March 28, 2010

Where Do You Stand, Senator Valesky?

So, let me get this straight.  If veritablepastiche was a business, and I had $25,000 laying around and could pass myself off as a business ‘leader’, I could participate in the ‘essential policy conversations’ and briefings that will help shape the Democrat’s 2010 re-election strategy?


Apparently the Dems will be forming ‘advisory councils’ to help them figure out how to keep control of Albany – even while the same Senators are still in session, working on the people’s business.

According to published reports, donating or promising to raise the $25K allows participation in exclusive meetings with leadership, a policy briefing, free admission to campaign events in Albany and elsewhere, and a reception at the end of the legislative session.

Remarkably, the Dems defended their approach by citing prior, equally bad acts on the part of Republicans in Albany (and Washington), including efforts by the recently convicted, famously ethically challenged, former Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno, who similarly asked for $25,000 from donors in 2001. Even our Accidental Governor realizes how stinky this one is – he’s got his own challenges with smelly things – and condemned the actions, calling them “an outrage.” 

Back in January, my Senator David Valesky included these comments  in a press release regarding ethics reform legislation: “The public has the right to know who legislators are doing business with, and if those relationships are with people who also do business with the state,” Senator Valesky said. “As public officials, we need to encourage transparency, not hide from it.”

Senator Valesky, what’s your opinion on the ‘pay for access’ letter issued by your party and defended by your Conference Leader John Sampson as ‘just a fund-raising mechanism’?  Do you think it’s appropriate for a letter like this to be sent during the legislative session?  Will you and your counterparts be publishing a list of those who respond and contribute?  

I'd love a helping of that promised transparency now.

March 21, 2010

An Up-or-Down Vote on Health Insurance Reform

Today’s the big day, when the House of Representatives finally votes on health insurance reform. I’m not calling it health care reform, because it doesn’t really reform ‘health care’, it really provides only a way to pay for health insurance, which helps increase access to health care services.

The House has decided to not use a
funky and not-well-understood parliamentary procedure of ‘deeming’ the Senate’s bill approved, but instead will have their own up-or-down vote, which is what we’re entitled to.

They will also be stripping the Senate bill of some of its more onerous language, including special deals that were made at the end to secure passage, and voting on amendments to the bill, as there are clearly differences between the two houses of Congress on what's good for us. Even with changes, arm-twisting by legislative leaders and the President himself, and after hundreds of thousands of calls and TV and newspaper ads, the vote is expected to be
close but is predicted to be a win, according to one vote-tracker.

So what's in the health care bill that’s being debated today? I admit I haven't made it through the entire 2300 pages yet, and there's lots of gobblydegook and legalese and legislativese (which is harder to understand than legalese) but here's one
  • Coverage for most Americans (up to 95% of non-elderly folks);

  • A requirement that everyone have insurance, or pay a penalty for not having it;

  • A tax on businesses of 50 or more employees to help pay for covering their employees, if the business doesn’t offer coverage;

  • A health exchange, or market place, where people can choose coverage;

  • Options under the exchange for abortion, but it must be paid for with a separate check;

  • Taxes on high cost ‘Cadillac’ health plans, and taxes on investment income for higher wager earners;

  • Subsidies for low or middle income families to offset the cost of health insurance;

  • Expansion of Medicaid and a larger share of the cost for new Medicaid patients to be paid by the Federal government; and

  • Changes in Medicare-D drug coverage for seniors.
There are also changes to some other bills attached to this, as is typically the case with legislation at any level.

Because I have a job, I have great health insurance; my employer (a health insurance company) offers me a choice of plans, and I could have benefits even better than the ones I selected. I’ve been employed for decades beyond the limit for pre-existing conditions to matter to me; I can afford my copays; I can pick my doctors; I can get approval for medically necessary services; and there are clearly documented processes to follow if my doctor disagrees with my insurance company.

There are additional options available to me because I’m in New York, where the industry is highly regulated, where we have an aggressive State Insurance Department, and a history of active Attorneys General who have no qualms investigating health insurance carriers for real or perceived bad acts. If for some reason I feel I've been wronged by my carrier, I can readily find an advocate in Albany if I want one.

I'll be honest, as an employee of an insurance company, I worry about this bill - there will almost certainly be changes for my company if the bill passes. Where do we fit in the new scheme of things? How do we operate in a world of health insurance exchanges? What else will change for us, in the details of this bill? For all I know, if this legislation does pass, I could lose my job, and become one of the beneficiaries of the new rules.

As a taxpayer, I fear the cost of the bill. At $940 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it's a whopper. And because anything that’s passed on from Washington to the states will be passed eventually to the counties, our taxes are sure to rise to help pay for this. That’s going to be hard on us, here in New York where we already have a budget deficit in the billions, and in other states with large populations of uninsured; it'll be hard for us here in Onondaga County in a tough economy funded in part by diminishing sales tax dollars, and in the City of Syracuse, where our share of everything goes up, even while our higher income folks move to the 'burbs leaving fewer of us to pay for schools and services.

But at the same time, I can’t see not passing this, because I can’t see us continue to go forward the way we are now. Today, we all pay for the uninsured, because those costs are passed on to us in higher taxes, higher fees, higher insurance premiums. Tomorrow, eventually, maybe we’ll pay a little less under the new rules, when everyone who can afford insurance has to get it, or pay for the privilege of choosing to be uninsured. And if we really do get the deficit reductions that are projected - $138 billion over 10 years - that'll help us in the long run as well.

In the end, there’s no such thing as a perfect health insurance reform bill -- and we still need to look at reforming health care -- but doing nothing would be perfectly awful.
Here's hoping they do the right thing.

March 18, 2010

Health Care Reform Bill - The Real Deal

At last, here's the actual Health Care Reform Bill.

Not threats...not scare tactics... just the bill. As promised by the House, the bill will be available for 72 hours before the vote, making Sunday the earliest we'll get an up-or-down vote.

And no, I haven't read it yet... but I'll give it my best shot. At over 2300 pages, I'm planning on looking for key words. You know, 'death panels', 'killing grandma', 'free healthcare for illegal aliens', and things like that.

I promise I'll let you know what I find.

March 12, 2010

The Update Desk: March 12, 2010

Progress has been made on the proposed demolition of the ancient building which partially collapsed, leading to the closing of Interstate 81. According to reports, demolition will begin soon, and I-81 will be open in time for the NCAA tournament which starts next week. One local radio show reported that a barrier will be erected, using telephone poles as the ‘fence posts’, and then demolition can begin after that. Bids have been received, and while the project poses some challenges, at least we’re closer to getting people moving again. The highway was closed on February 26th, and demolition costs have ranged as high as $2 million. Here’s the press release.

Meanwhile, back in Colorado where I-70 was closed this past Monday due to a massive rock slide, traffic is again moving
, a single lane having been cleared in each direction on Thursday. A contractor has been chosen to finish the work, and repairs are expected to cost around $860,000 not including money already spent on temporary repairs and other costs associated with clearing the rock slide. “This happened on Monday, but we were able to get the work designed and out for competitive bidding by Tuesday, advertising the work to contractors on Wednesday,” CDOT Program Engineer Joe Elsen said in a statement. “We opened bids at 2 p.m. [Friday] and now, with an apparent low bidder identified, we are all very happy to begin the repairs.”

I think I have bulldozer envy.

I thought the Eric Massa story couldn’t get much worse, but I was wrong. Where we had cancer, retaliation, harassment, groping, tickling, texting, a representative living with his low paid staffers,
and even worse, one who caused Glen Beck to ‘waste America’s time,’ I thought the Massa plate was pretty full -- but I hadn’t counted on Rush Limbaugh. He’s the one who somehow managed to get in a slavery-related dig at our Accidental Governor while discussing the Massa case with a caller.

Please, make him go away. And Massa too, of course -- make him go away too.

And on the Cutzilla front, with apologies to Blue Oyster Cult, I offer:

He walks up the street, he’s tearing things down,
While Albany runs our finances into the ground.

Shutting down nursing homes without missing a beat
And putting our patients out into the street.

Taking aim at the clinics, and hospitals too,
Oh, our employees what will they do?

Oh no, the budget’s got to go,
Go, Go, Cutzilla!
Oh me, what’s wrong in Albany,
Go, Go, Cutzilla!

You have to protect us, we’re in no mood to laugh
We paid for your elections, your cars and your staff.

We’re looking at the Leg, and the Governor too,
Damn it everyone, we’re looking at you!

Oh no, the budget’s got to go,
Go, Go, Cutzilla!
Oh me, what’s wrong in Albany,
Go, Go, Cutzilla!

History shows again and again
Special interests rule the interests of men
Go, Go, Cutzilla!

Here's to a newsworthy weekend.

March 11, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Cutzilla!

These days, here in New York the Accidental Governor David Paterson is basically roaming the sidelines, having been pretty much marginalized by his own bad judgment; Andrew 'Honest I Just Want to Be Attorney General' Cuomo has just declared his intentions to seek the governorship, by way of finally recusing himself from investigations into Paterson's activities; and Lt Governor Ravitch has just announced a very radical approach to solving the budget crisis, which will likely go nowhere but boy, at least he's thinking.

With everything going on in Albany, now's a great time for special interests to be taking to the airwaves to make their case to save (our,their) (jobs, pensions, rights) and make sure all (children, families, seniors, schools, churches, businesses, unions) can get (sugared beverages, appliances, bailouts, health care, fresh air, pensions, tax breaks, free rides, much needed services) without intervention from (majority, minority, leaders, followers, squeaky clean, morally challenged) (democrats, republicans, independents, RINOs, DINOs or WINOs) and without any increased (spending, taxes, fees, contributions, sacrifices) or any decreased (benefits, services, rights, entitlements).

Clearly, you can see from the parenthetical options that there's much to be talking about, and I tripped over the one ad that I think best sums things up. It's young, it's fresh, it's promotes hysteria, and it's even hysterical -- it's Cutzilla, brought to you by the Health Association of New York State (HANYS). Here's what HANYS' President Daniel Sisto had to say:

ALBANY, NY — "With so much focus on recent political tribulations here in Albany, it has become increasingly difficult to focus attention on policy and budgetary issues that we believe are far more important to the lives and livelihood of everyday New Yorkers.

"HANYS is deeply disturbed by the thousands of health care jobs that have already been lost in the wake of six recent rounds of budget cuts and taxes totaling more than $4 billion. We are troubled more so by the loss of critical health care services that are occurring in many communities throughout the state as a result of these actions.

"In the last decade alone, 29 hospitals and 51 nursing homes have been shuttered. This cannot continue; yet, we now face another $1 billion in additional provider taxes and cuts.

"Today we release a video called Cutzilla that intends to harness the power of YouTube to break through the media din being fueled by recent events. The video uses an unconventional approach to make our point about the dangers associated with the Governor's $1 billion in new health care taxes and cuts. The potential impacts of these actions are tremendously serious.

"The Legislature must act decisively to mitigate these troubling health care provider taxes and cuts."

Unconvential approach, indeed. I'm wondering if this is how Kathryn Bigelow got her start?

March 9, 2010

PPOD March 9, 2010: I-81N to Nowhere

This is not a picture of Interstate I-81 North just past the I-690 interchange in Syracuse NY.

There's a section of I-81 that's been closed for more than 10 days, traffic now plodding through downtown neighborhoods, turning rush hour into a slow-moving parking lot along the North Side and in other parts of town.

In the meantime, everyone's trying to figure out how to go about the demolition, and more importantly how to pay for it and make the highway safe for travel the near future, we hope. And it's my Pet Peeve of the Day.

The closed section of I-81 doesn't look anything like this picture. It actually looks pretty serene; no maniacal merging, no spastic speeders, no paranoid passers -- just an empty stretch of highway. Nothing in the road -- no bricks, no building parts, no environmental disasters waiting to happen. No cranes or other symbols of pending demolition -- no nothing.

The problem, as I mentioned in my Dirty Snowpile Awards, is that a building that sits near the highway has had part of the back wall cave in. Well, that's the technical problem. The real problem is, of course, the back and forth between the interested parties -- building owner, City of Syracuse, State of New York, a couple of acronyms (DOT, DEC), the building owner, and a few lawyers trying to figure out who's responsible for fixing the problem.

The State has apparently offered to pay 70% of the costs, if the City will agree to pay the other 30%. Mayor Stephanie Miner is concerned about having to assume 30% of an unknown figure – unknown because what was initially a job expected to cost around half a million has ballooned up to around $2 million, so it’s really hard to say what it could cost now, since it’s been a few days since the last figure surfaced.

I think we all appreciate fiscal responsibility on the part of public servants - but there's also a need for a reality check. It's kind of sad to see us paralyzed by inaction when the highway just sits we inch ever closer to hosting the NCAAs and March Madness.

By the way, the picture above? It's from the Colorado DOT, who's dealing with a real reason to close an Interstate -- a massive rockslide. Their original guess was that they could get one lane of the highway cleared and reopened for traffic 'in a couple of days' however there are more rocks above the road that will delay the reopening.

But at least their road's a mess...

March 7, 2010

And the winner is...

Tonight Hollywood celebrates with the Academy Awards; locally, Syracuse leads in the annual race for the Golden Snowball, helped by the storm at the end of last month. And this year, for the first time, I present the Dirty Snowpile Awards.

I’ve mentioned before that it’s really quite pretty here in Central New York in the winter, particularly when there’s fresh snow on the ground. Alas, there’s another side of winter – the part where snow piles up at the end of our driveways, and on the side of the road, and gets dirty and then dirtier and then dirtier still, and finally it’s so ugly we just pray for more snow to cover it up or rain to wash the dirt away.

Sadly, these days at every level, we’re up to our eyeballs in dirt of another kind, the kind that sheds the worst possible light on all of us. To that end, here are the winners:

The Obstructionist Snowpile, to Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning.

Bunning single-handedly held up the jobs bill, which among other things would have continued unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. This blistering post pretty much sums things up. And, he's only the latest example of someone who thinks he's more important than the rest of us, it's not like he's the only one so misguided.

The It Doesn't Pay to be Qualified Snowpile.

Just ask Syracuse University professor Deborah Freund. She was selected to oversee a project created out of 'Honest, I Just Want to Be Attorney General' Andrew Cuomo’s investigation into health insurance reimbursement. She was also a paid member of the Board of Directors of a local health insurance company (which is my employer). While admittedly she’s handsomely paid for her BoD role, she’s an expert in her field and frankly, isn’t that the kind of person you want, rather than some flunky who will always go with the party line? Freund just resigned her Board position, because of a perceived conflict of interest. It's a shame, and indicative of how hard it is to get qualified people to participate.

The Hopelessly Filthy Snowpile, to Washington DC.

Capital of the Free World. Bickeringly bottlenecked.
This is a great article on what’s wrong with the rules in the Senate, and how we’ve managed to twist the rules to not accomplish things. Doesn’t matter what the issue is: health care, jobs, tax increases, spending cuts -- it’s all about making the other side lose, rather than the helping the country win. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Dems or the Reps; neither is immune to the intoxication of power. Our elected officials have a responsibility to govern, even if it means identifying common ground and building on that, rather than fanning the flames of our differences. If not, it's our responsibility to get rid of them.

And speaking of building… The Demolition Snowpile - it's dirtier than it looked at first.

There’s more than enough to go around on this one. Here’s a guy who owns a property that has structural issues, and maybe he’s been working on solving them and then things accelerated when a portion of the building crumbled, maybe due to heavy snow, or maybe due to major highway construction near his property over the past year... Bottom line? We close the Interstate northbound out of Syracuse, and now a bunch of politicians are finding $2 million ways to solve the problem. Tear the building down, haul it away – and in the process strip the owner of any salvageable content, as well as the land the building sits on. And oh, don’t forget, he may get stuck with the bill. What a mess. In the meantime, can’t someone just put up a high mesh fence along the back side and reopen the darn highway?

These next are self explanatory; they are all ethically challenged winners of the Shoot Yourself in the Foot Category. And again, they're a only a handful out of many, but they're all ours:

Charles Rangel did it to himself...

and so did Eric Massa...

…and so did the Amigo Hiram Monserrate, who still won’t go away.

And so, ultimately, did our Accidental Governor do it to himself.

His actions surrounding his World Series tickets tempt a perjury charge, and he clearly has bad judgment, particularly when it comes to his closest advisor. The time has come for Paterson to step up and step down, giving us back some shred of dignity as New Yorkers. If he does, we're left with Richard Ravitch in the Statehouse, but that can't be worse than this.

And last, the Sometimes Technology Stinks Snowpile, a small one, to mark the end of the F16 fighter jets at Syracuse’s Hancock AFB.
Long a mainstay in the community, the jets were fixtures at Memorial Day parades and other celebrations across the region, the deafening flyovers among the greatest thrills for kids of all ages. I always went outside to look for them whenever I heard them, even as a kid in my 30s, 40’s and yes, 50s now, and I remember going to air shows and just being blown away by these things. They're being replaced by unmanned drones, our pilots becoming the ultimate video gamers. The skies over Onondaga County will never be the same, don’t you agree?

I'll leave you with a better taste in your mouth; here are a few more pleasant visions of winter, taken on a recent trip to taste a few highly-rated Seneca Lake wines. We loved the wines, and we loved the day.