Nebraska Watchdog recently posted an article in which they indicated that Blue Cross/Blue Shield will raise insurance premiums for numerous Nebraskans who are required to purchase coverage in the health insurance exchanges beginning on October 1. Moreover, the piece quoted a so-called "expert" from the extremely conservative Manhattan Institute who linked those increases to ObamaCare. (The article did indicate that several thousand Nebraskans will see a rate decrease.) Just what is causing the rate increases? Is the new federal health law really to blame? Just how widespread is the problem?
One of the flaws in Nebraska Watchdog's piece was that it largely relied upon an "expert" from the Manhattan Institute in an attempt to connect these rate increases to ObamaCare. The article didn't consult any experts from any consumer friendly or Progressive think tanks. Moreover, the Nebraska Watchdog piece neglected to mention that the Manhattan Institute is very conservative and has received funding from some of the most bitter opponents of the Obama Administration. For example, this right wing think tank has received financial assistance from the Koch Brothers, Cigna Insurance, Lincoln Financial Group (an insurance holding company), and Merrill Lynch. The Koch Brothers, the insurance industry and Wall Street have all contributed millions of dollars to finance deceptive advertising blitzes opposing the landmark 2010 health care reform law.
In light of Nebraska Watchdog's reliance upon a vitriolic opponent of Obama Care, it is speculative - at best - to blame Obama Care for Blue Cross/Blue Shield's recent rate increases. It is Blue Cross/Blue Shield - not the federal government - that established those rates. Moreover, Blue Cross has quoted lower rates in many other states. It is evident here in Nebraska that Blue Cross has decided to take advantage of a situation to jack up their rates and are now trying to deflect criticism for a decision they were probably planning to make anyway.
Another factor behind the rate increases is the refusal of Governor Dave Heineman and his supporters in the Unicameral to adopt the Medicaid expansion. According to a study by the non-partisan RAND corporation, Governor Rick Perry's rejection of the Medicaid expansion will cause private health insurance premiums to rise by an average of 9.3% for Texans purchasing coverage on their own in the health care exchanges. Over 300,000 Texan residents just above the poverty line will take advantage of ObamaCare’s subsidies and purchase coverage in the individual insurance market, the researchers found. Those are people who would have been enrolled in Medicaid, if the Medicaid expansion had not been rejected by Perry and the Texas Legislature. The RAND experts said that because lower income people generally are not as healthy as people with higher incomes, their inclusion in the private health insurance exchange will change the claims experience of insurance companies selling coverage in the individual market. “When exchange subsidies become available to lower-income individuals, the average health of the exchange population declines slightly, and premiums increase,” they wrote. There is no reason to think Nebraska's experience isn't any different than that of Texas.
The number of Nebraskans experiencing insurance rate increases is far less widespread than the Nebraska Watchdog article would lead you to believe. This is because only 15% of Nebraskans will be required to purchase insurance in the health care exchanges. The other 85% don't have to do anything because they are already insured by their employer, Medicare, Medicaid or through the Veterans Administration. For 85% of Nebraskans, the much hyped launch of the ObamaCare exchanges will mean very little. In any event, those Nebraskans insured by their employers will have better insurance policies beginning on January 1, 2014. As of that date, pre-existing conditions clauses will be abolished, there will be no more lifetime limits on policies and an insurance company will no longer be able to cancel your policy after you get sick or injured.
We here at the Nebraska Democratic Party are very confident that ObamaCare will be a success. The same people who said that the Clinton economic program would fail, Iraq had lots of WMDs, and that the Bush tax cuts would create an economic boom are now predicting that ObamaCare will be a catastrophic failure. (I would be very concerned if these conservatives were predicting that ObamaCare would be a success!) The predecessors of today's conservatives also predicted that Social Security and Medicare would fail, and these programs would mean the end of our freedom. That is why we Democrats are confident that it is only a matter of time until ObamaCare is as popular and successful as Social Security and Medicare.
Fellow Nebraska Democrat,
When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law in 2010, it carried with it a promise of expanding access to quality, affordable health coverage for millions of American families and small businesses. In less than 10 days, we have a historic opportunity to make private health insurance more accessible and affordable for hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans through the new Health Insurance Marketplace, turning the ACA's promise into a reality.
As a result of the ACA, important pro-consumer changes have already been made to our health care system: children with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied coverage; young adults can stay on their parents' private insurance until age 26; insurers are now required to spend at least 80 percent of our premium dollars on medical care and are required to rebate funds to consumers if they don’t; health insurance companies can no longer arbitrarily cancel your coverage just because you get sick; and lifetime limits are a thing of the past, with annual limits going away in 2014. The most significant change is that discrimination based on pre-existing conditions will be banned starting Jan. 1.
Beginning Oct. 1, Nebraskans will have a new way to shop for private health insurance on the Health Insurance Marketplace. For the first time in the history of the private insurance market, consumers will be able to go to one place to check out their coverage options, get accurate information and make apples-to-apples comparisons of plans before they make their decisions.
All plans in the Marketplace will be required to cover a comprehensive set of benefits, including physician visits, preventive care, hospital stays, and prescriptions. Most Nebraska families will qualify for financial help with their monthly premiums. The Nebraska Department of Insurance estimates that over 90 percent of people who enroll in coverage in the Marketplace will receive some sort of financial assistance to make their coverage more affordable.
The promise of the ACA is within our grasp. To make this promise a reality, we need everyone who cares about getting more people covered to do their part. Elected officials at all levels, community organizations, churches, human service providers, neighborhood associations, friends, family and neighbors can all play a role in sharing information about the Marketplace.
Healthcare.gov will be the online source for information about the Marketplace and where plans will be sold starting Oct. 1. You can reach the toll-free Marketplace Call Center 24/7 by calling 1-800-318-2596 and local support is also available through Community Action agencies (402-471-3714) and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska (402-738-3158).
As Washington continues to divide along partisan lines, we need to come together in our communities across Nebraska to ensure that no one who is eligible for coverage is left on the sidelines.
Let’s get to work!
Senator Jeremy Nordquist
P.S. Here is a handout with more information about the Marketplace that I encourage you to share with your family, friends, and neighbors: http://www.jeremynordquist.com/Marketplace.pdf
For decades, the GOP has been demonizing people who are on welfare and have attempted to tie them to the Democratic Party. This is all part of the GOP's fealty to Ayn Rand's nihilistic philosophy of the makers v. takers. This effort to demonize poor people reached its apogee when Ronald Reagan went after a fictitious welfare queen who allegedly had "eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards" and was collecting government benefits in excess of $150,000.00 per year. Closer to home, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning compared poor people to "raccoons" and Auditor Mike Foley was forced to apologize when he claimed poor people lacked proper money management skills. Just who are the real welfare queens? How much money are they taking from the taxpayers?
Many voters would be surprised to learn that the government spends much more money on corporate welfare subsidies than on social welfare programs. According to a 2006 study by a Progressive think tank, about $59 billion was spent on welfare programs for the poor while $92 billion was spent on corporate subsidies. In other words, the government was spending 50% more on corporate welfare than it did on programs like food stamps in 2006. For example, $4 billion of the taxpayer's money is spent every year on subsidies for the already incredibly lucrative oil industry. In addition, a study by Good Jobs First revealed that various Wal-Mart stores around the U.S. have received over $1 billion in taxpayer dollars.
Here in Nebraska, the taxpayers are providing lavish subsidies to corporations that don't need the money. According to the New York Times, Nebraska spends $1.4 billion per year on business incentives - making it the third largest spender in the country. A special report from Nebraska Watchdog found that most of the jobs being subsidized by the Nebraska Advantage Act would have been created in the absence of the taxpayer money doled out to already very profitable corporations.
Nebraska's corporations aren't the only ones here in our state who are on the government payroll. U.S. Senator Deb Fischer has been receiving a lucrative grazing subsidy for over 30 years that the Libertarian Cato Institute has labeled "cowboy socialism." Fischer is among a handful of Nebraska ranchers whose cattle graze on federal land at prices that amount to a significant federal give away. Deb Fischer and her husband lease 11,724 acres of federal land in Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months - paying about $110,000 less than the market rate for private land in Cherry County. The Fischers have benefited from this federal program for nearly 30 years and only around 2% of the cattle raised in this country feed on federal lands. When Fischer was asked about this hand out two years ago, she said she would "have to research the matter." We haven't heard from her about this subsidy ever since.
New GOP gubernatorial hopeful and Ameritrade Executive Pete Ricketts is no stranger to government handouts. Even though Ricketts claims that he is for limited government and less spending, his family's various businesses have lobbied for and received lucrative taxpayer handouts. Last year, the Ricketts family lobbied for a $150 million subsidy from the taxpayers of Chicago & Cook County Illinois to aide a business his family owns in Chicago. The Ricketts family also asked for a chunk of tax revenue from the city of Chicago in perpetuity. (The city of Chicago wisely denied the request when Joe Ricketts considered funding $10 million in ads last year linking President Obama to Reverend Jeremiah Wright.) It also hasn't gone unnoticed that Ricketts received a large tax subsidy from the city of Omaha to build a new, gleaming 12 story headquarters building for Ameritrade.
The Republicans always like to tell us that they don't believe in government and that they hate spending. The reality is that so-called "conservatives" believe in government so long as the government helps themselves and their wealthy friends. They also believe in spending so long as they are ones who are pocketing the checks. All of this so-called "concern" about the deficit we hear from Republicans is only a political weapon they are using in an attempt to cut spending they don't agree with like Social Security and Medicare.
The debate in America today isn't about the size of government - it's really about who government is for - the middle class and the least fortunate among us or the wealthy and the corporations. We Democrats must constantly remind the voters that we are the party of middle class and that we are the party of those with modest economic means. The Democratic Party is ready to govern and to improve the lives of all Americans. We are the party of the people because the wealthy are already well represented by the GOP and the conservative movement.
Ayn Rand was a fiction writer who admired laissez faire capitalism. Rand believed in a Darwinian view of the world and in a supremely selfish notion of citizenship in which we are not our brother's keeper. The core of Ayn Rand's view is that the poor are poor because they are inferior, and that workers are jobless because they are lazy. In her novels, Rand described recipients of government benefits as "parasites," "looters" and "moochers" using the levers of government to steal the fruits of the job creators' labors. This fiction writer preached that altruism and concern for one's fellow man is misguided and should be replaced by the principle that one must only pursue one's own self interest.
Ms. Rand's views on religion were even more radical. Rand was an atheist who contended that religious people have a psychological weakness and that they cannot accept reality. She also said that faith is the worst curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.
Aside from its immorality, the practical limits of Rand's philosophy can be found in her own life story. As it turned out, the government program-hating Ayn Rand went on Social Security and Medicare under an assumed name after she contracted lung cancer late in life. By 1974, the two-pack-a-day smoker, then 69, required surgery for lung cancer. (Interestingly enough, Rand also believed that the scientific consensus on the dangers of tobacco was a hoax.)
Unfortunately, this fiction writer has a profound and growing influence on the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Until the election of President Obama, the sale of her novels lagged and she was largely forgotten outside of extreme right wing circles. Beginning in 2009 with the Tea Party movement, her novels became popular again and a movie was made that was based upon "Atlas Shrugged." (The movie was a box office bomb.)
Rand has a large and devoted following among the leaders of the GOP. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) says Ayn Rand is the reason he entered politics and he requires all staff and interns to read her books. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas requires his law clerks to watch The Fountainhead, and has said, "I tend really to be partial to Ayn Rand." Rush Limbaugh calls Ayn Rand "the brilliant writer and novelist."
Ayn Rand's status as the intellectual Godfather of the Republican Party can be seen in the remarks GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney made last year about the 47% of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes: "There are 47%...who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. These are people who pay no income tax. ... and so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Obviously, Romney's intemperate remarks, insulting nearly half of all Americans, came straight out of Rand's makers v. takers philosophy.
Closer to home, Ayn Rand's beliefs have a devoted following in the Nebraska Republican Party. Very few people probably know that Senator Mike Johanns is a great admirer of Rand. In 2011, Johanns was asked about his favorite summer reading books. He didn't mention the Bible or a biography of one of the Founding Fathers. Instead, one of the two books he mentioned was Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."
Rand's elitist and nihilistic philosophy can also be found in the policy choices of the Nebraska Republican Party. Governor Dave Heineman's failed tax scheme - which would have eliminated all income and corporate taxes and replaced the lost revenue by increasing sales taxes on senior citizens, the ill, college students, and farmers - was certainly a product of Rand's philosophy. Heineman's tax plan would have financed a tax cut for the top 20% of income earners by raising taxes on the lower 80% of wage earners.
Heineman isn't the only prominent elected Republican in Nebraska who believes in Rand's teachings. Earlier this year, in an interview in the Lincoln Journal Star, Republican National Committeeman David Kramer lamented that the Republican Party has been defined as the party of the rich. However, in that very same interview Kramer said, "It is not good to have half of the people not paying anything in income taxes. We all need to be invested." Apparently, Kramer believes that we should increase taxes on senior citizens, students, veterans and the working poor.
It's not only on the state level that Nebraska Republicans are in thrall to Ayn Rand but our elected Congressional Republicans have also voted in ways consistent with her writings. For example, all five Nebraska Republican members of Congress have voted for the Paul Ryan budget plan which finances tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting Medicare, Medicaid and other programs that benefit the middle class and the poor. Both Lee Terry and Adrian Smith have voted to cut Social Security benefits when they supported legislation that would raise the eligibility age of this program to 70.
The GOP's fealty to Ayn Rand (and the entertainers in right wing media) is an indicator that the Republican Party is not a reality-based party. The biggest change in American politics in the last twenty years is the radicalization of the GOP. As a proud Democrat, I take a certain amount of satisfaction in this development since it makes it unlikely that the Republicans will win a Presidential election or gain control of the Senate. As an American, I see it as a negative development. In our constitutional system with its checks and balances, we need the GOP to be a responsible governing party. Unfortunately, the GOP's radicalism makes them unwilling to compromise and engage in the usual give and take of governance.
Unfortunately, one of America's major political parties has now adopted the philosophy of a fiction writer as it main guiding set of values on domestic policy. The values of Ayn Rand are not Nebraska values. We Nebraskans are a sensible and compassionate people who believe in helping others who need assistance and believe in a dignified retirement for our senior citizens. What we need to do as Democrats is better inform our fellow Nebraskans that we are the only party that reflects our values. I'm convinced that once our fellow Nebraskans learn more about what the parties genuinely stand for, a majority of them will side with us.
There have been numerous right wing lies about Obama Care since it was originally introduced by President Obama four years ago and those lies are now escalating in light of the fact that enrollment in the health care exchanges begins on October 1. The Republicans in the Congress are so desperate to stop Obama Care that they are seriously considering damaging the economy by shutting down the government and defaulting on the full faith and credit of the U.S. As a result of their increasing desperation, the lies from the GOP are reaching a crescendo. Just what are those lies? And what is the truth?
Myth: Obama Care is a government takeover.
Reality: This lie originated with long time GOP message meister, Frank Luntz. This is probably the most common lie you hear from the right wing. Obama Care isn't a government takeover because most doctors will remain private sector employees, and the hospital and insurance industries aren't being nationalized. As a matter of fact, most of the new insurance coverage is being provided by private health insurance companies.
Myth: Obama Care has death panels.
Reality: This is probably the most shameless lie of all and has been repeatedly debunked by non-partisan fact checking sources. This lie began when right wing entertainer and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
The provision of Obama Care that Palin and her allies lied about was a section of the bill that would have paid physicians for providing voluntary counseling to Medicare patients about living wills and other end of life care options. Laws providing for counseling patients on end of life decisions had been on the books for years, however, the laws did not provide for physicians to be reimbursed for giving such counseling during routine physical exams of senior citizens. As it turned out, this part of the bill was withdrawn as a result of the furor caused by this fabrication.
Myth: Obama Care will cause "Armageddon."
Reality: During the closing phases of the debate in the House over Obama Care in 2010, then GOP Minority Leader John Boehner predicted that Obama Care would cause "Armageddon" and "ruin our country." Since the passage of Obama Care, the economy has added private sector jobs for the last 41 months and created 7.3 million private sector jobs. In addition, the economy has created approximately 175,000 new jobs per month in 2013. (In contrast, only 31,000 jobs per month were created during the Bush Administration.)
Myth: Obama Care is a job killer.
Reality: The Right Wing has been falsely claiming that Obama Care has slowed down job creation and caused employers to hire part time workers in order to evade Obama Care's employer mandate. As it turns out, job creation at small businesses has almost doubled in the past six months, reaching 82,000 jobs at firms with 49 or fewer employees in July, payroll processor ADP says. As more information comes in, the health care law's impact can't be seen in hiring statistics, says Mark Zandi, former McCain economic adviser and chief economist of Moody's Analytics: "I was looking for it, and it's not there." Moreover, new research from Moody's and other economists debunks the right's allegation that small employers are hiring only part-time workers to avoid the health care law's mandate.
Myth: Obama Care is causing insurance premiums and health care costs to soar.
Reality: Those people who aren't insured through their employers or a government program will be purchasing insurance through the health insurance exchanges. (Approximately 15% of the population will go on the exchanges - the other 85% are already insured.) At the present time, many states are in the process of setting up their health insurance exchanges and the news on health insurance premiums is good. For example, in New York State, premiums on the individual market will decline around 50% as a result of Obama Care. New York joins Oregon, California, Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Connecticut in reporting lower than expected rates in the law’s new health care marketplaces.
The news on health insurance premiums for those who get their insurance from their employer is also good. The Department of Health and Human Services has recently reported that for Americans who receive health insurance through their employers, premiums rose 3% from 2011 to 2012, the lowest increase since 1996.
Since the passage of Obama Care in 2010, there have also been positive developments regarding the rate of growth in health care spending. Personal health care costs rose in the twelve months ending in May 2012 at the slowest rate in the last 50 years. In May, a report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office report demonstrated a $618 billion drop in projected Medicare and Medicaid spending over the next decade. "Data from across the economy — covering consumers, government and private employers — point to the same conclusion," Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers said. "Health care cost growth has slowed."
Myth: The implementation of Obama Care is a train wreck.
Reality: As I've discussed here in an earlier post, the GOP is actively trying to sabotage the implementation of the 2010 health care reform law. Apparently, the GOP would like to see millions of Americans to go without insurance and access to medical care in order to win a political "victory" over President Obama.
Perhaps the most cynical sabotage attempt of all is an advertising campaign by the billionaire front group Freedom Works to persuade the uninsured not to go on the exchanges and sign up for health insurance. Does anybody think these billionaires are advising their own children to go without health insurance? Will any of these billionaires cover the health care costs of those who foolishly follow their advice and then get sick or injured?
As it turns out, very few people are following this absurd advice from these billionaires. Recent estimates from nineteen states operating health insurance exchanges to help the uninsured find coverage show that at least 8.5 million will use the exchanges to buy insurance, a USA Today survey shows. That would far exceed the federal government's estimate of 7 million new customers for all fifty states under the 2010 health care law. This surge in insurance enrollment bodes well for Obama Care since the private insurance companies providing coverage under the new law need healthy people to enroll to round out the costs of those with chronic health conditions.
Myth: The one year delay of the employer mandate indicates that Obama Care is imploding and the law will self-destruct.
Reality. The GOP reacted with glee when the Obama Administration decided to delay the employer mandate for one year. This delay was requested by the Chamber of Commerce - a long time GOP ally. Moreover, this one-year delay won't really change things very much since it only really applies to the employer mandate's reporting requirements and effects 1% of all businesses in the U.S.
Myth: Obama Care isn't helping anybody.
Reality: Obama Care has already delivered benefits to millions of people since the law's passage over three years ago:
- • Up to 17 million children with pre-existing health conditions can no longer be denied coverage by private health insurance companies.
- • 6.6 million young adults have taken advantage of Obama Care to obtain insurance coverage through their parents' plans.
- • 105 million Americans no longer have an arbitrary lifetime limit on their health insurance coverage.
- • 6.1 million seniors have saved nearly $6 billion on their prescription drug costs.
- • Consumers have received $1.1 billion in rebates from their health insurance companies.
- • The small business tax credit has already been used by 360,000 businesses to insure 2 million people.
The immediate path ahead:
When Congress returns from yet another vacation next month, there will be two significant pieces of business they will have to take care of. The funding for the government runs out on October 1 and the debt ceiling will have to be raised sometime in November. Failure to do so will result in serious damage to the economy and a double dip recession. Most economists have said that defaulting on the full faith and credit of the U.S. could cause a stock market collapse like the one we had in 2008-2009.
Unfortunately, many Republican members of Congress are threatening to shutdown the government and default on our country's debts unless President Obama agrees to defund Obama Care. In other words, the GOP is threatening to crash the economy in a reckless, last ditch effort to stop Obama Care. As Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said: “Threatening to shut down the government is like playing with fire. Threatening to default on our debt obligations is the economic equivalent of playing with nuclear weapons."
Currently, there is a split in the Nebraska Congressional delegation on a government shutdown. This idea is so extreme that Johanns and Fortenberry have come out against it. (These guys aren't exactly liberal.)
On the other hand, Fischer, Terry and Smith have all come out in favor of a government shutdown. What that means then is that these three irresponsible members of Congress have threatened to cause intentional harm to the constituents that they represent. What they're trying to do is instigate a phony budget crisis, and threatening to cause an economic meltdown, on purpose, unless millions of Americans are stripped of their health insurance coverage.
What explains this Republican desperation to stop Obama Care at all costs is their deep-seated fear that this new program might actually work. Already in Massachusetts, Romney Care has been a big success. Approximately 98% of Massachusetts residents are insured, the number of employers offering health insurance has increased, and approval for the program outweighs disapproval by almost a 2-1 margin. The Massachusetts experience is relevant because a former Romney health care adviser has said that Obama Care and Romney Care are the "same bill."
The impending success of Obama Care is the GOP's ultimate nightmare because it will prove that the government can do things that help the American people. I predict that in about 10 to 20 years, the GOP will claim they were for Obama Care all along - they just had some minor technical objections to the bill in 2010 but overall they were for it. After all, Obama Care was hatched in the Heritage Foundation and was first implemented by the GOP's 2012 Presidential nominee. We here at the Nebraska Democratic Party believe that "Obama Cares" will ultimately become the appropriate term for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Last month, Nebraska State Democratic Party Chairman Vince Powers caused a bit of a stir when he told Nebraska Watchdog that: “We don’t want to be Kansas.” Powers said: "Kansas is now espousing one radical view of government where conservative Republicans get primaried by Tea Party candidates.” Nebraska GOP State Party Chairman J.L. Spray responded by lecturing the Nebraska Democratic Party to "Be nice" and maintained that: “There is no evidence of that here.” What Spray apparently doesn't know is that Kansas is now wrestling with a $700 million budget hole created by the passage of a radical tax cut scheme by the GOP controlled legislature. Moreover, Spray appears to be unconcerned about well financed special interest groups that want to make Nebraska more like Kansas.
The origin of Kansas' severe budget woes can be found in a big tax cut passed in 2012 that will gradually cut personal income tax rates over several years and eventually eliminate the state income tax entirely. In addition, the Kansas legislature abolished state taxes on income from some investments for around 200,000 small businesses. It was hoped that this tax cut that (largely favored the wealthy) would put more money in the hands of small-business owners, who would then invest that money into new jobs and new equipment, improving Kansas' standing as tax-friendly for business. When the bill passed, Governor Sam Brownback boasted: "“Look out, Texas. Here comes Kansas!"
Unfortunately for Kansas, the hoped for supply side miracle hasn't happened. Instead, Kansas is now stuck with a huge $700 million budget deficit and no realistic plan to eliminate it. Thus far, no new businesses have re-located to Kansas to take advantage of this tax cut and all they have to show for this tax cut are rumors about companies considering moves to Kansas. In a desperate effort to solve this self inflicted budget crisis, the GOP controlled legislature has made a series of regressive moves like increasing sales taxes, cutting back on a state tax deduction for mortgage interest, and increasing tuition rates at Kansas state universities.
Despite the abject failure of Kansas' tax cut scheme, there are well heeled special interests that would like to make Nebraska more like Kansas. The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry has proposed that Nebraska reduce its top state income rate from 6.84% to 5.5%. In addition, the Chamber would like to see the top state corporate rate reduced from 7.81% to 5.56%.
The Chamber would offset the revenue losses by limiting state budget increases to .5 percent below the expected increase in state tax revenues. That kind of strait jacket on spending isn't realistic and would likely increase taxes for the majority of Nebraska residents while reducing the funding base for vital services in our communities like universities, schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and maintaining our roads and bridges.
The non-partisan Open Sky Policy Institute said that the Chamber's proposed tax cuts would cost the state $339 million in revenue and approximately 40% of that revenue would leave the state. OpenSky Executive Director Renee Fry said that the $134 million that would depart the state is now used to fund education and other state services. In addition, Fry said the Chamber's plan might require an increase in sales and property taxes, which hit low- and middle-income earners the hardest.
There isn't a need for the kinds of extreme tax changes in Nebraska like the one we saw in Kansas or the one being proposed by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Nebraska currently enjoys a budget surplus, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and a healthy agricultural sector. The pro-business CNBC network recently ranked Nebraska number 4 out of all 50 states in its environment for doing business. CNBC stated that: "A big part of the Nebraska points total comes courtesy of Business Friendliness, a category in which it ranks third overall. Nebraska finished fourth in Economy and Best Quality of Life also."
It's obvious that Nebraska isn't like Kansas for all of the right reasons. The 2014 election cycle will may very well determine whether or not we preserve the good life here in Nebraska or whether we adopt the kinds of regressive and radical tax schemes that were passed in Kansas with disastrous results. Next year, we will have a competitive governor's race and 17 open seats in the Unicameral. We have preserved the good life here in Nebraska due to our recent successes in legislative elections. Democratic State Senators have led the way in the Unicameral and have been instrumental in passing responsible budgets and property tax cuts aimed at helping a majority of Nebraskans.
We simply can't take any of our recent electoral and legislative success for granted. All will be at stake next year. Due to the wide open governor's race and the many open legislative seats, 2014 will be the most important election cycle in a very long time. If we are to defeat the special interest groups, we will need to work hard to elect a Democratic governor and more Democratic state senators. We should expect the Republicans and their corporate allies to spend an immense amount of money in the hopes of making Nebraska more like Kansas. We may be outspent by the right wing but they can't out work us. That's what it will take to preserve the good life here in Nebraska.
State Senator Annette Dubas electrified the Nebraska political world when she announced last week she is going to join former UNL Regent Chuck Hassebrook in the Democratic gubernatorial primary contest. Senator Dubas said that, "By the end of September, I'll be ready to come out with all the details of my campaign." The Democratic field now appears to be set and the Republican field appears to be coming into focus.
Senator Dubas has been married to Ronald for 37 years and they have had four children. Dubas and her husband have farmed and ranched together for over three decades. Dubas said that: "We've done it all our whole married lives." Dubas was initially elected to the Unicameral in 2006 and ran unopposed for re-election in 2010. Senator Dubas is currently serving as chairwoman of the influential Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
Dubas' greatest accomplishment was in the pipeline special session of the Legislature in 2011. Senator Dubas showed leadership when she responded to the groundswell of opposition to TransCanada's plans to build the pipeline by introducing a bill that would give the state routing authority over oil pipelines. The bill gave the Public Service Commission authority to review major pipeline projects - especially those which could affect natural resources. "The state should have the authority to interact with these types of projects," Dubas said in a statement. "We cannot leave here doing nothing." This legislation was in follow up of other attempts by Dubas to intervene on the siting of the pipeline.
Thanks to the hard work of Senator Dubas (and other Senators), the results of the special session in November 2011 were a success. TransCanada agreed to route the pipeline around the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer, and the Legislature gave the state authority to regulate future pipelines that may be built in Nebraska. Due to the leadership of Senator Dubas, what started out as a long shot became a historic victory that rerouted the pipeline away from our groundwater.
Dubas has also been a leader in the Unicameral on wind energy. Earlier this year, Senator Dubas co-sponsored a bill with Senator Lathrop that provided a production tax credit for new sources of renewable energy under the Nebraska Advantage Act. This bill eventually passed by an overwhelming margin and proponents said the measure would make the state competitive for projects that are now going to neighboring states where such breaks are already offered. This new wind energy law is already bearing fruit since a Kansas company is planning what could turn into a $400 million wind farm in Dixon County, Nebraska. This company hopes to begin construction by the end of the year.
Dubas' entry into the race sets up what could be an exciting primary election that will only strengthen the eventual Democratic nominee. "This is outstanding," said Vince Powers, Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. "A competitive primary focuses attention on the candidates." Powers also said a primary will encourage the candidates to put together an organization and begin to build support. The winner will be in a stronger position to run against the GOP candidate in the fall, Powers said. "From a political standpoint, it's great. Both Annette and Chuck have to go out and campaign. They have to get their organizations together, and they're going to have to be sharp," Powers said.
The entry of both Dubas and Hassebrook into the gubernatorial race is a strong indicator that the GOP field is a weak one. State Senator Charlie Janssen's campaign has been marked by harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and several gaffes.
As for the other GOP candidates, political bloggers have questioned Charles Herbster's Nebraska residency due to the incongruity of his home in Falls City that is worth $18,000.00 vs. his pricey home in the Kansas City, Missouri area, where one of his companies is based. Little known State Senator Tom Carlson also recently kicked off his gubernatorial campaign. In his announcement speech, Carlson came out for more tax cuts for the wealthy and a reduction in unemployment compensation benefits for the poor. There is also increasing speculation that TD Ameritrade heir and executive Pete Ricketts will soon jump into the race. Ricketts ran a failed Senate bid in 2006 that the Washington Post said was the worst run race in that election cycle.
The 2014 election cycle promises to be an important and potentially successful election cycle for Nebraska Democrats. Due to term limits, there are 17 open seats in the Unicameral. In addition, we will also be having our most competitive gubernatorial primary since 1990 when Ben Nelson was ultimately elected governor. A contested primary tells me that the gubernatorial election is very winnable for the eventual Democratic nominee. We wouldn't have two top drawer candidates in the race if our nominee didn't have an excellent chance of winning the general election. In 1990, Jim Exon was asked why there was a primary contest among Democrats for Governor. Jim Exon answered: "Because it matters - the winner will be governor."
That's what Casey Stengel - one of baseball's all-time great managers - said about the 1962 New York Mets. The 1962 Mets were probably the worst team in Major League Baseball history, losing 120 games out of a possible 162 that year. One could ask that same question about the current Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The current House majority is probably the worst majority in the history of that institution. Since the new House was inaugurated in January, we've seen seven months of chaos, gridlock and dysfunction. The House majority simply hasn't been doing the business of the American people. Just what has the GOP controlled House tried to do or has actually gotten done? What impact has it had on the U.S. economy? What can we do about it?
The House Republicans have spent a lot of time on vacation this year and when they're in session, most of their so-called "legislating" is spent on passing ultra-right wing messaging bills that have no chance of ever becoming law. For example, late last week, the House voted on the repeal of Obama Care for the 40th time. This followed symbolic votes on several bills designed to embarrass President Obama featuring silly titles such as "Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act" and "Stop Playing on Citizen's Cash Act." The House wasted it's time on these bills even though there is still no agreement on a farm bill, no plan on how to fund the government after September and no progress on immigration reform. All John Boehner succeeded in doing was further embarrassing the incompetent GOP House majority.
The failure of the GOP controlled House to take its legislative duties seriously has had negative, real world consequences. The most recent jobs report was a bit of disappointment since 162,000 jobs were created during July. Until now, the economy had been creating an average of 200,000 jobs per month in 2013. (Nevertheless, the unemployment rate declined to 7.4 percent in July - the lowest since December 2008.) Most economists have indicated that the federal automatic spending cuts or the sequester has been an impediment to faster economic growth. (Johanns, Fortenberry, Terry and Smith all voted for the sequester in 2011. Fisher also supports the sequester.)
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that keeping the sequester cuts through 2014 would cost the economy as many as 1.6 million jobs. If Congress repeals sequestration, the economy could add between 300,000 and 1.6 million jobs, with around 900,000 being the most likely number. Unfortunately, Speaker Boehner has indicated that the House GOP won't budge on ending the sequester spending cuts unless President Obama and the Democrats agree to a new set of spending cuts favored by the GOP. Boehner hasn't proposed any specific alternative cuts that he supports but the GOP would like to see the defense cuts restored and replaced with even more spending cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other domestic programs.
This refusal to compromise by the Republicans in the House has put the passage of a farm bill in serious jeopardy. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a farm bill by a wide margin with bi-partisan support. Over in the House, the GOP took the unprecedented step of breaking the farm bill into two pieces. One piece of legislation contained subsidies to the agricultural industry. The second piece included $20 billion in food-stamp cuts, along with drug tests for recipients. (In the past, for decades, the farm bill included both agricultural subsidies and the food stamp program.) The House passed the agricultural subsidies but failed to pass the food stamps portion because it didn't cut spending enough to satisfy the extreme Tea Party faction.
Instead of opening up bi-partisan negotiations to pass a compromise farm bill, the House has decided to double down on its extremism and will now try to pass a bill that will cut $40 billion from the food stamp program. Representative Collin C. Peterson (D-MN), the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee said that: " Apparently, the Republican leadership plans to bring up yet another political messaging bill to nowhere in an effort to try and placate the extreme right wing of their party. Clearly they have no interest in compromise or actual legislating...I've repeatedly told these guys, we don't have to do this. If the House would just name conferees, members can conference the House 'farm only' bill with the Senate's farm bill during August and produce a compromise for both Houses to pass. Through today's action, the House Majority has clearly shown they have no interest in getting a farm bill done. The American people should be outraged."
The American people should also be outraged about the House Republicans' antics on the budget. Earlier this year, the House passed the extreme Ryan budget that would supposedly balance the budget in ten years by privatizing Medicare and making a series of across the board spending cuts that make the sequester look generous in comparison. All five Nebraska Republicans have voted for the Ryan plan. Last week, the House attempted to pass a transportation funding bill that would've actually implemented the draconian cuts from the Ryan plan into a real bill. As it turned out, the spending cuts were too deep for most of the Republicans and the bill was pulled from the floor by the House leadership. What this failure tells us is that the GOP's demands for deep spending cuts were always a ruse - when the time came to actually pass specific spending cuts, the House Republicans discovered that cutting spending is unpopular and difficult.
Additional failures on the budget by the GOP House majority could have catastrophic effects on the economy. By the end of September, the federal government is going to run out of money. In addition, later this fall, the debt ceiling will have to be raised again. Already, some Republican members of the House (and Senate) are talking about shutting down the government and refusing to raise the debt ceiling in a last ditch attempt to stop the implementation of Obama Care.
Representative Lee Terry hasn't ruled out a government shutdown saying that: "Republicans shouldn't give up any leverage they have to negotiate with the administration on the issue." Obviously, shutting down the government or refusing to raise the debt ceiling would crash the stock market and cause another recession.
This idea of threatening to hurt the economy for political gain is so radical that even many prominent Republicans are speaking out against it. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) warned House Republicans against using the debt limit fight to gain the repeal of Affordable Care Act, which he said "is not going to happen." Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) contended that the Republicans could risk losing control of the House in next year's elections if they move to shut down the government or default on the debt during budget negotiations with President Barack Obama. "The only way Republicans will lose the House is to shut down the government or default on the debt," the Oklahoma Representative said. "Shutting down the government is not in the best interests of the American people and it makes you look politically irresponsible."
The cause of this Republican irresponsibility in Washington is the right wing media. Every day on a 24/7 basis, the voters who are most likely to show up for a GOP primary election are taking in the right wing media's apocalyptic message that Obama is dooming the country and the only way for the GOP to save the country is refuse to compromise with the Democrats. What has happened is that the right wing media has made the GOP base radical. As a result, Republican members of Congress fear a primary challenge from the right more than they fear a General Election challenge from a Democrat. What we have here is a major political party that is run by the entertainers on Fox News and A.M. radio. As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said: "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we're discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party."
The only way we can bring an end to this reckless and irresponsible House majority is to replace Fortenberry, Terry and Smith. These three Nebraska House Republicans have shown no leadership and have been complicit in the dysfunction in the House of Representatives. In the 3rd Congressional District, Mark Sullivan is already mounting a vigorous challenge to Adrian Smith. In the 2nd Congressional District, Pete Festersen and Larry Bradley are both considering challenges to vulnerable incumbent Lee Terry. These are winnable races because most voters are completely fed up with the Republicans in the House of Representatives. The only way to end the job killing gridlock in Washington is to vote out the Republican majority and replace them with representatives who are serious about helping the country. We need to vote Democratic for a change in 2014.
One of the most unfairly maligned institutions today are labor unions. We constantly hear the right wing say that they aren't necessary anymore and many of them even go so far as to describe union members as "thugs." In reality, unions are the only check and balance on the political and economic power of the corporations and the wealthy. Among other things, union members are policemen, firefighters, teachers, nurses, construction workers, hotel workers, professional athletes, and autoworkers. Union members are our family members, friends, and neighbors. How have unions helped the middle class and our country? Just who is attacking unions? What have been the real world consequences of the decline in union membership?
If you have enjoyed your most recent weekend or paid day off, you can thank a union. We can all thank unions for things we enjoy:
-The five-day work week.
- Fair wages and relative economic equality - unions raise average wages for their members and they also indirectly raise wages for similar non-union workers.
- The minimum wage.
- The end of child labor.
- Widespread employer based health coverage.
- Occupational safety.
- Workers compensation.
- Overtime pay.
- Retirement pension plans.
- Maternity Leave.
A study of history teaches us that the workplace was not always fair or safe. Thanks to organized labor, workers were able to come together as a cohesive group and convince previous Congresses to pass laws that benefited all workers. Unions also play a pivotal role in organizing and turning out working class voters who will support candidates who will protect the middle class. Unions also make significant political contributions to candidates who prioritize the interests of working Americans rather than the wealthy and corporations.
Unfortunately, these hard won gains by the unions have been under assault for over thirty years by the corporations, the wealthy and the Republican Party. Beginning in the 1970s, big business began to play a larger role in American politics. Since that time, the corporations and the wealthy have literally contributed billions of dollars to candidates who are committed to destroying unions and reducing the rights and earning power of middle class Americans. Union membership has declined from a peak of 30% in 1960 to approximately 11% today.
These rights won by organized labor - which many Americans take for granted - are constantly being challenged by the GOP. Just a few months ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill on a straight party line vote that would relax rules requiring businesses to pay their employees overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Unsurprisingly, all three Nebraska House Republicans voted for it. This legislation would weaken federal overtime laws, allowing for "comp" time instead of pay for private sector employees who work more than 40 hours in a week. The House Democrats labeled it the "More Work, Less Pay Act."
This all-out assault on the middle class by the wealthy and the GOP has had negative consequences for the middle class and all Americans. The economic impact of this decline in the political influence of the middle class is disturbing. We have seen an economically stagnant middle class, a steady reduction of job-related health and retirement benefits and ever rising economic inequality. When labor was at its numerical peak around 1960, the wealthiest 10% earned 33% of the nation's income. By 2007, with the labor movement greatly diminished, the wealthiest 10% grabbed 50% of the nation's income. Today, wages account for the lowest share of both GDP and corporate revenue since 1945 and that share continues to decline.
A rising ride is said to raise all boats but because of the right wing’s assault on organized labor, our country now has the highest level of inequality since 1928. It was no coincidence that our nation experienced its most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression at the same time we had high levels of economic inequality. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has contended that that there are three causal connections between inequality and crashes: "First, the rich spend a smaller proportion of their wealth than the less affluent, and so when more and more wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, there is less overall spending and less overall manufacturing to meet consumer needs. Second, in both the Roaring 20s and 2000-2007 period, the middle class incurred a lot of debt to pay for the things they wanted, as their real wages were stagnating and they were getting a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. In other words, they had less and less wealth, and so they borrowed more and more to make up the difference. And third, since the wealthy accumulated more, they wanted to invest more, so a lot of money poured into speculative investments, leading to huge bubbles, which eventually burst."
The key to a dynamic and growing economy is a confident middle class with money to spend. The consumers of the middle class are the job creators - it is not the top 1% that is lionized by the GOP. This is because consumer spending generates approximately 70% of economic activity. One of the leading causes of our current slow economic growth is the diminished earning power of the middle class. The best way to improve economic growth is for the middle class to have higher incomes and more spending power. America needs unions now more than ever. The key to a prosperous middle class is a re-vitalized union movement. We need to grow from the middle class out.
We Democrats must get the message out to our family, friends and civic groups to which we belong that unions are good for the middle class and good for America. We must do everything we can to counter the pervasive and false propaganda about unions coming from the corporations and their allies in the GOP and the right wing media. We must also continue to work for candidates who support the middle class. If the union movement dies out, America's middle class dies with it. The stakes are that high.