April 12, 2009

Would You Like Some Food With That Wine?

The new budget passed by our elected representatives (and I use that term loosely) during one of their per diem trips to Albany did not include allowing grocery stores to sell wine. I think this is nuts, frankly, particularly in light of the fact that there are literally hundreds of wineries in New York, some big and many not so big, who could have benefited from the opportunity of having their products sold in thousands of outlets – again some big and many not so big – who also could have had the opportunity to improve their bottom line as a result.

There are of course opinions on both sides of this issue. Wegmans, an award-winning regional grocery chain,
came out strongly in favor and encouraged their patrons to do the same. Mom and Pop liquor stores came out against, and encouraged their customers to do the same. Politicians took the road most travelled and tabled the whole idea, instead of working to craft legislation that could have benefited both our growing wine industry and the liquor stores, and raised tens of millions for our cash-strapped state. I’m not sure that we need to be Iowa, where you can buy wines in flower shops, but I think we can do more.

I don’t believe we should have given carte blanche and just opened the floodgates and let the wine pour into the grocery stores. I’m not sure myself if we need every corner market selling wine -- there has to be a threshold, I think, of what’s considered a grocery store. If three quarters of the sales are beer, cigarettes, lottery tickets, Little Debbie Snack Cakes
and Doritos, I don’t think that should count. Maybe the threshold could be the number of grocery carts – more than 5 you’re a grocery store, less than that you’re not, I don’t know. I think it’s kind of like the Supreme Court and obscenity – you know it when you see it. This holds true for grocery stores, too.

There should have been something in the law that guaranteed that a high percentage of the shelf space in the grocery stores – say, 75% - would be devoted to wines produced in New York. This would have given a boost to the NY wine industry, much of which is at the ‘mom and pop’ level just like the liquor stores. Ideally there would be an educated person who could help a consumer choose wines, and information available throughout the store (in appropriate areas, of course) suggesting food and wine combinations – again with a focus on pairing local foods with the local wines.

And in fairness, it’s really pretty stupid that a liquor store in New York is not allowed to sell cork screws, glasses, wine glass charms, or a whole host of other accessories that grocery stores now can sell. This too could have been (and still should be) corrected if legislators had done the right thing, rather than running and hiding from an issue that could really be beneficial to wineries, grocery stores, liquor stores, and our state’s financial situation.

I’m still not impressed with a local group of liquor stores, who protested loud and long that selling more wine would lead to increased alcoholism, DWI problems, mental health issues, and the need for more police to handle all of the above, at great cost to our budget. I complained about these guys in a letter to the editor of our local paper a while back, and I complain to My Sweet Baboo every time I see their full-page ad in the local paper pushing low-priced wine on the unsuspecting public. I don’t begrudge their right to make a living, but I have to laugh at how they contradict their own grave concerns about increased consumption through their attempts to cause exactly that.

More importantly, in a recent ad, they dangerously advertised “more choices, lower prices” on twenty four wines: eight from California, five each from Italy and Australia/New Zealand, one each from Argentina, Chile, Germany, and Spain. And the other two? Oh, those were the New York wines. I’m pretty sure they can do better than that to support business in New York, particularly when the anti-wine in grocery stores trade group is in the middle of a ‘support NY wines’ campaign.

Somehow, we’ve all got to find a way to do better, if we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in.

April 7, 2009

What Were They Thinking?

I haven’t brought myself to read New York’s new budget, but I have read some of the overviews in various media outlets. That probably puts me on a par with most of our elected officials, who likely didn’t have time or courage to read it before they voted on it, and may not have had any reason to read it since it was passed, since there’s little they can do to change it, even if they were so inclined.

Some of the things I’ve read are encouraging. For example, expansion of our bottle bill
legislation to include water bottles is a good thing. Walk through any office, down any street, or in any park and you’re sure to see plenty of empty or partially empty discarded bottles lying around; I usually get a couple each week in our front yard. Now, with a nickel deposit on these bottles as well as soda bottles, we’ll not only be helping the environment and the beautification of my yard, but we’ll be providing additional economic stimulus to the folks who collect the empties for cash.

I also support reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws
. When the mandatory minimum sentence for selling drugs is on a par with that of some murder charges, something’s wrong. I have a hard time believing that long-term incarceration, the cost of which we non-drug selling taxpayers have to bear, is more effective than treatment or shorter jail sentences. Some day we can have a conversation about legalization...

School aid is something in the budget (state and federal) that defies comprehension. It seems clear that reform is needed when one district receives an 11.51% increase
when another just a few miles down the road gets only 4.58% . This is particularly true when the district receiving the greatest percentage of aid is a suburban one where the average home is worth about $145,000 and the average household income is around $65,000 and the district receiving less aid is the urban one, with an average home value and income of just about 50% of the other district, something like 1500 vacant homes, a deteriorating business district and a very high number of tax-exempt or -reduced properties. Something is wrong with this picture.

It’s particularly more galling when the same State Assembly that passed the budget with school aid disparities such as the one above, also passed a bill barely a week after the budget was approved called the Dignity for All Students Act
, designed to provide students "a learning environment free of discrimination". The discrimination referenced in the Act includes the usual suspects – race, religion, color, national origin, and disability – as well as weight, both sex and gender, and sexual orientation. Apparently economic discrimination is not only OK, but government sanctioned.

What were they thinking?


April 5, 2009

A More Perfect Union? (part 2)

I didn’t know, when I wrote Part 1 of this series, that I’d be sitting here today wondering if My Sweet Baboo will be going to work Monday, or if he’ll be strolling on a picket line outside his office building instead. His company, a telecommunications giant, apparently is not seeing eye to eye with the union, and things are not looking good for the home team. It’s kind of funny, we met at the car on Friday after work, me with my laptop and work that I brought home to do this weekend, and he with a sparkling white shopping bag with red hand-written lettering on the sides proclaiming in big letters “Strike Prep Bag” and in much smaller letters his union’s initials.

I’ve never been a huge fan of unions in the modern era; I think they had purpose at one time, mostly to help ensure safe working conditions and a decent wage. What I don’t like about them conceptually is that there is no individuality in a union, no way for a good employee to be considered anything other than average and very limited ways for bad employees to be dealt with – they’re just as average as everyone else in terms of their wages, benefits, and prospects for continued employment.

My parents were both union, although neither of them really wanted to be. They were school teachers, and frankly I don’t think either of them ever really felt that unions were good for them, the schools or the kids. I remember them being on union committees not because they were really strong union believers, but because they wanted to lend a sane voice of reason to things like contract negotiations and curriculum planning.

They were both very good teachers, not just in my biased opinion but in the opinions of their peers and their students, and inspirational in many ways to a couple of generations of kids in my hometown. Other people became teachers because of my mom and dad, or volunteers because of them – but I’m pretty sure no one became a union member because of them.

I think I’ve been fortunate that no job I’ve ever had has been a union job. I’ve been evaluated my own merits, and have been rewarded on the basis of my own performance, not based on some contract negotiated by someone who’s never met me, doesn’t know anything about me, and only thinks of me as another contribution to the union coffers and a vote for the incumbent Democrat at every election. Had I been a union member, I would never have had the opportunities I’ve had to do new things, or work with some of the great bosses I’ve worked with over the years.

My non-union company is tightening its belt, just like most other companies are, and this year for the first time I’m going to get exactly the same salary increase as everyone else. I won’t be getting a bonus, because the company’s performance did not meet benchmarks, and frankly we didn’t earn it. We are all paying more for benefits now, and our pension formula has changed for time served after 1/1/2009. In these respects we sound sort of like a union shop, don’t we?

But here’s the kicker. My division, one of the largest in the company, is on record with all employees that we each control our own destiny. No one is guaranteed a job, but everyone knows where they stand, and if someone’s job is in jeopardy, the person knows it, they know why, and they have a specific plan to improve. If the time comes where layoffs are necessary, who stays and who goes isn’t going to be based on length of service, the way it would be in a union, it’s going to be based on a person’s ability and willingness to contribute. We want to keep the best employees, not just any employees.

To me, this is the more perfect union. I don’t have a driver’s license, but this is one driver’s seat I’m glad I’m in.


April 1, 2009

Pet Peeve of the Day - April 1, 2009

Happy April Fool’s Day, New York – to celebrate, let’s pass a budget, shall we?

New York has the country’s most dysfunctional legislative body, according to the Brennan Center, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to shake that label.

Reform is promised election cycle after election cycle, and never delivered. In the recent past the reason why we haven’t had reform, according to those who have not been reformers, is because the wrong party had too much control and nothing would get better until that changed. So, old world, there were three men in a room – the Governor and the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly – who came up with a budget, shoved it under everyone’s nose (almost always after the constitutionally-mandated April 1st effective date), and the two houses would vote. Conference committees would ensue and eventually we’d have something that at least remotely resembled a budget.

Fast forward to this year, when the three men are all of the same party, and presumably of the right party (since they’re not the same three men as before) and what happens? Last fall, our Accidental Governor told everyone we were in a crisis and hard decisions had to be made. In December, a harsh budget was put forward for consideration, but apparently not a lot, because in March, the three men go into a room and come up with a different budget, somewhere north of 2500 pages, and present it as a fait accompli, to be thumbs-up’d by the majority in both houses. Sadly, at about $132 million, it's even higher than the one proposed just a few months ago, it relies on short-term stimulus money to delay long-term solutions, and generally doesn’t do much at all to improve our desperate fiscal condition. Lots of fees, lots of taxes, and lots of nonsense.

There was no lack of chest-thumping by the Assembly leadership on their contributions, with sixteen or seventeen press releases in the past two days related to the budget – more than they issued in the entire moth of February.
As expected, there’s no lack of squawking by the minority party including one of the locals. His tune on the process is very different now that he's on the short end of the stick.

What this all boils down to is just another version of Albany’s April Fool’s Day joke. It’s certainly not as funny as some of these, but it’s the one we have to live with. And it’s my PPOD for April 1, 2009.