Omaha World-Herald. Dec. 17, 2012.
Good intentions need oversight
Sen. Tom Coburn grabbed some headlines the other day with a new report on questionable federal spending that even featured zombies.
The misspent money wasn't such a large sum that it would make any real dent in the nation's $16 trillion debt. And like so many federal programs, this one has a solid aim — keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
But what the Oklahoma Republican found shows once again that good government intentions still require vigorous oversight.
Coburn's report, "Safety at Any Price," detailed findings of a yearlong look at the Department of Homeland Security's grant programs, including its Urban Areas Security Initiative. It concluded that "taxpayer money spent on homeland security grant programs has not always been spent in ways obviously linked to terrorism or preparedness."
A few examples:
— Paying the $1,000 fee for some first responders to attend a conference at a San Diego-area resort that included a "zombie apocalypse" demonstration to simulate a real-life terrorism event.
— Buying a $98,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, which the city council declared an emergency purchase "not because of security needs but because of 'federal grant deadlines.' "
— Providing $285,000 for an armored vehicle for Keene, N.H., a small town that is home to an annual pumpkin festival. "Do I think al-Qaida is going to target Pumpkin Fest? No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement? Yes," the police chief said. Many Keene residents opposed the idea with the slogan, "Thanks, but no tanks."
It's all enough to make a taxpayer's head hurt.
Yet the grant program is serious business. It stems from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the federal government's promise to help make certain that local officials were equipped to prevent attacks and respond if they occur.
Agency officials and its defenders say the program has boosted capabilities of local first responders. "The grants, for example, have helped improve first-responder communications between different jurisdictions and levels of government — a lesson learned from the 9/11 attacks when scores of New York City firefighters died because of poor communications," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has chaired the Senate's Homeland Security Committee.
Nebraska entities, too, got money. Some raised big-city eyebrows, The World-Herald reported in 2005, when the funds bought lariats, nose leads, halters and electric prods for county officials worried about cattle being intentionally infected with a disease. But state and local officials rightly pointed out that the funds also provided terrorism and disaster training for police and firefighters and helped acquire modern computer and communications gear needed for better coordination in emergencies.
Beyond zombies and pumpkin festivals, the Coburn report raises important issues. Two key findings:
— The Department of Homeland Security lacks any good way of tracking how the grant money is spent, and the agency has not produced adequate measures to gauge the actual needs of states and communities. "Significant evidence suggests that the program is struggling to demonstrate how it is making U.S. cities less vulnerable to attack and more prepared if one were to occur — despite receiving $7.1 billion in federal funding since 2003," the report said.
— While some of the responsibility for these failings clearly falls on Homeland Security department officials, much of it also lands on Congress. Congress, the report concluded, "is often more preoccupied with the amount of money sent to its cities than with how the money is spent, or whether it was ever needed in the first place."
The department is proposing a reorganization of its grant programs, Coburn says, so now is the time to reassess and make needed changes.
The agency and Congress must make sure funding goes to areas with genuine risks, institute serious scrutiny over this spending, spell out clear security goals and accurately measure whether those goals are being met. Without such rigorous oversight, taxpayers have no way of knowing whether they are getting their money's worth — or whether they are really any safer.
Lincoln Journal Star. Dec. 17, 2012.
Medicaid issues grow larger
Two news stories last week foreshadowed the budget drama that will be part of the next legislative session.
Picture a crowd of Nebraskans packed into a public hearing. Many are in wheelchairs, some are on ventilators. Some are accompanied by private duty nurses. Most are old.
Imagine another group of eager, hopeful faces. They're in college or public school classrooms, using textbooks, laptops and the other tools necessary to prepare them for the life that stretches out before them. Most are young.
The two groups represent two of the biggest items in the state budget. The first needs Medicaid dollars. The second needs funding for education.
In one story, state officials announced that Nebraska will lose $44 million in federal Medicaid matching funds, basically because the state's economy is doing better than many other states.
In the second, public school officials called for fully funding the state's school aid formula, which calls for an increase of $87 million next year and an additional $53 million in the second year of the budget cycle.
The two groups have been competing for dollars for decades now. History shows that Medicaid typically wins.
Twenty-five years ago, for example, Medicaid expenses were less than 9 percent of state spending. Today the percentage of state spending that goes to Medicaid is more than twice that figure.
Meanwhile, the proportion of state spending on the University of Nebraska and state colleges has steadily declined.
Lawmakers and Gov. Dave Heineman will decide how to divvy up state tax dollars. Fortunately, revenue is running ahead of projections. The pressure is on, complicated by the question of whether the state should expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act with full federal funding assured for the first three years, followed by a gradual decline to 90 percent.
Although neither of the groups relish being pitted against the other when it comes to state funding, the fact of their competition long has been recognized. A 2003 study by the Tax Policy Center, supported by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, noted that, in economic downturns, funding for higher education declines and funding for Medicaid rises. But when the economy recovers, higher education never recovers.
Tension between the groups may peak this year. Nationally, Medicaid is the biggest budget worry for states in the coming year, according to a survey released last week by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kearney Hub. Dec. 16, 2012.
Big losers are putting Kearney on U.S. map
Kearney school children are developing a reputation as big losers. That's because Kearney Public Schools is being mentioned frequently in news reports about KPS's declining childhood obesity rate.
KPS's success has been highlighted in newspapers around the nation, including some of the largest publications in the United States.
The most recent mention came this week in the New York Times, which detailed success stories in urban schools in Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles.
The Times article stated: "The trend has emerged in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as smaller places like Anchorage, Alaska, and Kearney, Neb. The state of Mississippi has also registered a drop, but only among white students."
According to the Times, New York City has reported a 5.5 percent decline in the number of obese school children from 2007-2011. Philadelphia's obesity rate has dropped by 5 percent and, in Los Angeles, the decline is 3 percent.
The number of obese children in Kearney has declined by 15 percent since 2006. The improvement speaks a lot about the efforts of parents and children to become aware of the importance of diet and physical activity.
The improvement also can be traced to a commitment by KPS to teach about the value of an active lifestyle and also to provide healthier alternatives at school cafeterias.
KPS's focus on fighting obesity began with a federal grant from 2008 to 2011. The Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education helped KPS improve its physical education programs and initiate healthier menus at school cafeterias.
Each year in which the district has added wellness programs or made healthy changes, the number of overweight and obese children has decreased. The trend at KPS has attracted attention because childhood obesity has become one of the nation's most difficult health challenges. Even first lady Michelle Obama is speaking out on the issue.
The success at KPS offers hope that a concerted effort involving school children, parents, teachers and physical education and lunchroom staff can succeed.
Kearney's big losers appear to have a lot to teach others as our nation fights to win the battle against childhood obesity.
The Grand Island Independent. Dec. 16, 2012.
Congress, president eventually must address spending, taxation imbalances
James A. Baker, the secretary of the treasury under President Ronald Reagan, recently offered some interesting insights about the ongoing fiscal standoff between President Obama and Congress. Baker was also chief of staff in both President Reagan's first administration and the final year of President George H.W. Bush's administration.
With respect to dealing with budget issues at the highest levels of government, Baker probably has more experience than any person now living. He dealt with Congress when the levers of power were controlled by the opposite political party, as they are today. He was part of negotiations that successfully reached agreements on taxes and spending, so his current thinking is particularly worthy of note.
Baker believes the nation is at a point where Congress and President Obama must agree to some kind of grand bargain on fundamental fiscal policies, including a decision on how much of the nation's gross domestic product should be allocated to government. To accomplish this, he says, everything must be on the table — tax increases, Medicare, Medicaid, tax deductions and loopholes, entitlements and military spending — everything.
In Baker's opinion the nation isn't undertaxed, it is overspent. President Obama doesn't agree, as evidenced by his wish to increase taxes on the wealthy and the tax increases that will accompany Obamacare. His is a very activist view of government, and it demands a larger share of the nation's income.
Despite significant differences, both sides must agree on policies that will increase revenues, control spending, and bring about a growing economy. Republicans seem amenable to higher tax revenues from the wealthy, but they are insisting on some kind of assurance that spending will be addressed. Baker notes that in the past Republicans agreed to tax increases that were coupled to future spending limits, only to see those limits later ignored. They are determined that this not happen again.
Divisions between the sides are unlikely to be resolved in the next few days, and a temporary fix may come about. But world markets will not indefinitely excuse the failure of our government to address the structural imbalances that are weakening our nation's financial health.
At some point, long-lasting policies about taxation and spending must be agreed upon.