Thursday, June 29, 2017

Attaway, Mike! Rounds Finally Shows Some Moxie

     Senator Mike Rounds has finally stepped up to the plate and taken a decent swing.  Our junior senator yesterday analyzed a proposed tax cut that's part of the Senate's healthcare bill and
Rounds Questions A Tax Cut
Will Wonders Never Cease?
questioned its reason for being.  The tax is a 3.8% surcharge on investment income that is currently in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, what we commonly call Obamacare).  Bloomberg analysts say that it applies to those earning over $200 thousand a year.  The Senate bill wants it removed.   Mike Rounds is saying "not so fast."  This is so uncharacteristic of Rounds that  New York Magazine took notice and commented that  "Mike Rounds of South Dakota" is a "solid member of the GOP conference who has not been on anybody's list of troublemakers" with respect to the Senate bill.  I'm impressed.

     This is actually bracing on two levels.  The first is that Rounds, who so far has been a reliable pitchman for the Trumphuggers in the GOP, has shown us some independence.  This is a rare moment among our trio of Republican congressional reps, who have a penchant for going along with their national party agenda without giving thought to consequences in South Dakota.  I recall when Congresswoman Noem voted to shut down the federal government, including our national parks (Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and Wind Cave), wiping out the 2013 autumn tourist season just so she could make an absurdly irrelevant political point. Then there's Senator Thune with his commitment to de-neutralize the internet, opening the door for our telecom providers to arbitrarily change costs and terms of service without federal oversight from the FCC.  That would leave us smaller market customers at the mercy of a limited number of ISPs, who wouldn't have to respond to competitive demands like those in urban areas, where the competition is much more intense. Rounds, relatively new as he is to Congress, has been mostly a "get-along and go-along" representative, his utterances generally limited to platitudinous recitations of Republican talking points.  Last April I noted  in my blog that he had so far mastered nothingness.  Rounds just gave me hope that my judgement was premature.
     That gets us to the second level of appreciation for Mike Rounds' sudden burst of independent thought.  Our junior senator not only questioned the tax cut, but offered up a compellingly practical way of using that money should a Senate bill actually materialize for a vote. He wants to convert the funds into a tax credit to Americans who don't get coverage if their spouses have employer-paid plans that don't cover dependents.  So Rounds has not only shown a streak of independence, he's actually put a pretty good idea on the table.  That he did so at the risk of isolating himself from his party's leaders shows some moxie that should cheer every South Dakotan who wants a representative who can think for himself.  It might also serve as a useful lesson to Noem and Thune, whose politically ingratiating styles could use a dose of intellectual self-reliance.  

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Thune Pushes Healthcare Repeal, Has No Clue About How South Dakota Will Deal With It

     Is South Dakota's all-Republican congressional delegation collectively catatonic when it comes to its political infatuation with all things Trump?  Congresswoman Noem was effusive
Thune Explains, We Decide
Will Trump Call It "Mean?"
about her support for a Trump-instigated healthcare bill that passed the house ("a very significant day for me," crowed Noem) last May, only to be backstabbed when it was dissed a few weeks ago by the President himself, who called it "mean" when he touted the Senate's version of the bill.  Trump's blow-off of Noem's pride and joy should be a lesson to our federal reps that they're tools to be used--and potentially tossed aside--when politically convenient to the President.  

     So now that the Senate's version of a healthcare bill has finally been flushed out and exposed to the light of analysis, how does our Senator Thune project his political commitment to President Trump's demand for an overhaul in the law?  With the same unabashed and uncritical exercise in rhetorical Trumphuggery that Noem applied to her version.  Thune claims to have "listened to South Dakotans who've shared their personal Obamacare experiences," a useful exercise but apparently tilted toward listening only to those who've had genuine problems with it.  We all get that insurance premiums and deductibles have got to be reined in, but Thune's contention that this Senate bill ("The American Healthcare Act") will "provide better, more affordable healthcare for all South Dakotans," just does not square with reality.  In an NPR interview last week, Thune acknowledges that Medicaid cuts in the Senate bill will require states to come up with alternative plans to care for their poor populations.  If Thune could come up with a plan for our rural state I'd be more likely to take his projection seriously, but for now, consider that in its minority report,  Senate Democrats conclude that the long term cuts in Medicaid "will hurt rural hospitals" by "cutting premium assistance."   That conclusion was supported by Roll Call last week when it noted that rural areas are bracing for the bill's impact and provides a rundown of GOP senators from states with large swaths of rural area who have serious concerns about Medicaid cuts to their constituents.  
     Thune's confidence that rural states can work things out internally isn't particularly convincing, lacking as it does any ideas on how South Dakota can go about it.   In 2014, Medicaid accounted for 20% of South Dakota's total expenditures. with nearly 60% of the money in recent years coming from the federal government.  Did Thune consult with South Dakota's government leadership on just how things are supposed to work out?  I doubt it.  Blindly supporting Trump demands fealty, not independent thought and analysis.  Until our Congressional tag-team comes up with some ideas on how South Dakota is supposed to deal with potentially crippling cuts in Medicaid, this whole idea of Obamacare repeal/replace should be set aside, if not junked altogether.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

GOP Healthcare Reform Is A Magical Mystery Tour

     Looks like the U.S. Congress is celebrating the golden anniversary of a great album (Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles) by coming out with its own cover of it.  If there ever were such thing as a political "magical mystery
Healthcare Reform
tour," our reps in D.C. have created it.  I think they call this version of it "Obamacare repeal," but shrouded as it is in political mystery, I doubt that anyone really can put a title on it, much less define what it's actually supposed to accomplish. Our South Dakota congressional threesome, Noem, Rounds and Thune, seem to have a vague idea that they're tasked with repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act that sprang to life during the Obama administration, but so far no specifics have emerged.  Actually, I don't think any generalities have emerged either.  This is mysterious and magical, all right.

    "Surreal" might also apply.  Just last week, President Trump disavowed a House of Representatives version of Obamacare repeal that passed in early May. He said it was "mean." Yet a month ago he was celebrating its passage in the House with a Rose Garden ceremony, vowing that "we want to brag about this plan."  Trump's surrogate in South Dakota, U.S. Representative Kristi Noem voted for its passage, saying the bill "reflected" the vision based "on the proposal we've been working on with President Trump."  Does Noem now share Trump's retrospective regrets about the bill and join in with the President, condemning the House product as "mean?"  I imagine she'll clam up on this one, even though she's been reflexively following his lead and his rhetoric on ending Obamacare every step of the way.
     Now that repealing and replacing ACA has been defaulted to the Senate, there isn't much clarity about the contents of the proposal in that chamber, either.  Long promised by President Trump, he repeatedly vowed to make repeal a "day one" priority, saying to a crowd in Florida just before the election "it's going to be so easy."  And how easy has it so far been in its political incubator in the Senate?  It's impossible to say.  There's no public dialogue about what the Senators are considering.  Our Senator John Thune claims that the internal "working group" meetings are "open to anybody," which doesn't square with reports that numerous healthcare organizations (the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association--groups like that, about 120 of them) have been rebuffed in their efforts to meet with Senators working on the bill.  
     If the deliberations are as transparent as Thune claims, why are these organizations that are clamoring to be a legitimate part of the conversation being turned away? South Dakotans have every reason and right to get a sense of how our essential healthcare options are likely to be affected by discussions in the Senate.  Leaving all of us dangling like this is a poor excuse for representation.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Laffable Curve Flatlines In Kansas. South Dakotans, Take Heed

     In an eye-catching repudiation of the "Laffer Curve," the Kansas state legislature yesterday said "no thank you" to yet more of the economic self-flagellation that has driven that
Take Heed, South Dakotans
Brownback's A Huckster
state's economy into the ground.  
The pain started in 2012, when newly elected Governor Sam Brownback turned his state into a laboratory for litmus-testing Economist Arthur Laffer's theory that tax-cuts have a stimulative effect on the economy.  Laffer's "curve" reputed to show that lower tax rates boost economic growth, a dogma that is the centerpiece of trickle-down, Tea Party-ish economics.  Often dubbed a "miracle" by Brownback's devotees, the result after 4 years has been so disastrous for Kansas that Brownback's plan was trashed by his own heavily-Republican legislature.  State reps yesterday overrode the governor's veto of their plan to roll back those tax cuts, which have left a $1 billion hole in the state's budget.  

     Brownback's claims that his plan has boosted the Kansas economy are just as dubious as his promise that cutting taxes would increase state revenues.  Last October The Wichita Eagle did an item-by-item refutation of the governor's bragging points, which showed that the state's economy has been limping along, its economy growing at about half the national rate.  To me the final proof in that pudding is the sharp drop in anticipated tax revenues, which should have gone the other way if the state's economy was indeed doing well.  In any event, yesterday's legislative override couldn't be a starker assessment of how even devoted Republicans realize the futility of trickle-down economics.  There is no evidence, none, that shows tax-cuts have a stimulative effect on the economy and subsequent tax revenues.  In fact, using President George W. Bush's cuts as an example, exactly the opposite transpired.  Some say Reagan's worked well, but private sector job growth and tax revenue growth during the Reagan years were so-so at best.
     From our South Dakota perspective we should be wary of this nonsense on two levels. First,
We're Not In Kansas Anymore
We're In Brownbackistan

given our propensity for shortfalls in state revenues that occur because of our regressive sales tax/no income tax structure and its dependence on high commodity prices to stimulate our economy, we need to think about reforming our tax system in a way that doesn't rely on swings in world market prices for grain and livestock.  Next, our congressional delegation should be wary of jumping on President Trump's promise to supercharge the economy with tax cuts for high earners.  Last Fall our Congresswoman Kristi Noem breezily and uncritically touted a tax reform package of tax cuts that she claimed would result in a 9.1% growth rate, which showed that she knows neither History, nor Economics, nor what she's talking about. The Kansas growth rate under Brownback has been 1.2%.  Given that the Laffer Curve has been a floppola at both the national and state levels,  this notion that cutting taxes automatically does all of us some good is the kind of snake oil that sells well to rubes but in the end only makes its hucksters some money.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Could Trump Be Any Worse For South Dakota?

     South Dakotans, who went 2-to-1 for Trump last November in an outburst of euphoric infatuation, will soon be sobering up as they consider what the Trump administration's budget
Buyer's Remorse,  Anyone?
has in store for rural states like ours.  
We rank 4th among states in terms of how much of our state's revenues come from the federal government (at $1.6 billion, about 40% overall, amounting to nearly $2 thousand apiece in 2013, the latest year I could find). Trump's cuts in programs directed at South Dakota are a fine how-do-you-do to one of his politically friendliest states.  He's already shown serious disdain for South Dakota's economic interests, considering Trump's hostility toward international trade deals that have been a boon for our farmers and ranchers during the past few decades.  South Dakota's ag economy has much at stake in the world's markets for grain and livestock as Trump's new and severely constricted trading relationships evolve in coming years.  Major farm groups are already reacting with "shock and dismay" toward the possibilities in reports from ag information giant DTN. The recent fall of commodity prices will probably extend farther into the future if our NAFTA trading partners, Mexico in particular, turn to other sources for their grain imports should Trump's threats to dismantle that agreement play out.  

     As if that "drop dead" attitude toward our state's largest industry isn't enough to compel serious concern, the Trump administration's proposed budget looks to be a real kick in the rear end to South Dakotans.  If you're cheering the possibility of severe cutbacks in most areas of federal spending in order to raise extra money for the Defense Department, you should know that much more than our ag sector will be affected by Trump-o-nomics.  The budget cuts for rural programs overseen by the Department of Agriculture are more than mere snips.  In some cases (rural water and waste disposal, direct loans for single family housing are examples) the funding disappears altogether, amounting to amputation.  In others the cuts are merely severe: rural utilities will lose billions, rural business owners tens of millions.  Trump, who "loves the poorly educated"  will continue on his quest to expand that element of his base by zeroing out programs that fund community learning centers, literacy development, and other educational opportunity grants. 
     I suppose that some devoted guns-over-butter Trumpistas are willing to trade these programs in on another aircraft carrier or two, but for most of us rural denizens a bit of consideration seems to be in order at this point.  Our generally kowtowing Congressional reps are likely to feel some heat over their champion Trump's priorities, which is why the phrase "dead on arrival" is frequently applied to Trump's budget as it moves toward Congress for consideration.   Worthy outcome as that would be, there's a much more practical aftereffect, disclosing as it does the indifference that the Trump administration has for the impact of his rhetoric on the day to day lives of millions of rural Americans.