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Extension of Remarks: Restrain school spending

Today's Buffalo News editorial page leads with a call for New York state officials to ignore the doom and gloom warnings opposing a cap on property tax increases, but to do it the right way, by allowing, helping and forcing school districts to spend less money: A restraint on property taxes can be part of the answer, but only state efforts to ease school costs — on everything from pensions to health insurance to school buses — stand to offer any relief to taxpayers.

On-line, our Albany watcher Tom Precious reports on the opening of the special session of the Legislature that Gov. David Paterson [right] called to win some emergency fixes to the state's budget crisis.Patersongee  Hope for success is slim: Paterson said talks with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos are going well, but that he still has concerns that many rank-and-file lawmakers do not fully appreciate the scope of the fiscal problem. He said lawmakers are "not paying attention to how severe the situation is."

* In the NY Daily News, columnist Bill Hammond praises the wisdom of the New York electorate: Millions of dollars' worth of radio, TV and newspaper ads have portrayed the freshman governor as some kind of devious ogre who wants to trash public schools and kick nursing home patients onto the street.
And average New Yorkers, God bless 'em, aren't buying it for a second. So far, they're trusting Paterson to do the right thing.
Maybe the average New Yorkers are reading the editorials in Newsday: A campaign by the New York State United Teachers and its allies, who oppose a school property tax cap, is filled with distortions and hardball political threats. Instead of a creative discussion on how to reduce New York's highest-in-the-nation school costs, the union offers muscle-flexing and fear-mongering. These tactics reveal the anti-cap campaign for what it is: a desperate bid to assert the union's continued power in Albany.
The NY Post stands with the gov, too: Paterson is a lonely man right about now - sort of like Gary Cooper in High Noon, with the clock ticking and the gunslingers heading into town. The good guys usually win in the movies; in Albany, they hardly ever do. We're rooting for the governor. New Yorkers who care about integrity in government should be, too.
The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester calls out Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, saying he can no longer hide behind scandals that were consuming other state leaders: This week, Silver must decide whether he's with Paterson, a fellow Democrat, the Republican-controlled state Senate and the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers. Wisely, they all support a cap on school property taxes. Or will Silver opt to favor special interests, in this case New York's powerful labor unions opposed to a property tax cap?
* In Syracuse, the Post-Standard sympathizes with those who say spending cuts will be hard, and will hurt: Gov. David Paterson was right to ring the alarm bell and bring the Legislature back to session, and legislators must be diligent in finding places to cut. But they must also be selective. It makes no sense to cut programs that help the state's neediest citizens, as some of these reductions appear to do.
In Albany, The Times-Union has good words for the state senators who have already bucked the teachers' union to support the tax cap: In a town known for the power of special interests, we can't help but pause when lawmakers buck the trend, listening, it seems, to the people, not a well-heeled special interest.
If only it wasn't so unusual.

[Shouldn't that be, "If only it weren't so unusual."?]

-- George Pyle/Editorial Writer

How rumors start

This is how rumors start.

I was driving on an errand this morning and turned on the car radio without looking at the dial. Two people were talking presidential politics. So I figured the radio was set to where I usually tune it -- NPR via WNED. The topic was a new book that attacks -- some say with innuendo and outright lies -- the record of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The guest in the interview -- Paul Waldman of Media Matters -- was cataloging how, in his view, the book was a collection of fabrications disguised as a political history.

What surprised me was that the host seemed to be in total agreement with everything the guest said, going so far as to say there was no way he would buy such a book. Whoa. I know NPR has a reputation for being liberal (which really means it has an East Coast sensibility, a wide range of interests and assumes it audience has an aural attention span of more than 22 seconds), but this was over the top.

Then I realized I had made an erroneous assumption about what I was listening to. It wasn't NPR at all.Billpress  It was Bill Press [right] on WWKB. Press is an unabashedly liberal host and the station carries a clutch of left-wing talkers. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But my radio was there because I had been listening to WWKB's call of the Buffalo Bisons game the day before.

I can just imagine, though, how easy it would have been for me to start telling people, "Gee, NPR's completely lost it's journalistic integrity." When the truth is that it is second only to the BBC World Service -- also heard on WNED -- for challenging the statements of whomever they happen to be interviewing at the time, not just agreeing with every word.

Gotta check out those sources of information, especially before you pass them along. Unless, of course, you are writing a book about how awful NPR is, and you want to fill it with rumors that make your case for you, even if they aren't true.

--George Pyle/Editorial Writer

Things are tough all over

In New York, people opposed to the property tax cap proposed by Gov. David Paterson [right] are touting what they call a circuit breaker. That's a plan to have the state rebate to lower- and middle-Patterson_3 income households a significant share of what they pay in property taxes to support local school districts. It would require hikes in other taxes, most likely the income taxes paid by higher-income New Yorkers.

In Florida, reformers supported by Gov. Charlie Crist [left] are pushing something similar. It's a "tax swap" that would cut local Crist property taxes by one-fourth and command the state to make up the lost revenue. But, Thursday, a judge ordered the initiative killed on the grounds that the ballot language doesn't make clear that the cut in property taxes is permanent but the state obligation to take up the slack expires after one year. School funding could suffer enormously as a result. Appeals are under way.

* In Georgia, the Journal-Constitution reports that the state is so strapped for cash that, in addition to the New York-like hiring freeze, state workers are going to all have to take no-pay days off once a month.
* The Chicago Sun-Times puts it bluntly: Chicago's chief financial officer on Thursday pointedly refused to rule out layoffs of sworn police officers and firefighters -- even as homicides and violent crime continue to rise -- to close a $420 million budget gap over this year and next.
* In Kansas, my old friend John Hanna reports that lawmakers are looking at the state's own reduced circumstances and may be about to start fighting with my old friend Gov. Kathleen Sebelius about cutting state aid to public schools.
* IndyStar political columnist Matthew Tully unloads on Indiana state legislators, who collect an additional 20 percent of their pay in taxpayer-financed pension funds, much more than state employees get, even though legislators are part-timers with other jobs and retirement plans.
* New Mexico has enough money to offer its taxpayers a federal-style rebate. But it's going to be smaller than everyone had been expecting.
* Bloggers at The L.A. Daily News note that as much as they like to carp about California taxes, it could be worse. We could live in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Maryland or Hawaii. They are referring to the new report of the Tax Foundation, which ranks New Jersey number one and New York number two in state/local tax burden. California is sixth.

And, back home at The Buffalo News, the president of one of New York's educational cooperatives proudly touts his organizations ability to save money for school operations.

-- George Pyle/Editorial Writer 

Inside baseball: Any policy questions?

I've been a journalist for 30 years and two months. And nobody can tee me off more than a journalist.

Yesterday the New York Working Families Party and others opposed to Gov. David Paterson's propertyWorkingfamilies_2 tax cap plan organized a conference call for reporters and editorial writers. They rounded up a few experts and advocates to explain why, in their view, the plan that's been passed by the Senate and is now before the Assembly would be bad for schools, bad for students and even, despite what cap advocates would claim, bad for most taxpayers. They had numbers and policy arguments and worst-case scenarios from Massachusetts and California. Then they opened it up to questions from the media.

And the questions were: How is this issue going to affect Paterson politically? Will he lose the endorsement of the Working Families Party? How about support from the state's politically powerful labor unions?

Hello?!? The WFP wanted to talk about how much you might pay in taxes and whether your neighborhood school is going to slide further down the drain as a result. And we journalists wanted to turn it into yet another political handicapping story?!? Not, is this good for the reader, but is it bad for the governor? Yikes. [I knew a very good reporter named Wayne who had an important reminder taped to his computer terminal for him to consider about every article he wrote. It was not "How will this affect the governor?" but "How will this affect Wayne?"]

About then the conference call started having technical difficulties, so hung up. I asked my questions later when a representative of the WFP called around to see if any of us had (he didn't say it this way) any real questions about the issue.

Well, OK. The fact that labor is opposed to the tax cap is significant. But it's also universally known. How about some questions about tax policy and education spending? If no tax cap, then what? Will the proposed alternative, a "circuit breaker" scheme to lower taxes for middle class homeowners, really work? And how will it help renters? Does depending on more state aid, covered by boosting income taxes on the rich, really add up? Will a tax cap that doesn't cut anything, just puts a limit on the rate of tax hikes, really help the taxpayers or hurt the schools? ["Both the advantages of and the obstacles to zero-gravity sex are vastly overrated." - Arthur C. Clarke]

I still don't know. But the WFP information is here. The report of the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief -- the Suozzi Commission -- which floated the idea of a tax cap in the first place is here. [Note that the Suozzi Commission said that a tax cap must be accompanied with an increase in state aid to schools, which is not part of the tax cap bill.]

-- George Pyle/Editorial Writer

Farm Fresh: Recalled beef, real milk

Two more new stories in recent days about how local food is better for you and better for business.

Even such organic food powerhouses as the Whole Foods chain [closest store to Buffalo: Toronto] can Wholefoodshave supply problems. Last Friday, Whole Foods became the latest supermarket chain to recall ground beef it had bought from a faraway processor -- specifically Coleman Natural Beef. Seems Coleman had bought a new slaughterhouse in Omaha and neither Coleman nor Whole Foods had checked to see if its operation was up to their supposedly high standards. Supposedly, that's now changed. But it just shows how even the highest-quality chain can lose track of its own standards in a way that direct-to-consumer meat won't.

And it can only be seen as good news that Monsanto, the leading creator of gene-spliced foods, has announced that it will be getting out of the artificial cow hormone business -- at least as soon as it can find someone foolish enough to sell out to. Monsanto's press release is here. A Cornell University study defending the hormone sold under the brand name Posilac as a way to blunt the environmental impact of dairy operations is here.
Seems that there was enough consumer resistance to the idea of spiking perfectly healthy cows with an Monsanto_2 artificial growth hormone known as BST and/or rbST, while enough marketers defended their right to label their packaging "BST-free" even though Monsanto tried to get state agencies to ban such truth-in-labeling as a slam on their product, that the line is no longer seen as a winner by the St. Louis agrichemical giant.
There was no particular reason to believe that BST was bad for people. But there was even less reason why anyone should take the risk. Turbo-charging cows to produce more milk does put the cows' health at risk, and supply shortages have never had as much influence on price as the federal government's complex pricing formulas.
This is a clear case of the marketplace choosing quality over quantity and good karma over corporate profits.

-- George Pyle/Editorial Writer

Good News/Bad News: Bush in China/Tanks in Georgia

Today's Buffalo News editorials give President Bush an 'atta president for speaking up for human rights during his visit to China, but express concern for the fact that the United States has little pull it can use to halt the Russian invasion of Georgia.

To say that the punditocracy has Georgia on its mind is probably too flip for the newspaper. But this is the Internet.
* An analysis by Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan cuts to the chase: The RussianGeorgia17  Bear is back, and the United States doesn't seem to be able to do much about it. The United States saw trouble coming between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet republic turned nemesis, but didn't have enough leverage, focus or resolve to intervene.
The Los Angeles Times triple teams the issue. An editorial urges caution: Some are calling on the United States and NATO for a strong, perhaps military, response. What these hawks seem to have forgotten is that their beaks and talons are as sharp as marbles. Max Boot calls for the U.S. to offer Georgia equipment, if not troops. And Jonah Goldberg says Barack Obama has botched his first almost real 3 a.m. phone call.
* The New York Times says there is plenty of blame to go around for what it calls Russia's War of Ambition: Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, foolishly and tragically baited the Russians — or even more foolishly fell into Moscow’s trap — when he sent his army into the separatist enclave of South Ossetia last week. The Bush administration has alternately egged on Mr. Saakashvili (although apparently not this time) and looked the other way as the Kremlin has bullied and blackmailed its neighbors and its own people.
The Wall Street Journal says: The farther Russia's tanks roll into Georgia, the more the world is beginning to see the reality of Vladimir Putin's Napoleonic ambitions. ... The West needs to draw a line at Georgia.
The Washington Post doesn't care for any pro-Russian rationalizations: As the crisis deepened, one could hear in Washington the usual attempts to blame the victim, as if Georgia somehow deserved this fate because its elected government had opted for friendly relations with the West. But gives former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev space to argue that Georgia fired the first shot: To accuse [Russia] of aggression against "small, defenseless Georgia" is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.
But The Boston Globe piece by Timothy Snyder may be the most important one. He explains that it's all about oil. The fact that Russia has made its military strong enough for such adventures, in a way it wasn't when Poland stood up and the Berlin Wall fell. The fact that it wants to keep it, and the pipelines to deliver it, is the Kremlin's major motivation for control of what it calls The Near Abroad.

--George Pyle/Editorial Writer

The Neighborhood Diner

The cover package of today's Buffalo News Viewpoints section is entitled "The Neighborhood Diner." [I wanted to call it "Eating Buffalo," but was wisely overruled.] It's all about the thriving local food scene in Western New York -- farmers markets, community supported agriculture and the fact that, despite its urban image, New York is, and ought to remain, very much a farm state.

The main articles are supplemented by a piece about the contrast between the thriving LexingtonPony_logo2  Cooperative Market and the moribund Broadway Market, and an editorial encouraging public policy that allows small-scale farming to prosper and provide us with healthy food, grown in ways that are easy on the planet.

We've also posted two videos, one from a visit to the Downtown Country Market, one about the Lexington/Broadway divide.

Have a look, and please let us know what you think. Or what I've missed.

More information about area farmers markets and community supported agriculture is available on the Internet.

* The Farmers Market Federation of New York has directories of markets, farmers and vendors around the state.
* The state's Pride of New York program has an extensive list of products, farms, restaurants, etc.

Erie County local food outlets with their own Web sites include:
Farmers markets
* Alden Farmers Market
* Bidwell-Elmwood Farmers Market
* Buffalo Place Downtown Country Market
* Clarence Farmers Market
* Hamburg Farmers Market
* Holland Farmers Market
* Kenmore Farmers Market
* University Community Farmers Market
* Williamsville Farmers Market

Community Markets
* Broadway Market
* Lexington Cooperative Market

Community Supported Agriculture
* Porter Farms - Elba
* Native Offerings - Little Valley
* Promised Land - Alden

Other sites of interest include:
* Slow Food Buffalo
* Buffalo Rising
* Feed Your Soul Buffalo

The New York State Constitution, Article XIV, Section 4, says: The policy of the state shall be to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty and encourage the development and
improvement of its agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products

Bon Buffalo apetit.

-- George Pyle/Editorial Writer

Odds and More Odds: Mayors and cities

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown [right] has it easy. He tells his police department to start telling the media -- and thus the public -- where crimes are being committed, just as we said he should. For awhile at Byron_2 least, the police will do the right thing and the media will back off.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick [left] spent Thursday night in jail, and on the front of Kwame newspapers and Web sites worldwide, ordered there for violating a don't-leave-town order issued by the judge in his perjury case. He's also facing an assault charge. The media will not back off.

Also, back on yesterday's subject of downtown areas being reborn:

* Today's Cleveland Plain Dealer reports: A riverfront site at Tower City is the proposed location for Cleveland's new convention center and medical mart -- the project billed as the region's best shot at economic revival. The estimated $536 million cost is already $26 million over budget, and groundbreaking is a long way off. But in return for the public investment, backers say the development would create thousands of jobs and entrench the region as a top health-care hub.
From the Virginian-Pilot in Virginia Beach: Two Oceanfront landholders are shopping around a half-billion-dollar concept to create a mixed-use village, complete with a light-rail station, on what is now the Colony Mobile Home Park. The developers call their idea Ocean Center and note it could be the resort area's equivalent to Town Center, the designed downtown that city officials hail as their jewel of redevelopment.
Back here in Buffalo, this morning's Buffalo News has this: Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Rudnick Andrew J. Rudnick [right] has a message for the folks at Forbes magazine who ranked Buffalo among America’s Top 10 “Fastest Dying Cities.” “I strongly beg to differ,” Rudnick said.

Rudnick made a list of things Buffalo has going for it: advanced manufacturing, agri-business and food processing, back office operations and financial services, along with life sciences and logistics.
What wasn't on that list is something positive that Buffalo has in common with Cleveland and Virginia Beach -- waterfront property.

--George Pyle/Editorial Writer

Good News/Bad News: The future of (some) cities

How you look at life may depend on what magazine article you just read.

In Forbes, Buffalo is on the list of "America's Fastest-Dying Cities" [complete with pictures]. It's a point that's hard to argue with -- though Mayor Byron W. Brown certainly tries. But the way Forbes writer Joshua Zumbrun explains it, it seems almost rote: Buffalo has long been synonymous with city-in-decline. In the early 1900s, Buffalo was one of America's 10 largest cities, a burgeoning industrial center. It's been on decline ever since, despite a location that takes advantage of trade with Canada.

In The New Republic, author Alan Ehrenhalt [right] allows himself to get downright optimistic about the trend of many North American cities to emulate the long-successful cities of Old Europe, with young, well-off, Ehren2energetic people -- including the crucial demographic of families with children -- returning to central cities:
We are not witnessing the abandonment of the suburbs or a movement of millions of people back to the city all at once. But we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. For several decades now, cities in the United States have wished for a "24/7" downtown, a place where people live as well as work, and keep the streets busy, interesting, and safe at all times of day. ... Only when significant numbers of people lived downtown, planners believed, could central cities regain their historic role as magnets for culture and as a source of identity and pride for the metropolitan areas they served. Now that's starting to happen, fueled by the changing mores of the young and by gasoline prices fast approaching $5-per-gallon.

Buffalo, so far, is not on his list of success stories. But there are hints of downtown rebirth here. If the entire Buffalo-Niagara area is to have a chance at economic stability, the center must hold.

--George Pyle/Editorial Writer

Extension of Remarks: Feds should help New York

In an editorial today, The Buffalo News agrees with Gov. David Paterson that the federal government should help New York State find a way out of its budget crisis. [His speech to the National Press Club is available on the governor's Website.]
The fact that New Yorkers now pay $82.6 billion a year more in federal taxes than New York receives in federal funds would be tolerable, even celebrated, if New York were flush and other states were in Patersonnationalpress need. But when New York is looking at a three-year budget deficit of $26 billion, some changes in federal policy of the sort that Paterson is calling for are both politically fair and economically sensible.
Specific ways the feds could help include re-figuring the amount Washington contributes to Medicaid in a way that doesn't penalize New York for its few very rich people and making the next economic stimulus effort a public works package, providing good jobs and fixing the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

* The Staten Island Advance predicts that the Legislature won't really do anything to address the budget problem at the Aug. 19 special session: They are hoping they can postpone any serious reckoning with the budget until after Election Day, when the vast majority of incumbents up for re-election are safely ensconced in their new two-year terms.
The Troy Record is intrigued with the idea of a junk food tax: What would constitute junk food would be an interesting debate and it would be worth the tax just to see a legislator or a member of Congress rise to defend the potato chip from the floor.
The Utica Observer-Dispatch wants to make a call to the bullpen: If our lawmakers and other state officials are unable to get public finances in line, taxpayers should demand that a panel of corporate executives from private business and industry be appointed to examine spending practices. Cutting budgets never is easy, but businesses have survived because there are people willing and able to do it.
The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin does not agree with those who say that Paterson is just on a political grandstand: Courting the wrath of the state's powerful labor unions and antagonizing the powerful education and health care lobbies is no way to win elections.
* A new poll says the idea of a New York millionaires tax is supported by 78 percent of state residents.
* California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is broke, too. The Los Angeles Times praises his guts for floating the idea of a one-cent state sales tax to balance the budget, even though he came into office railing against such things: Schwarzenegger, like scores of angry reformers who preceded him, came to see that there really weren't billions to be had in the fabled waste, fraud and abuse. The state really does have to strip aid to children, the elderly and the poor (and shift the burden of unaddressed problems to future generations) or get additional revenue from taxpayers.

--George Pyle/Editorial Writer

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