A Flathead Valley, Montana, based independent journal of observation, analysis, and opinion.

Archives for October, 2006

31 October 2006

Tough on crime, soft on fact, blind to unprofessional police conduct

State Senator Greg Barkus, Kalispell, MT SD-4That's Greg Barkus (right), the Kaispell Republican who is seeking re-election to the state senate from SD-4. His opponent is Democrat Jerry Reckin.

Check out Barkus’ ad in today’s InterLake, in which he asserts that he's tough on crime, while carefully avoiding explaining what he means or what he wants to do as a legislator to be the tough guy he says he is.

Now, look at the endorsements. Two stand out in a way that reflects poorly on Barkus:

First, the endorsement from Mike Meehan, the Republican candidate for Flathead County Sheriff identifies Meehan as “sheriff elect.” Meehan is running unopposed, but he hasn’t been elected yet.

Barkus also touts endorsements from three other elected officials: Jim Dupont (Sheriff), Ted Lympus (District Judge), and Ed Corrigan (County Attorney). You can decide for yourself whether you think that’s appropriate. Elected officials have the right to endorse legislative candidates, but when judges and county attorneys do it, it raises the troubling specter of partisan behavior in what should be non-partisan offices.

Second, there’s an endorsement from one Scott Warnell, identified as a “police detective.” Presumably Warness works for the police department in Kalispell, but given the ad’s insouciant approach to getting the facts straight, Warnell might be a sheriff’s deputy. What’s wrong with this? Nothing, as long as Warnell speaks as a citizen. But when he identifies himself as a law enforcement officer, and his name in the ad is placed next to four of the county’s major elected officials in the justice system, it appears as though Barkus has the blessing of the police department in Kalispell.

Equal justice for all requires that law enforcement personnel steer clear of partisan political activity. To do otherwise is unprofessional and dangerous. Warnell, and I think the others, crossed that line. And Greg Barkus appears blind to the problem.

Finally, note that the ad says Barkus is running for the state senate, but omits identifying the district he wants to represent. This isn’t very helpful to people who are new to his district.


27 October 2006

Conrad Burns’ fatuous argument

Senator Conrad Burns argues that because he brings home a ton of federal bacon, he ought to be re-elected. There’s a problem with that argument, says former state legislator and candidate for the Democratic nomination for Senator, Paul Richards:

Pork is pork — bad ideas are bad ideas

Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: Montanans should return Conrad Burns to the Senate because he is so good at pork — that his late night earmarking pranks are actually good for this greedy state.

Pork is pork. Bad ideas are bad ideas. Montana’s Space Center is stupid to begin with. Why should we praise Burns for throwing $3.1 million taxpayer dollars down this rat hole?

Sure, Leo Giacometto, Burns’ former chief of staff, made off with $350,760 in no-bid contracts. George Bailey, the Space Center’s director and a very far cry from Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, paid himself multiple salaries.

Who oversaw these expenditures? Along with Giacometto and Bailey, Conrad Burns’ own daughter, Dr. Keely Burns, served steadfastly on the Space Center’s board of directors.

Is it embarrassing to watch someone who, for years, claimed to be a fiscal conservative now remake himself as pork master, a la Space Center?

Is it embarrassing that our own Senator Burns is listed 100th in approval ratings for all 100 Senators, according to the nonpartisan Survey USA?

Is it embarrassing that out of 535 members, Radar Online identified Burns as the “Eighth Dumbest Person in Congress?

Is it embarrassing that Time Magazine rated Burns as one of the five worst members of the U.S. Senate?

Is it embarrassing that Burns is a member of the Dirty Dozen; one of the 12 Senators and Representatives most hostile to a clean environment?

Is it embarrassing every time Conrad Burns insults “ragheads” or “niggers” as part of his Southern charm? Is Burns a racist, sexist good ol’ boy that radiates negative energy? Or just an ill-tempered old man without a rudder?

Either way, Montana needs no longer to be embarrassed. Vote for Tester.

— Paul Richards, Boulder, Montana

What’s the matter with Kalispell?

The intersection of Church Drive and Highway 93 lies 5.9 miles north of the intersection of Highways 93 and 2 in Kalispell, and more than two miles north of Reserve Drive, Kalispell’s present northern border. One would think, therefore, that no rational public official would smile on a proposal that Kalispell annex a 322-acre parcel at 93 and Church just so the developers could connect to the city’s water and sewer systems and enjoy city police and fire protection.

However, not all public officials are rational. There is a proposal to build a housing development — Silverbrook — at 93 and Church, and the developers want the project annexed to Kalispell. And according to a report in the InterLake, Kalispell wants to expand north to Church Drive.

My question is: what’s the matter with Kalispell? If the city expands 5.9 miles from Highways 93 and 2 in all directions, the city limits will encompass over 100 square miles. That’s five times the area of Manhattan, almost a third the area of New York City, two-thirds the area of Seattle or Portland, and twice the area of Spokane. It’s one thing to think big, but if Kalispell’s leaders start adding projects of the Silverbrook genre to the city, they will have gone from thinking big to suffering delusions of grandeur.


26 October 2006

He’s not hip, but, Heaven help us, hippies support him

When your opponent is too much the Boy Scout to attack successfully for being out of touch culturally — a perfect description of crew-cut farmer Jon Tester, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Conrad Burns — your only recourse is launching the attack on a surrogate of your choosing.

GOP Hippie That’s why Montana’s Republican Party inflicted these anti-Tester cards (and a companion advertisement on television) on Montana’s voters last week. Who supports Jon Tester? Why, those dirty, traitorous hippies from San Francisco, that’s who, the cards answer, reinforcing the message with photographs, such as the one at right, of hirsute hippies with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the background. I’m surprised the card doesn’t sport a doctored photograph of Jane Fonda waving a “I’m voting for Cut and Run Jon” sign. (I think these ads are flawed technically. The models are hairy and dressed in costumes from the nineteen-sixties, but they

24 October 2003

How astroturf lobbyists support Conrad Burns

Ever hear of the Seniors Coalition? I hadn't, although the name had the ring of an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of senior citizens. Then this month a senior citizen I know began receiving glossy, full color cards applauding the policies of Senator Conrad Burns and the true nature of the Seniors Coalition became obvious: it's a bogus grassroots — astroturf, in the contemporary political lexicon — organization that serves as a front for the pharmaceutical industry.

Although nowhere on either of the cards does the phrase Vote for Conrad Burns appear, code phrases, such as thank him for helping, that are, given the timing and political context of the issue, the functional equivalents of Vote for Conrad Burns, are featured prominently. The message to seniors is clear: the Medicare prescription drug benefit is the greatest thing since penicillen, it's under attack from radicals (Democrats) who want to limit your freedom of choice (S.345, discussion below), Conrad Burns is a rock solid supporter of the prescription drug benefit, and he needs your help and thanks. In other words, vote for Burns.

So, who are these guys, and who got them going? One of the usual suspect, Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct mail expert who wouldn't be caught dead doing anything for a Democrat, who founded not only the Seniors Coalition but also the United Seniors Asociation and the 60 Plus Association. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), hardly a radical group:

Three nonprofit organizations that claim to speak for older Americans are in fact heavily bankrolled by the pharmaceutical industry, an examination of tax records by the AARP Bulletin shows. United Seniors Association, for example, got more than a third of its funds in 2001 from drug-industry sources. The big donors included Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry's trade association; Citizens for Better Medicare, a PhRMA-funded nonprofit group; and Pfizer Inc. Total industry contributions: at least $3.1 million.

For starters, all three organizations claim to be nonpartisan, though they support—almost without exception—the campaigns and causes of one political party.

All three organizations were formed by, or with help from, direct mail entrepreneur Richard Viguerie, and two have been operated in recent years by former officers or employees of Viguerie's companies.

All three organizations have been criticized over the years for questionable fundraising practices, and, recently, the Social Security Administration ordered one of them to halt what it determined to be misleading mailings. All three organizations claim to speak for millions of older Americans, although as recently as 2001 none of the three listed any revenue from membership dues on their tax returns. Moreover, an investigation by the AARP Bulletin shows that virtually all of their largest contributions in recent years have come from the same source—the nation's pharmaceutical industry. AARP Bulletin, 30 June 2003.

In the November, 2006, issue of the Washington Monthly, an article by Barbara Dreyfuss, Poison Pill: How Abramoff's cronies sold the Medicare drug bill, linked the three groups to Alexander Strategy, the lobbying group that beat the drums for the Medicare prescription drug benefit that the Republicans streamrolled through Congress:

Meanwhile, two other Alexander Strategy lobbyists, Mike Mihalke and Chris Bertelli, also worked with the seniors groups. The pair were Republican operatives who had fine-tuned their skills in several underhanded campaigns (see “Dynamic Duo”). Although both Bertelli and Mihalke worked out of the Alexander Strategy office, they created a separate company, Advocacy Technologies, which officially did the work.

Mihalke supervised a mail campaign for the Seniors Coalition in at least 11 competitive districts. The mailing was strikingly similar to letters sent by America 21 and 60 Plus. (In Colorado, all three contained an identical misspelling of a Republican candidate’s name). David Breaux, a political science professor at Mississippi State University, analyzed the mailings of the three groups in his state, and concluded in a report that they were so similar it “caused one to wonder if there was any coordination.” Neither Mihalke nor Bertelli would say whether Advocacy Technologies produced all three letters (both failed to respond to numerous requests to comment for this article). However, Mac Haddow, a top Seniors Coalition official, acknowledged that the campaign was intended to prevent Democrats from using the Medicare issue against Republicans. The mailings were “prophylactic,” he said, “to make sure that we didn’t allow this issue to be politicized in the context of election warfare.” John Powell, who headed the Seniors Coalition at the time, worked closely with Advocacy Technologies on this effort, and soon afterwards went to work for Alexander Strategy. Since the firm shut its doors this January, Powell has been trying to form his own consulting firm with Mihalke.

Take a close look at these cards, which are textbook examples of this kind of literature. The design is outstanding, and the production quality is on a par with those of a glossy magazine; Vanity Fair, for example. As a colleague reminded me, the layout is plug and play, making it easy to insert the names of other (Republican) politicians (probably, I would think, Mike DeWine in Ohio, George Allen in Virginia, and Jim Talent in Missouri, to name a few). Without doubt, these cards were produced by a major advertising agency, undoubtedly one with ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Their messages are misleading, but, speaking as someone with experience in the field, I think they will be effective politically, especially since insofar as I know, no one has produced anything to counter them.

Why the drug manufacturers hate S.345

One of the worst provisions of the Medicare prescription drug benefit legislation prohibits the federal government's Social Security administration from using its immense leverage to negotiate the best possible price for prescription medications (the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are not so constrained). This works only to the advantage of the pharamaceutical industry, which is addicted to ever higher doses of skyhigh profit. If Burns is replaced by Democrat Jon Tester — not that much of a progressive on health care, but a visionary compared to Burns — and the Democrats control the Senate, improvements to the drug benefit law, offered by Senator Richard Durbin and other Democrats, just might move.

Here, in Durbin's own words, is what the Seniors Coalition fears might move if Democrats control the Senate:

While the Medicare drug benefit is not structured in a way that will truly expand access to affordable prescription drugs for our Nation's seniors, I am dedicated to ensuring that beneficiaries receive the information they need to make informed decisions. I will also continue to work to correct the deep flaws in the new Medicare drug benefit.

As a first step, I have introduced the Medicare Prescription Drug Savings and Choice Act (S. 345) to authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to employ negotiating strategies to bring down drug prices, similar to the negotiating authority used to reduce drug prices for our Nation’s veterans. This will help the many Americans who struggle with the cost of drugs, including many who currently face a choice between buying food and buying essential medications.

In addition, my legislation would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to offer a nationwide Medicare-delivered prescription drug benefit in addition to the private plans that will be available under the new law. This Medicare-administered plan would have a uniform nationwide premium and preferred drug list. This option would allow seniors to obtain their medications through Medicare rather than having to go through a private drug plan. Seniors who choose to enroll in this plan could stay enrolled as long they desire, regardless of any turbulence in the private market. I am hopeful that the Senate will debate and vote on S. 345 before the Medicare drug benefit is fully implemented in January 2006.

Meanwhile, as we approach the implementation the Medicare prescription drug benefit, seniors are facing a mountain of prescription bills and a growing stack of glitzy brochures from insurance companies looking for new customers. Our seniors deserve a less confusing, less expensive drug plan, but until we succeed in changing that reality, the least we can do is give them adequate time to understand their options and make the best choice.

That is why I have also cosponsored the Medicare Informed Choice Act of 2005 (S. 1841). This measure, which was introduced by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), would extend the initial enrollment period for the Medicare drug benefit until the end of 2006, so that beneficiaries can learn more about the new drug benefit, obtain independent counseling, and make the right choice among the options that are available. In addition to expanding the existing six-month enrollment period to the entire year of 2006, the Medicare Informed Choice Act will also give every beneficiary the opportunity to make a one-time change in plan enrollment at any point in 2006. This would allow beneficiaries an opportunity to change plans without penalty if they sign up for one plan and later find out that it does not meet their needs. Additionally, S. 1841 would protect employees from being dropped by their former employer's prescription drug plan during the first year of the implementation of the Medicare drug plan.

The new prescription drug program also represents an opportunity for individuals to prey on seniors and persons with disabilities. Under current law, the 136 different private prescription drug plans that will be offered in Illinois can both send mail to and call people who are eligible to enroll in the Medicare Part D benefit, in an effort to market their plans. Even if the private prescription drug plans are themselves honest brokers, it's easy to imagine how difficult it may be for a beneficiary to distinguish between honest and dishonest telemarketing calls. Unscrupulous individuals and companies could come up with schemes to defraud the vulnerable Medicare population by convincing beneficiaries to share their Social Security Number, credit card number, or bank account information. Medicare's rules on telemarketing prohibit private prescription drug plans from soliciting any of this information from beneficiaries over the telephone, unless the telephone call was initiated by the beneficiary.

To help prevent fraud and identity theft connected to the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, I am a cosponsor of the Medicare Do Not Call Act (S. 1798), which would prohibit Medicare-approved prescription drug plans from engaging in telemarketing, impose serious criminal penalties on individuals and companies that seek to defraud Medicare beneficiaries through telemarketing appeals, and provide additional resources to the State Health Insurance Counseling and Assistance Programs (SHIPs) to provide individualized counseling and enrollment assistance services to Medicare beneficiaries.

I also support efforts to amend the Medicare drug benefit to expand access to affordable prescription drugs through reimportation. It is essential to ensure that re-imported drugs are safe, but that standard should be constructed in a way that maximizes the ability of seniors to safely obtain lower-priced medicines from other countries. Instead, the safety standard imposed in the new law essentially blocks reimportation. To correct this problem, Senator Dorgan has introduced the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act (S. 334), which will allow pharmacists and wholesalers to safely import prescription drugs from Canada. I am a cosponsor of this legislation.


18 October 2006

Roger Koopman. Outraged? Yes. Owed an apology? No. Hell, no.

For Montana’s religious right, it’s bad enough that Governor Brian Schweitzer is a Democrat, a persuasion they consider political original sin. That he’s also a man with a graduate degree in soil science adds insult to injury, and it matters not a whit to them that he received his M.S. from Montana State University. What matters is that when it comes to determining the age of the earth, Schweitzer places his faith in geologists, not bishops, and Montana’s creationism caucus doesn’t like that at all.

Among Schweitzer’s detractors is Roger Koopman, a Republican state representative from Bozeman. He’s being challenged for re-election by Democrat John Vincent. Owner of Career Concepts, a private employment service, Koopman is a well known — and long suffered — gadfly and publicity hound in Bozeman, and a man who never will be mistaken for a liberal. He’s also a Christian with a decidedly uneasy relationship with science. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he was in the room in Bozeman, on 6 October, when Schweitzer was discussing global warming with parents, teachers, and children.

...Schweitzer asked how many in the crowd thought the Earth was hundreds of millions of years old. Most of the children in the audience raised their hands.

He then asked how many believed the planet was less than a million years old. At least two people, including Koopman, who was in the crowd, raised their hands.

During an interview later with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Schweitzer noted Koopman’s response. He said some people believe the planet is only 4,000 to 6,000 years old, despite geological evidence to the contrary.

Schweitzer said he needs support from a state Legislature that will help move Montana’s agenda forward, ‘‘not people who think the Earth is 4,000 years old.’’

That outraged Koopman, who said Schweitzer’s comments were insulting and “incredibly bigoted.” His indignation was echoed by the Daily Interlake’s editorial writer:

If [Schweitzer] had wanted to use this as an example of how divergent people’s thinking is on even the most fundamental points of information, then the governor might have been justified. But it appears he instead wanted to belittle people who hold different beliefs than him, and for this there is no excuse. Editorial, 15 October.

Koopman said his belief in the Earth’s age is not based on his faith, but on his scientific investigations.

Koopman had initially planned to introduce a bill during the 2005 Legislature allowing the teaching of the controversial ‘‘intelligent design’’ theory, and other alternatives to evolution, in public schools. He never pursued the measure and said he has no plans to introduce a similar bill in the next session if re-elected.

Koopman admitted only to believing the earth is less than a million years old. Others, known collectively as young earth creationists, embrace, tacitly or explicitly, the scholarship of James Ussher, the 17th century Anglican archbishop who concluded the earth was created 6,000 years ago:

Ussher now concentrated on his research and writing, and returned to the study of chronology and the church fathers. After a 1647 work on the origin of the creeds in 1648 Ussher published a treatise on the calendar. This was a warm-up for his most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world), which appeared in 1650 and its continuation, Annalium pars postierior in 1654. In this work, he famously claimed, that the Earth was created at nightfall preceding 23 October, 4004 BC. Other scholars calculated their own dates for Creation, such as that by the Cambridge academic, John Lightfoot. The time is frequently misquoted as being 9 a.m., noon or 9 p.m. on 23 October. See the related article on the calendar for a discussion of its claims and methodology. From the Wikipedia.

By the time Ussher published his date for the beginning of the earth, the scientific method was at least 60 years old. Carbon 14 dating was not discovered until 1949, however, so Ussher never was confronted with irrefutable evidence that he was wrong (I suspect it would not have mattered).

Koopman, of course, has every right to stiffarm science and believe that Archbishop Ussher, or another investigator who relies on what is written in holy books instead of in the rock, arrived at the correct value for the age of the earth. And as a legislator he has every right to introduce legislation supporting “intelligent design” and other religious doctrines masquerading as science. But he should not expect to be taken seriously when he does. Not all ideas have equal merit. Koopman’s ideas regarding the age of the earth have no merit at all — and Brian Schweitzer has an obligation to say so.

The concluding paragraph of this entry was lost in a computer crash. No attempt to reconstruct it has been made.