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The Georgia General Assembly has taken time out from its very busy schedule to pass a bill of great importance that will surely promote job growth, lower crime, help to fix the housing crisis, and probably a number of other social ills. A Georgia resident can now get a sticker for his license plate that says, “In God We Trust”, and almost as good, the state is going to waive the one dollar fee because somehow to charge for it is disrespectful to God. If you get one of these stickers you can cover up the identification of your county, unless you have a vanity plate that doesn’t display the name of the county.
Presumably there is a public safety reason for the requirement that license tags show the county in which the car is registered. Or maybe it’s for tax purposes. Either way, since it is some sort of offense to remove the county identification, there must be some legitimate purpose for it. Why vanity plates are exempted I don’t know. Perhaps a reader can add some light to this. But I was wondering if a Georgia car owner can also cover up the county identification with another sticker? How about the original national motto, “E Pluribus Unum?” Would this garner him a ticket for some infraction related to defacing a license plate? If so, why? Is the state favoring one message over another? Is there a First Amendment issue here, especially if the state can’t provide a compelling reason for allowing one slogan over another?
What is there about our legislators that they go to such great lengths to prove how religious they are? It almost compares with the old days of southern politicians trying to “out seg” their opponents. Meanwhile, the same legislators who have bestowed this gift on us refuse to admit that they are bought and sold for sports and concert tickets, high priced dinners, golf outings, and so much more. Any serious lobbyist and gift reform is dead on arrival once again in the General Assembly. But they do have their priorities.
This presidential race has produced a lot of talk about the need for an experienced businessman to restore our economy and jobs. Mitt Romney and Herman Cain both claimed to be that businessman, each touting his success in turning around one or more failed businesses, putting people back to work, and making America just a little better for their leadership. I can’t count the number of people who have argued with me that running the country is no different than running a successful business. Really? (I don’t intend this discussion to encompass whether we need to balance the budget, a different subject for perhaps a different day.)
There are different varieties of leadership, although there may be some common denominators. But there are also huge differences that don’t readily transfer from one sector to another. A military officer can give an order that must be obeyed and carried out. A CEO or president of a company has a board that he answers to, but for the most part they are given free rein to make decisions as long as the company is profitable and growing. Political leaders---mayors, governors, and presidents among them operate in a very different realm. When candidates Cain and Romney tell the voters that they will do this or that when they are elected, and in some instances as soon as their first day in office, they can’t be serious. There are 535 elected representatives in Congress, and each one answers to their own constituency, which isn’t necessarily the president’s. I doubt that a Republican congressman representing a district in Manhattan or Brooklyn cares very much about a Republican president’s efforts to get an agricultural subsidy bill passed. But we also know that in order for anything to get done in Washington, our elected representatives and the president make all sorts of bargains. A president has to have a whole different set of leadership skills to get his proposed legislation through Congress. President Eisenhower reportedly expressed frustration that he had less authority than he did as a five start general.
One question I haven’t heard come up during the debates is how each candidate proposes to get majorities to vote for and support their various agendas. We have heard a lot of tough talk, but I would be interested in knowing how a new president plans to persuade the people whose vote and support he needs, knowing that each representative probably has his own agenda based on the district, state or region that he represents or that has common interests. If we had a totalitarian government this wouldn’t be an issue. Despite the messiness and frustrations of our system, we should all hope that we never lose it to something that superficially sounds more efficient.
It is quite common these days to hear accusations made about “activist” judges who legislate from the bench, who don’t adhere to the Constitution, and who believe that these judges intentionally stray from the original intent of the Founding Fathers. I have even seen this argument made from candidates vying for a seat on the traffic court, where I am unaware of any Constitutional issues beyond some very basic issues involving criminal procedure.
Several things are remarkable about this belief. For one, the Constitutional convention was very divided and divisive. You can look to the Founding Fathers who participated in the convention, but you won’t find much, if any, unanimity among them. So I’m not sure how one divines “original intent” from a disparate group. For those literalists who subscribe to the belief that judges need to adhere to original intent, I am going to cite just a few examples of how this can be an imposing task. The Constitution makes no mention of an Air Force. It only provides for the power to establish and maintain an army and navy. There is nothing said about a draft, yet this country has drafted citizens into the armed forces. What does Equal Protection mean? There is nothing to prohibit “separate but equal” in the Constitution, but how many would advocate going back to that doctrine? What does cruel and unusual punishment mean? How about due process? And much more….
If it was so easy to read the Constitution and understand exactly what it says in all instances, we wouldn’t need but one appellate court and one judge. As it is we have a number of appellate courts on the state and federal levels, and nine justices on the Supreme Court. And we all know that the composition of the Supreme Court at any given time in history has never been unanimous in each decision. All we can hope for is intellectually honest judges who really try to interpret the Constitution through a lot of case law handed down for more than 200 years. I believe that most judges try to get it right, to work toward the elusive goal of truth, always getting a little closer with each controversy. And I also believe in the rule of law, that regardless of whether we agree with a court’s decision, we are duty bound as Americans to adhere to it unless and until the legislative process changes it.
The president’s proposed budget has stirred up a lot of controversy. As usual, those with their own interests at stake complain about the unfairness to them. Agricultural subsidies are a $1 trillion program spread out over a decade, and somehow they always get renewed. They served a worthwhile purpose during the Depression, but hasn’t their time come and gone? When Michelle Bachman got $750,000 from this program despite no financial need, it should have been obvious that something was wrong. How about all the bank loan guarantees? Banks keep the profits from their productive loans, but the number of federal programs that make up for failed loans is a good deal for anyone who can get into it. But it’s a closed shop---it’s only available to bankers and those companies TBTF (Too Big to Fail).
I supported the GM and Chrysler bailouts out of fear that the ripple effect on the auto industry would be catastrophic. But I had another concern that I haven’t seen articulated: what about tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and a host of other vehicles that the Defense Department needs? Who would fill in that gap if the major producers went under? Do we go to China? If that day comes we might as well give them the keys to the rest of the country. As it turns out the bailouts worked. The government is getting their money back and removing itself from the oversight of the two companies, but for inexplicable reasons there are those who still believe that Obama is a socialist. If Obama really was a socialist, why would he target failed companies vice going after the profitable Ford?
Tough times demand sacrifice from all. Former Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the Defense Department had become the largest social welfare agency in the federal government. The proliferation of retirement and medical costs has been steadily taking a larger part of the budget over the years. When President Nixon made our military voluntary he also provided increased pay to attract good people. Today’s pay and COLAs make military service an attractive career. But expecting pay comparable to the civilian sector but not be willing to shoulder some of the medical costs in retirement, especially in the financial crisis we are in, is asking too much. And no, I am not referring to the wounded warriors, who deserve the very best care for life from the VA at taxpayer expense. I am referring to TRICARE for Life, that up until last year cost a family $460 annually, a rate set some 15 years ago. I have a comfortable federal retirement and Medicare, and I would be willing have it cut back as part of cuts for all entitlements. Only the injured veterans should be exempt.
Ernest Barrett was a very prescient commissioner who led the way to getting a sewer system built in Cobb County long before our neighboring counties. That was a big factor, among others, that led to Cobb’s development and becoming one of the best counties in America to live, work, and play. Everyone benefited from Barrett’s foresight. Today all the states and most counties try desperately to compete for businesses to relocate here. State and local government’s offer all sorts of incentives, to include tax breaks, land, and various credits. But in the end, someone has to pay for these costs. Instead of selectively targeting businesses, like a manufacturing plant, wouldn’t it make more sense to build better infrastructure, improve our schools, and otherwise improve the quality of life that inures to everyone in the county? Those who consider all taxes as somehow evil, I would ask why Florida, which has no income tax and an overall low tax rate, also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country? They have deep ports, and not just a population of retirees. Could there be other factors that make the state less desirable despite the tax advantages?
Cobb cannot continue to grow without figuring out how to move people from point A to point B that won’t take an inordinate amount of time. What business would relocate to an area where moving product is difficult and time consuming because of the traffic, and where employees have horrendous commutes? I don’t have a background in city planning, so I readily admit that I don’t have handy solutions. All I can do is differ with the many voices out there who think that any tax increase is somehow un-American. In the near future the problem will be much worse, and still nothing meaningful will have been done to address the problem. New York City would be a ghost town if it’s subway system shut down. It is a service that no private enterprise would touch because it would cost too much to make a profit, and if the fare was raised to meet the actual cost, it would be prohibitively expensive. This is a classic example of where the government can provide a service that benefits everyone, even those who don’t use it. I would much prefer to pay a tax that builds the things to make Cobb more attractive to everyone than the ad hoc approach of throwing large sums of cash to individual businesses that has to be made up for by the taxpayers---except that you just don’t see where you are getting stuck.
On Monday (1/30/2012), I went to the Cobb County Government Center on Lower Roswell Road to renew my car registration. There were six people in front of me. From the time I arrived to the time I left was under ten minutes. To say that the people in the tax office are efficient, courteous, and friendly would be an understatement. Too often we hear about lazy, inefficient, underworked, and overpaid government workers. In my experience the workers in the tax office are representative of the vast majority of those who work for Cobb County government, and that includes my contacts with the police and fire departments. We are fortunate to have such a high caliber work force.
I might add, especially to those critics of federal employees, if you haven’t dealt with the Social Security Administration, you could only wish that the private sector could run as smoothly. Too many government workers at all levels have been negatively stereotyped. Perhaps the critics are blind to all too many consumer complaints from the private sector, by way of example. It is a myth that the private sector always works better and more efficiently. And no, I am not a socialist by any stretch; I am just pointing out the reality of people being people in any setting.
There are apologists for Mitt Romney’s wealth, and I for one don’t begrudge him for being successful as he is wont to point out in every debate. What is troubling, though, is not that he paid a lower tax rate on the money he made, it is how the tax code allows him to structure his income so that it receives a special break. Romney did the same as anyone of us would do if we had the means to take advantage of the code. Different sources argue whether various forms of investment income really provide that much capital to create jobs. I have read that it is nowhere near the amount as some of those who benefit from the breaks would have you believe. Interesting too is that many Americans are unhappy that almost half of all Americans pay no income tax, but for some reason they are okay with the more advantaged paying a much lower tax rate than most middle class earners.
Senator Johnny Isakson has spoken to any number of groups, including Marietta Kiwanis where I am a member. Many of these canned speeches are summarized in the MDJ. The senator has staked out a position, a mantra, that taxes and regulations are killing small businesses. In my opinion, the worst and most burdensome regulations are those that the IRS disseminates. I think most Americans agree that we need a tax code that is simpler, reaches more people, and is more equitable. I would urge Senator Isakson to do more than complain about the current system that he says he doesn’t like any more than I do. I would urge him to be the sponsor---not co-sponsor of someone else’s bill---but the sponsor of his own bill that would revamp the tax code and tax regulations. I would urge Senator Isakson to show some meaningful leadership and begin working on this project. Perhaps he could put together a group of professionals to work on some ideas, to work with his staff, set some timelines, and put something of substance on the table that can be acted on. His constant complaining and blaming Obama and the Democrats for all our economic problems is not moving the ball down field, and if he were to do more right now than just talk, he just might have a Republican senate in the near future that could make his reform efforts happen.
The Georgia General Assembly is once again going to debate ethics reform, at least create the appearance of a debate. It is remarkable that there is resistance to limiting what lobbyists can spend on our elected officials in order to “inform” and keep them abreast of issues. Recall that House Speaker David Ralston took his family to Europe during the Thanksgiving holiday in 2010. Ralston defended the $17,000 trip, paid for by a lobbyist with an interest in transportation projects, by saying that he was there to look at different countries’ systems to provide some ideas for Georgia. Ralston responded, when asked why his wife and children accompanied him, by saying that he wasn’t going to spend Thanksgiving away from his family. I have always wondered what our American fighting men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan thought about Ralston’s hardship. But the best news stemming from this trip is that none of the cost of the trip and largess lavished on Ralston and his family had, or would have, any influence on his decision making. At least that’s what he said. Ralston maintains that the citizens should decide whether a legislator is being influenced and vote him out of office, but that no laws should limit how much is spent on legislators, who presumably do their best thinking over steaks, lobsters, lavish country clubs, sporting events, and the like.
Angela Spier, a former Public Service Commissioner, I presume would disagree with Ralston. She took money from no special interests whatsoever. If a lobbyist wanted to dine her, my understanding is that she would tell him to bring his bologna sandwich to her office, and she would bring hers, where the two would eat in and discuss issues. I wonder how many lobbyists took her up on that offer. Angela Spier represents the high water mark for ethics, and I hope that better judgment than David Ralston’s prevails at the capitol.
In a MDJ story dated 1/10/2012, “Grand jury suggests higher pay for police officers”, there were 22 comments underneath it at the time I wrote this, almost all negative, and all written by anonymous writers. Admittedly, I have a more positive opinion about paying police for the job they do for us, so at least I shouldn’t fear a knock on my door by one of Cobb’s finest for being on the wrong side of this issue. But it baffles me that even in responding to innocuous newspaper stories, most commentators hide behind anonymity and make some of the nastiest personal attacks about the subjects of an article or column. It would be nice to know who these folks are so that the readers can determine if the writer has a personal agenda, if it is a political opponent, or if there is something else driving the attacks. Same for those writers who support the people named in a story---we should know if they too have some personal interest or connection. I don’t like a lot of our elected officials at all levels any more than most other people, but I give them credit for putting their names out there when they float something controversial. I give them credit for letting the public jump on them and their ideas, for not hiding in a bunker when they say something likely to generate controversy. I think more of us would like to see some names behind the comments. Somehow I suspect that the nasty tone of many of them will become more civilized; they might not want their children, spouses and friends to see the kind of personal attacks that might otherwise be made on them. Perhaps too, some of these anonymous writers, who so often seem to be closet pundits on any subject, should give the rest of us the benefit of their knowledge, wisdom and experience, and run for office themselves.