Detroit Free Press. March 6.
Michigan Senate Republicans protect big timber's interests
Michigan Republicans interested in shoring up their party's long-term future invariably mention the need to mute the creationist, global-warming-denying minority that has given national GOP its anti-science reputation. This is what Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was talking about a few weeks ago when he warned delegates to his party's winter meeting that Republicans "have got to stop being the stupid party."
But heeding that counsel has proved difficult even for Jindal, who recently threw his support behind legislation that would require Louisiana schools to provide equal time for critics of evolution. And now Michigan's Republican lawmakers are burnishing their own anti-science credentials by promoting legislation that would put our state's national resources in jeopardy.
SB78, which passed the state Senate on a party-line vote Tuesday, would delete biodiversity and restoration from the goals the state Department of National Resources is obliged to consider as it makes decisions about managing Michigan's public forest lands. Sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, the bill would curb the DNR's authority to protect large blocks of timberland from harvest.
Ecologists and environmental advocacy groups credit the DNR's stewardship with restoring forests, lakes and watersheds devastated by overdevelopment and excessive timber harvesting. They are justifiably worried that weakening the DNR's land-management authority will threaten the biodiversity that promotes healthy forests and distinguishes Michigan's public recreational spaces from those in neighboring states.
It's hardly surprising that Casperson, a former log trucking operator who has historically been more interested in protecting the timber industry's prerogatives than in safeguarding Michigan's natural resources, has shrugged off biologists' warnings about his bill's impact. This is the same lawmaker who embarrassed colleagues attending the Republicans' state convention last month by expressing continued skepticism about Barack Obama's constitutional eligibility for the presidency.
But it's regrettable that Republican state senators have embraced Casperson's campaign to place the DNR's land management authority in the Legislature's inexpert hands.
Here's hoping House Republicans take their responsibility to protect Michigan's forests — and Gov. Jindal's warning about their own party's future — more seriously when they take up Casperson's bill later this session.
Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (Howell). March 5.
Exploring roots of high health costs
Time magazine recently published a 35-page, 24,000-word report on the causes behind the high health-care costs in the United States.
The article named many of the usual suspects: High markups on hospital care, medical equipment and lab tests; expensive pharmaceuticals; high-paid hospital administrators; and medical malpractice costs.
The article also pointed to some nefarious actions, such as nonprofit hospitals that earn sizable profits while doctoring their numbers to overstate the amount of charity care they provide; or doctors who have unseemly conflicts of interests.
One of the more eye-opening observations was the fact that often the hospitals charge their highest fees to those, such as the uninsured, who can least afford them.
There's a lot to cover in 24,000 words. But these three themes stood out:
Medicare does a better job of controlling costs than does private insurance.
Such a claim earns nasty glares from conservatives who are dead-set against a single-payer system. But it needs to be given serious consideration.
Medicare doesn't pay the marked-up rate for many health-care products and services. It also has a much lower administrative cost than do private insurance companies. It has a remarkable record of data processing, using contracts with a large network of private vendors.
Such a record should give pause to those pushing for a voucher system to provide health care for those over 65.
They should also rethink the plans to cut Medicare costs by increasing the eligibility age from the current 65. The problem with that is twofold: If Medicare is truly more cost-effective, then it would make more sense to lower the eligibility age than to increase it. Also, as other reports have noted, people who are generally healthy at age 65 won't require much health care for the next two years of their lives. But to be safe, they would have to pursue expensive insurance from private carriers while Medicare wouldn't save that much.
There are problems with Medicare, including the fact that current users are spending much more than what was contributed. But the expansion of Medicare should be considered with cool, reliable data and not with emotional claims of "socialized medicine."
The current insurance system isn't all that wonderful.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, was one of those who argued against Obamacare partly on the grounds that most people were happy with their insurance. So why make them change?
But should people be happy with their current coverage? That coverage is pretty much dictated by their employers who, over the years, have increased the amount employees pay while reducing benefits. That's not a knock on management. Costs are going up and have to be covered somehow.
Also, many people have no idea of the effectiveness — or limitations — of their insurance until they desperately need it. The Time story told several examples of employed, insured individuals who sadly discovered that caps on their benefits left them with staggering health-care bills.
The health-care debate is often positioned by those who spend the most money with Congress.
Pharmaceutical companies, health-care organizations and insurance companies are big spenders when it comes to influencing Congress. The health-care industry even dwarfs the defense industry when it comes to spending on lobbying.
Further, trial attorneys spend big bucks with friendly members of Congress to avoid meaningful tort reform. In addition to big malpractice payouts, hospitals and doctors spend large amounts on malpractice insurance. They also drive up costs with expensive and unnecessary tests and procedures as part of costly defensive medicine.
When politicians of both parties are speaking, it's often their favorite lobbyists who are providing the script.
The Detroit News. March 6.
Sequestration is over; now it's time for the president and Congress to lead and address spending
Like most such doomsday scenarios, the federal budget sequestration deadline came and went without dire consequences. So far. Rather than wait for the next crisis in this wearying serial, the president and Congress should end the gamesmanship and commit to lead the country to a more stable fiscal future.
With the next deadline coming up March 27, what's needed now is leadership. President Barack Obama showed precious little of that during the buildup to the sequestration cuts, which trimmed a bit more than 2 percent from discretionary spending growth.
The president calculated that if he frightened Americans into believing horrible things would happen if the cuts kicked in, they would pressure House Republicans to cave to another round of tax hikes.
That tactic failed. Now, Obama should set aside the scaremongering and take the lead in crafting a comprehensive budget deal that puts an end to these too-frequent face-offs.
He should see from the Republican resolve to withstand his attacks in this round that they aren't going to agree to more taxes. GOP lawmakers accepted income tax hikes in January without getting spending cuts in return. Combined with the expiration of the 2 percent payroll tax holiday and the new Obamacare taxes, those revenue increases are already working to slow first-quarter growth. With the economy still sluggish, further tax hikes are too risky, and likely not needed.
What was useful about the sequestration showdown is that it stirred a lot of talk both inside and outside Washington about waste and inefficiency in the federal budget. A lot of good ideas were offered for making budget cuts that would be far less impactful than the ones mandated by sequestration.
If Congress and the White House worked together to implement those suggested cuts, it would give them more credibility with the American people and help revive their sagging popularity numbers.
It would also draw a starting point for getting past the next two crisis points — the March 27 deadline for passing a continuing resolution to fund the government through the rest of the year, followed quickly by another debt ceiling cap.
Ultimately, the goal should be to produce the first federal budget in four years.
Of course, to get there requires something close to a working relationship between Obama and congressional Republicans. That's nonexistent today.
A Washington Post story over the weekend revealed the White House's strategy is to use gridlock on the budget and other issues to retake the House from Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections.
Some in the GOP have said from the beginning that their priority is to keep Obama from succeeding.
Both sides need to realize they can't destroy each other without doing serious damage to the country.
They weren't elected to further the interests of their respective political parties; they were elected to run the government.
Obama and Congress have a window over the next few weeks to come up with a spending plan that both addresses the deficit and encourages more robust growth. They shouldn't let it close.
Battle Creek Enquirer. March 4.
When we jail kids, it's often a life sentence
Locking up kids for nonviolent offenses is both cruel and counterproductive. We're all better served when juvenile justice leans heavily toward compassion.
A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation bears this out, showing a large drop in the number of young people held in juvenile detention nationwide along with juvenile crime. Nationally, the number of incarcerated youth fell from 101,637 in 1995 to 70,792 in 2010.
Michigan, following the same trend, saw a 44 percent decrease in its youth incarceration rate from 1997 to 2010. That's heartening, but it remains unacceptably high.
Even with the decline, nearly 2,000 Michigan youth younger than 21 were living in juvenile residential facilities in 2010 on a single day count, or about 208 youth per 100,000 population.
Most of those — about three-quarters — have committed nonviolent crimes that would not threaten public safety, diverting public dollars away from more effective strategies or other public service needs.
It costs taxpayers between $250 and $500 per day to house a youth offender, anywhere from $91,000 to $182,000 per day, for zero public benefit. Indeed, throwing kids in jail is bound to cost society more in the long run: Data shows the juveniles in residential treatment programs have a 70 percent to 80 percent chance of re-offending within three years.
Compare that with the cost of in-home treatment programs: $10 to $65 daily.
Make no mistake, the foundation report shows an encouraging trend, but the United States still jails a far higher share of the youth population than any other developed country.
Not surprisingly, minority and low-income youth carry the greatest burden. African American youth are incarcerated at three times the rate of white youth.
The statistics highlight an obvious need for reform of the juvenile justice system, but they point to a deeper need to rethink how communities respond to problem behavior among youth, responses that often put young people on the path to getting in trouble with the law.
The continued emphasis on zero-tolerance policies in our schools, for example, and overly harsh disciplinary practices put too many kids on a track to failure, which often leads to deviant or criminal activity.
That's not to say that students should face no consequences for unacceptable behavior, but that proper training of faculty and staff and more coordination with behavioral experts stand a better chance of putting troubled kids on the right path.
At Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Wash., for example, administrators saw an 85 percent decline in suspensions after changing its approach to discipline.
In a report on acestoohigh.com, Natalie Turner, a research associate from Washington State University's Area Health Education Center who worked with the high school, said faculty work with just two simple rules:
— Take nothing a raging kid says personally. Really. Act like a duck: let the words roll off your back like drops of water.
— Don't mirror the kid's behavior. Take a deep breath. Wait for the storm to pass, and then ask something along the lines of: "Are you okay? Did something happen to you that's bothering you? Do you want to talk about it?"
The trick is to find out what's behind the youth's behavior, then work to address the cause.
In the absence of a public safety threat, incarceration is never an acceptable alternative for a youthful offender. It always causes harm, and it makes it likely that the child will have more trouble with the law.
We need to continue — no, hasten — the change in how we treat juvenile crime. Doing so will ensure more young people grow up to live healthy, productive lives.