One man’s perspective on stories that matter. Look for these posts every week on ILSR.org and the landing page for my work, From the Desk of David Morris.
Desperate for Workers, Nebraska Warms to Undocumented Immigrants
In 2009, riding a wave of anti-immigrant fervor in the country, Nebraska joined other states in taking away many public benefits, including professional, commercial, and driver’s licenses, from undocumented immigrants. Then-Gov. Dave Heineman (R) said the law would ensure, “that state and local benefits go to those who truly qualify.”
In 2012, when President Obama, by Executive Order, enacted parts of the stalled Congressional DREAM bill that would have allowed immigrants who arrived as children and grew up in the United States to stay, Nebraska Republicans were outraged.
Anti-immigrant sentiment was fueled after the economic collapse in 2008 by the view that immigrants were taking scarce jobs from native Nebraskans.
But as unemployment dropped, sentiments changed, especially in the business community. In 2015, the Republican legislature overrode a veto by Republican Governor Pete Ricketts and gave Dream Act recipients the ability to obtain a driver’s licenses.
By 2016, the unemployment rate was 2.8 percent. Across the state there were some 50,000 job openings. The Chambers of Commerce, restaurant owners, the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association and others were clamoring for qualified employees
“It makes absolutely no sense to educate kids here, to put state resources into them with public schools and higher education, to basically train them to work, and then say we don’t want them to work here or pay taxes here,” Jennifer Creager, the senior director of public policy for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce told Matt Vasilogambros, a reporter for Stateline. She continued, “Not only do we want you. We need you.”
In 2016, after Ricketts vetoed a bill that would have allowed Dreamers to apply for professional licenses, Vasilogambros describes the legislative response, “The chamber of the unicameral Legislature was silent as senators cast the final vote to override the governor’s veto. When the votes were in, the bill had 31 supporters — one more than was needed to override the veto. As someone in the chamber gallery full of Dreamers erupted in applause, most of the senators turned, stood up and returned applause back to the dozens of young people they had gotten to know over the many years it took to get to this moment.” Today Nebraska is one of 10 states that allows certain immigrants to apply for professional licenses.
While Nebraska Republicans, and Republicans in another red state, Indiana, were warming up to undocumented immigrants, Donald Trump rode an anti-immigrant wave into the White House. Early this year he announced his intention to end the DACA program earlier this month, but that was blocked when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a federal judge’s order that the Trump administration continue the program.
Iowa Privatizes Medicaid. Everyone Suffers
On April 1, 2016 Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad shifted all Medicaid recipients into a managed care system run by three companies.
In April 2018, Iowa’s Office of Ombudsman reviewed the distressing results. In 2017, complaints had increased by 157 percent. The Gazette reporter Lynda Waddington observes, “Hospitals, clinics and nursing homes that provide care say they’ve lost hundreds of thousands in expected reimbursements. Those that have been paid tell of untold hours chasing down claims and payments. The three companies that initially signed up to manage Iowa Medicaid lost millions. The state had to increase its per enrollee allotment and, even so, saw one insurance company drop from the program and another refuse to absorb more enrollees. The state quietly set up a fee-for-service pool to bridge the gap.”
Meanwhile the current Governor, Kim Reynolds (R), has closed the door on public attendance at meetings on the $4 billion Medicaid program, and proposed a $10 million cut.
We Need a Data Bill of Rights
Cathy O’Neil, a high tech consultant, believes Congress missed the point when it interrogated Facebook’s CEO. “Instead of piling on Mark Zuckerberg or worrying about who has our personal data, legislators should focus on the real issue: how our data get used.” she writes in Bloomberg News.
“What America really needs is a smarter conversation about data usage. It starts with a recognition: Our data are already out there. Even if we haven’t spilled our own personal information, someone has. We’re all exposed. Companies have the data and techniques they need to predict all sorts of things about us: our voting behavior, our consumer behavior, our health, and our financial futures. That’s a lot of power being wielded by people who shouldn’t be trusted.
“If politicians want to create rules, they should start by narrowly addressing the worst possible uses for our personal information — the ways it can be used to deny people job opportunities, limit access to health insurance, set interest rates on loans and decide who gets out of jail. Essentially any bureaucratic decision can now be made by algorithm, and those algorithms need interrogating way more than Zuckerberg does.”
O’Neil proposes a Data Bill of Rights comprised of two components. The first would specify how much control we can exert over how our individual information. The second would introduce federally enforced rules on how algorithms should be monitored more generally.
She views the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which allows us to access the data employed to generate our credit scores as a good model for how to deal with personal data. For aggregate data, she recommends we have the right to know what information algorithms are using to make decisions about us, and we should have the right to correct the record if it’s wrong, and to appeal scores if we think they’re unfair. We should be entitled to know how the algorithms work.”
To enforce this new Bill of Rights, O’Neil proposes Congress create a new regulator — along the lines of the Food and Drug Administration.
Chicago Privatizes School Services. The Shit Almost Literally Hits the Fan
In early 2014, the Chicago Public Schools, by a unanimous vote of the school board, privatized their custodial service. To monitor the now-privatized work, CPS hired another company to “provide independent audits on cleanliness at various schools.”
The $340 million contracts, school district spokesman Joel Hood maintained would give “measurable benefits” that will make the schools “significantly cleaner while also saving the district tens of millions of dollars.”
The contractors attempted to save money by paying fewer janitors do more janitorial work. Ben Joravsky, a reporter for the Chicago Reader, recalls a conversation he had with a friend who had been a janitor for many years. “They took away our mops and mop buckets and gave us this thing they call microfiber pads. It’s a pad at the end of stick.”
By the time the new school year began, Valerie Strauss reports in the Washington Post, “Principals reported serious problems with rodents, roaches and other bugs, filthy floors, overflowing garbage bins, filthy toilets, missing supplies such as toilet paper and soap, and broken furniture — issues they said they didn’t have before. Now, many said, they spend a lot of time trying to clean their buildings.”
In February 2015, Joravsky, who has been covering the story for years, reported teachers filed a union grievance stipulating that they, “are performing the daily duties of a custodian,” including, “sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and disinfecting play areas.” The company wanted to get fewer janitors to do more work in less time by doing away with rinsing the floor. “So instead of going over the floor twice, we only do it once.” The problem? “(T)hat microfiber thing ain’t shit! It doesn’t get the floors clean like an old-fashioned mop. You ask any janitor.”
When parents, teachers or students complained about dirty classrooms and lunchrooms, Chicago Public Schools officials pointed to high “pass” rates found in audits by an independent firm.
In January 2017, CPS’ chief executive officer asked the Chicago Board of Education to approve an additional $427 million in contracts to those companies to take over all facilities management duties performed by school engineers, plans that were delayed a yearly. The CPS insisted 96 percent of schools passed their latest cleanliness audits.
But in April 2018, Lauren FitzPatrick, a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, who has also been covering the CPS story for years, leaked a report that had found “critical” problems at 91 of the 125 schools they looked at. These included rodent droppings, dirty food-preparation equipment, and smelly bathrooms. Of the 17 schools with the worst violations, 12 serve populations where at least four of five children are African-American or Hispanic and low-income.
In a column aptly titled, CPS’s Dirty Trick, FitzPatrick reveals the contractors had been cheating. Schools learned in advance about coming inspections. Maxine Gladney, who has cleaned Powell Elementary School in South Shore for six years told FitzPatrick, who has been following the CPS story for several years, “They bring staff over to help, That’s the only time you get supplies, everything you need, when they’re having a ‘blitz’ or an inspection.”
Janitors noted that by 2018 the 2,300 custodians employed at CPS in 2014 had dropped to 1,100. Members of SEIU Local 1, threatened to strike when their contract ran out that April if 500 more workers were not hired. The company ultimately agreed to hire half that number.
When Chicago Mayor Emmanual Rahm learned of the fudged numbers he told reporters he was “beyond outraged.” Joravsky, writing in April 2018 observes, “Similar exposés were written back in 2015, months after Mayor Rahm ushered in the new age of no rinsing. Back then he was simply outraged over the filthy schools. Now he’s “beyond outraged”… If this keeps up, he’s gonna be really, really beyond outraged.”
Lower Taxes Starve Teachers
What’s behind the outbreak of teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, and Oklahoma? New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explains, “The federal government’s basically an insurance company with an army: non-defense spending is dominated by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. State and local governments, however, are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force; protective services like police and fire departments account for much of the rest.”
When conservatives took control of state governments, corporate and income taxes were cut sharply reducing revenue. The vast majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets.
“And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.”
On average teachers now earn 23 percent less than other college graduates. The comparison is even more lopsided in the red states where teachers are striking.
Teachers also have to pay a rising share of their health insurance premiums.
“So we’re left with a nation in which teachers, the people we count on to prepare our children for the future, are starting to feel like members of the working poor, unable to make ends meet unless they take second jobs. And they can’t take it anymore.”
Public Lands: The United States v. California
In October 2017, in response to Donald Trump’s attack on public lands California, where 46 percent of the land is federally owned, passed a law declaring that any “conveyance” of any “federal public lands” is “void ab initio” (“to be treated as invalid from the outset”) unless the California State Lands Commission (SLC) has been given a right of first refusal to acquire the federal property.
SB 50 covers the sale of any federal property, from old post offices to undeveloped natural public lands.
In April, the federal government asked the courts to declare the law null and void.
Andy Kerr who writes a Public Lands Blog, believes California will lose this case, and should, “The best thing for America’s federal public lands is for the United States to win this case against California. Why? The idea that states might be able to control the federal government’s disposal of federal public lands is a two-edged sword. If the State of California can interfere with the federal government’s management, including sale, of federal public lands in California (albeit with honorable intent to serve the public interest in keeping public lands public), so can the State of Utah (albeit with nefarious intent to privatize public lands).”
Kerr suggests other ways California can ensure federal public lands remain in public hands.
Outbid everyone else if the federal government puts a parcel of federal property up for sale. After all, the state has the deepest pockets. Or use the power of eminent domain to take the former-federal, now-private property for public use as long as just compensation is provided. To minimize that compensation the state could zone the federal public lands within the state so that if any did come into private ownership, the new private owner would know—before they bought the property—what uses would or would not be allowed on such a parcel.
To Address the Housing Crisis, Build Municipal Public Housing
A new report from The People’s Policy Project wants to help cities take the lead in addressing the nationwide housing crisis. The 2008 financial collapse resulted in millions of evictions and a virtual halt to new residential construction. When construction began again it rose only to the levels of the late 1980s, when the population was 25 percent smaller. And it was concentrated in luxury rentals and condos in major metropolitan areas.
Authors Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper survey existing federal and state programs intended to tackle the affordable housing crisis and find them inadequate. Section 8 vouchers cover only 22 percent of the 1.8 million extremely poor households eligible. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), under which some 90 percent of new affordable housing are built is too small and inefficient. From 1997-2014 the cost of the credit increased by 66 percent the number of units created under the credit fell from over 70,000 per year to fewer than 60.
Rent control is a, “reasonable policy for allowing people to remain in their homes and preserve existing affordable units…(but) does little to enable the construction of new units…”
The authors recommend a dramatic expansion of public housing. Two million people still live in public housing, despite over 40 years of disinvestment, making public housing, “virtually the only available housing for poor people in many cities.”
“The international community has increasingly recognized that private-only housing models adopted in the 1970s and 1980s have failed… The United States is almost alone in the fierce resistance of the overwhelming majority of both its major parties to the involvement of federal and local government in the direct provision of affordable housing.”
The authors believe cities can lead an initiative to build 1 million new units of public housing a year for ten years. They point to the success of public housing in Vienna, Austria’s capital city, where 3 in 5 residents live in houses owned, built, or managed by the municipal government.
The goal is to build 1 million new units of public housing a year for ten years. To finance municipal public housing, the federal government would borrow funds at existing Treasury yields and loan those funds out as required to municipal housing authorities at that rate plus a single basis point. It would also provide capital grants to municipalities who construct mixed-income housing developments equal in value to whatever a private sector developer would receive from LIHTC for a similar development.
Even without federal assistance, the authors urge cities to begin the process. Vast quantities of existing public land is available, and abandoned properties and vacant sites can be taken by eminent domain The expertise cities gain by building housing can serve them well in future negotiations with developers. “Developing a publicly owned alternative affords them greater autonomy and bargaining power in future procurement decisions; and it does not require them to release large amounts of public land which they cannot easily recover.”
To Enable a Decentralized, Renewable Future, Hawaii Changes the Rules
Hawai’i recently became the first state to legislatively mandate a separation of utility revenues from capital expenditures. SB 2939 directs the PUC to base future revenues on a series of new metrics including customer engagement and satisfaction, including, “options for managing electricity costs”, access to system information, including, “system planning data and aggregated customer energy use data and individual access to granular information about an individual customer’s own energy use data,” and rapid interconnection of renewables and distributed resources.
Hawaiian Electric (HECO), the state’s sole investor-owned utility, supports the new law as do the state’s clean energy And consumer advocate groups.
This consensus reflects that fact that in Hawaii, the future is now. It is the state with the highest per-capita rooftop solar penetration, a result of its sky-high fossil fueled electricity rates and abundant sunshine.
In many places in Hawaii, Representative Chris Lee told Utility Dive, “we’re beyond grid defection, where it’s cheaper to leave electric grid than stick with the utility, and given falling price for storage, solar and innovative technology, we couldn’t wait any longer. We need to ensure our utility is a sustainable business model that will be able to survive disruption and defection in the years to come.”
Sunrun, the nation’s largest residential solar installer sees Hawaii as a potential national model, “The time to make these changes is now, before billions of dollars are spent in rebuilding our outdated electrical networks,” Chief Policy Officer Anne Hoskins maintains.
In Michigan Prison Food Privatization is No Longer in Favor
Michigan privatized prison food service ran into trouble from the get-go. When they were first privatized in 2013, the 3-year contract was awarded to Aramark. But after only 21 months, serious performance problems led to the contract being canceled.
In the summer of 2015 a new 3-year contract was awarded to Trinity Services Group. Complaints soared. The National Union of Public and General Employees reports, “A Trinity Services Group employee was fired for refusing to serve moldy potatoes to prisoners. There were repeated problems with maggots in food. Cakes that had been partially eaten were still served — after the contractor used icing to cover-up the problem.”
And portions were smaller. One investigation uncovered problems like using fillers or diluting food with water.
Protests broke out, including one prison riot.
There were also safety issues, including failure to secure potentially dangerous kitchen tools. According to Andy Potter, Vice-President and Chief of Staff of the Michigan Corrections Organization, “When inmates are forced to buy and trade food, it creates a black market of goods, opening the door to possible violence and chaos.”
Notes the NUPGE, “It is a measure of just how big a disaster privatization of prison food services turned out to be that the same state governor who originally proposed privatization is now proposing bring the services back under public control.”
Privatize Prisons? Berks County Officials Face a Difficult Decision
America has the highest number of incarcerated individuals per-capita than any other country. More than 1.3 million people were behind bars last year. Meanwhile, states have cut back on funding localities to house and serve those in detention. Which has led many to privatize these functions.
Derek Prall, writing in American City and County focuses on the current debate about privatization in Berks County, Pennsylvania. In Berks County the correctional institute is the single biggest cost item in the county budget. Commissioner Mark Scott feels privatization makes sense. “The state basically has abandoned its former role and left us to pick up the slack and provide the care that they should be providing in a more centralized and specialized facility,” he says. “It’s really a disgrace, but in any event, it’s something we have to deal with.”
CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, told Scott they could save millions if they ran the prisons. Jeremy Mohler who handles strategic communications for In the Public Interest, a research and policy center on privatization and responsible contracting, disagrees.
By the very nature of the exercise, notes Mohler, there is an incentive for companies to cut corners to maximize profits and in this case cutting corners endangers human beings. Shane Bauer, an investigative journalist who spent 4 months as a guard in CoreCivic in 2004 talks about the impact cost cutting has on prison staff and thus indirectly on prisoners. “The job was impossible to do the way we were required to do it,” he observes. “There just weren’t enough people.” Bauer says he worked in a unit of about 350 inmates with one other guard, “Because no one was paid very much – about 9 dollars an hour – morale started very low and work ethic was almost nonexistent.”
Good evidence also exists that privatization doesn’t end up saving much money, if any, in the long run.
According to In the Public Interest materials, in 2010, the Arizona Auditor General noted that analysis by the Arizona Department of Corrections found, “rates paid to private facilities were higher for both minimum- and medium-custody beds…”
An August 2016 memo from a Department of Justice investigation into private prisons reported, “[These facilities] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” These investigations led President Obama to embrace a strategy of moving private back to government control. One of Donald Trump’s first acts in office was to rescind that policy. Prison company stocks surged.
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