the law was stricken, he insulted Utahns and worsened his already-poisonous reputation by making awful statements about high school dropouts (they should be "burned"), about Utah voters (they "failed the state IQ test"), about Utah parents (they "don't care enough about their children" ) and about the people debating him (they are "bigots"). The contempt he showed for his fellow Utahns on live television on Election Night illustrated why people say what they say about him. And now, allow me to say a bit more about him.

In March, 2005 Byrne co-founded an organization called First Class Education. The new group's goal was to enact laws in all 50 States that would mandate 65% of all funds be spent "in the classroom." The idea received a lot of criticism because of its arbitrariness:

  • Why choose 65%? Why not 60%? Why not 80%? There's no evidence that spending any particular percentage on instructional expenses actually improves education.

  • Why do some expenses, like football uniforms, count as classroom or "instructional" expenses, while others, such as school libraries and the cost of bussing students to the school, do not?
For all the silliness of the proposal and its unfounded claims, it actually caught on in some areas. I'm sure this was partly because of the simplicity of the idea and partly because of the money that Byrne was injecting into the campaign in the form of commercials and propaganda starting in 10 States. Texas and Georgia fell for it, unfortunately, and both states report that it is too early to assess their programs. Other states have grasped onto the idea but made it a goal, not a requirement.

A look at the First Class Education website suggests that the 65% "solution" has lost steam. There are only three "active" states with their own webpages (Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri). Colorado voters defeated a 65 percent proposal in 2006 , the same year sponsors abandoned petition drives in Arizona, Oregon and Washington state. The Oklahoma Supreme Court threw a 65 percent proposal off the ballot in 2007, about the same time that private school vouchers were being defeated in Utah. Maybe it's time for them to shut down the site, you say? I would think so, too, but there's a new development. Byrne's 65% plan has actually found its way onto the ballot in Florida in the form of Amendment 9. This time it's tied to--are you ready for this?--VOUCHERS. That brings me to another reason for this post.

While First Class Education has not been very successful, Byrne has also aligned himself with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, one of the nation's main voucher advocacy groups. He has sat on the board since 2006 and was recently named co-chair. Gordon St. Angelo, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation, hopes that "with Patrick on board" the number of voucher programs in the country will "skyrocket." I have no doubt Byrne will attempt his style of "helping" by resorting to the kinds of political tactics used by First Class Education. A memo circulated among lawmakers regarding the "political benefits" of the 65 percent solution reveals the real reason for the proposal. Allow me to quote just a few of the "benefits." Keep in mind that Byrne cares about our children more than we do.
"The Political Benefits of 1st Class Education
  1. Splitting of the Education Union. The 1st Class Education proposal naturally puts administrators and teachers at odds with one another with monies flowing from the former to the latter with its passage. Because most state education unions represent both administrators and teachers, the proposal will create tremendous tension within the organization. Every time the education establishment attacks this proposal, it hurts its standing with the public and the majority of its membership. Every day and every dollar the education establishment uses to defeat this proposal is a day and a dollar they cannot spend on other political activities.

  2. Direct Fix for Public Education. ...large segments of the voting public - especially suburban, affluent women voters - view these ideas as an abandonment of public education. Women in particular want public education fixed, not replaced. Once additional fixing and funding of public education can be achieved via the 1st Class Education proposal, targeted segments of voters may be more greatly predisposed to supporting voucher and charter school proposals, as Republicans address the voting public with greater credibility on public education issues"

  3. Establishes the Debate on Taxes and Government Spending. By highlighting the inefficiencies of education spending, far and away the biggest budgetary item in every state, the 1st Class Education initiative highlights the likely inefficiencies in all areas of state government. That's the percentage the Department of Motor Vehicles spends on administration versus direct service to the public?

  4. Allows the Use of Unlimited Non-Personal Money for Political Positioning Advantages. The aforementioned benefits can be achieved with funding in any amount and from any source. In the era of campaign finance limitation on candidates, PACs and parties, galvanizing an electorate via the initiative process is a tremendous opportunity.

  5. It Wins! As with initiatives proposing tax limits, term limits and the definition of marriage, ballot success for the 1st Class Education proposal is exceedingly likely. Moreover, the proposal can galvanize public political discussion, becoming a natural litmus test for candidates with the electorate its intuitive simplicity establishes either a beneficiary relationship with the voters or a noted disconnect based on the candidates support or opposition to the proposal."

Does any of this sound familiar? Did you notice any of these things going on during the Utah voucher campaign?

As you can clearly see, Byrne doesn't really care about your children or their education. (Not a bit surprised, I'm sure.) What he really wants is to 1) cause contention between teachers and administrators, a move, no doubt, that does an awful lot to help my children learn better in the classroom, 2) help us suburban, affluent women voters to see the light in terms of public education, 3) directly attack not just education, but the government as a whole, 4) get around election and campaign rules, and finally 5) insult us yet again. After all, we're stupid, and this will just pass right out, what with all the other things on the ballot that we care more about anyway.

We've proven already that these tactics don't work on us, yet Byrne and his friends are back at it in Florida. This goes to show that we can't let our guard down on these issues. (Hence the update on the whereabouts of Byrne.) Maybe this article will be useful to the people of Florida, who might see a little bit of Byrne this election season. They can be on the lookout for his political tactics and ready to record the outrageous comments he's likely to make. Does Florida have a Super Dell?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Legislative Ethics Process - Time to reform now?

I became curious about the ethics process recently, in light of an ethics complaint (and talk of another) that was brought before the Legislative Ethics Committee and then subsequently dropped. I had read that complaints are rare and had only happened three time previously in the last 22 years. In fact, the last time it happened was ten years ago in 1998. I was surprised to read this, considering that the public is always demanding ethics reform. More to the point, in January of this year the Salt Lake Tribune released a poll that asked whether an ethics commission should be formed. Seventy-two percent of residents polled said that they were in favor of such a proposal and the support came from both sides, Republican and Democrat.

What is the process now?

Utah has an ethics committee which is made up of state Legislators who review complaints brought before them by fellow Legislators. The public are not allowed to bring forth complaints. Both the senate and the house have their own respective ethics committees which look at ethical violations of members only after receiving a written complaint by a fellow legislator with the name and address of at least three legislators (or three Senators if the complaint is against a Senator), along with the nature of the alleged violation with supporting documentation attached. The detailed version of what I've just described can be found in Joint Rules of Utah Legislature, specifically JR 6 Chapters 1-5, as well as in House Rules of the Utah Legislature, specifically HR-38 Lobbyist Ethics and Enforcement.

The committees are made up of the chair and three additional members appointed by the President of the Senate for Senate Ethics Committee or the Speaker of the House of Representatives for House Ethics Committee as well as the cochair and three additional members appointed by the Senate/House minority leaders. The bipartisan committee serves a two year term.

What are the problems?

Some problems with the committee include vague rules and no independence or objectivity to address the merits of an ethics complaint. The entire process is tainted by a lack of independence. Fear is also a primary demotivator. Fear of retribution (as was the likely motive for the Mascaro complaint -which ended up being dropped- since he was one of five legislators that filed the complaint against Walker) and fear that they might offend an ally, losing a deciding vote next time they try to get a bill passed. Is it any wonder that to date only 4 complaints have come forth in 22 years?

Why hasn't the process been changed?

There was recently a call for change coming from within in the form of HB 130 and it proposed that a State Ethics Commission be formed. Utah is still only one of eleven states who have not formed an ethics commission. Other states have not only formed an ethics commission but continue to have one or more ethics committees. You can look at a brief comparison of commissions and committees on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Despite agreement from Republicans and Democrats that HB 130 was needed, the bill failed to make it out of the House Rules Committee. The responsibility of changing the process comes from the very group that benefits from not having it change and keeping it the way it is. If the process changes then Legislators may actually be held accountable whereas the process now holds them blameless, so why should they change it? Legislators that were in favor of HB 130 were frustrated when it wasn't even put out there for public comment and noted that it is increased public support that is needed in order for this change to occur. I don't think a single one of us public people are questioning the need for such a bill. We're all in support of change when it comes to ethics in our government and polls such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this post put emphasis on it. What more shall we do, I wonder? Maybe the representatives serving on the 2008 House Rules Committee have some answers?