Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Carpe Diem

I’ve seen a lot of city council members accused of doing too little. I must be the first in history accused of doing too much. It’s a criticism I can live with.

John Hazlehurst seems to want my service on council to be as unmemorable as his was, but given that I was appointed to a truncated term (18 months), and given that those who appointed me knew full well that I would shake things up, and given the number of important issues that are coming to a head in the city, I didn’t even consider the possibility of running out the clock.

If I wasn’t having an impact, or gaining some measure of colleague support, I might agree with John’s grandfatherly advice. But on a number of issues, I think I’ve been able to get helpful and interesting things done. And I couldn’t have done this without the support (some grudging, to be sure) of colleagues, showing that I’m not the lone wolf John suggests.

A majority of my colleagues supported city partnership efforts – an idea I first proposed during the budget crisis of last year. Community centers, pools and a number of other city amenities scheduled to be axed when I came aboard are open today as a result of those efforts. A majority on council also backed creation of the City Committee, at my urging. It’s been quietly providing City Council and other city leaders with some very enlightening briefings on the city’s big picture budget outlook, and I’m confident it will play a larger role going forward. Also at my urging, the interim city manager is in the process of creating an Optimization Committee, which will help the city explore outsourcing opportunities and other innovations. That, too, has buy-in from colleagues.

A majority on council seems on the verge of approving some reasonable regulations for the medical marijuana industry, based on a comprehensive ordinance drafted by a task force I chaired along with Tom Gallagher. A majority backed my proposal to conduct the first-ever performance audits of the EDC and other recipients of public funds, putting some teeth behind the words “accountability” and “transparency.” A majority supported my proposal to explore passenger screening alternatives at Colorado Springs Airport. And I believe a majority doesn’t really give a hoot what the Planning Commission says about marijuana dispensary setback rules, even if they won’t say so, as I did.

I’ve more quietly shaped or influenced a lot of other decisions made by this council in the year I’ve served, even if it’s gone unreported, unnoticed and unheralded in some circles. And I’ve tried to be responsive to more day-to-day constituent issues, whether it’s helping Westside merchants confronting the homeless situation or helping someone maneuver through city red tape. I normally don’t go around bragging about any of this, but since my accomplishments on council have been called into question, I thought it was important to correct the record.

Not all my initiatives or ideas are warmly embraced by colleagues, to be sure. Few had any interest in trimming back the just-approved 2011 budget, for instance, in an effort to not spend every dollar coming in. Few (except Jan Martin) seem to have any real interest in improving the governance model of Colorado Springs Utilities, by creating a more professional and independent board (though that issue isn’t dead yet). And none except Tom Gallagher would join me in the dunk tank at the community center fundraiser.

I’m not sure how this stacks up against Hazlehurst’s accomplishments. I asked around but no one remembers what those were. It’s a challenging time for Colorado Springs. A lot of issues are coming to a head. Given the vacuum of leadership and lack of creative thinking that exists at some levels, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. I never imagined I would stand accused of getting too involved.

I’ve stepped on a few toes and bruised a few egos along the way – it’s hard to get anything done around here if you’re afraid to do that. But I think I’ve also gained supporters, judging from the positive feedback I receive every day. I’ve not done too badly for someone who was billed, coming in, as too “radical” to work with others or get anything acomplished. And I’ve still got five months before my term expires.

I plan to finish strong.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hollywood Handouts Revisited

It's time to revisit one of my biggest corporate welfare pet peeves: the bribes that a significant number of states pay to movie and television production companies that shoot in those states.

A few conservative think tanks have taken aim at these "incentives," including Michigan's Mackinac Center, but the critiques might get more traction with the "mainstream media" coming from a left-leaning think tank like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which just published a damning analysis of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness, in this case) of Hollywood welfare programs.

Here are the key findings:

State film subsidies are costly to states and generous to movie producers. Today, 43 states offer them, compared to only a handful in 2002. Over the course of state fiscal year 2010 (FY2010), states committed about $1.5 billion to subsidizing film and TV production — money that they otherwise could have spent on public services like education, health care, public safety, and infrastructure. The median state gives producers a subsidy worth 25 cents for every dollar of subsidized production expense. The most lucrative tax subsidies are Alaska’s and Michigan’s, 44 cents and 42 cents on the dollar, respectively. Moreover, special rules allow film companies to claim a very large credit even if they lose money— as many do.

Subsidies reward companies for production that they might have done anyway. Some makers of movie and TV shows have close, long-standing relationships with particular states. Had those states not introduced or expanded film subsidies, most such producers would have continued to work in the state anyway. But there is no practical way for a state to limit subsidies only to productions that otherwise would not have happened.

The best jobs go to non-residents. The work force at most sites outside of Los Angeles and New York City lacks the specialized skills producers need to shoot a film. Consequently, producers import scarce, highly paid talent from other states. Jobs for in-state residents tend to be spotty, part-time, and relatively low-paying work — hair dressing, security, carpentry, sanitation, moving, storage, and catering — that is unlikely to build the foundations of strong economic development in the long term.

Subsidies don’t pay for themselves. The revenue generated by economic activity induced by film subsidies falls far short of the subsidies’ direct costs to the state. To balance its budget, the state must therefore cut spending or raise revenues elsewhere, dampening the subsidies’ positive economic impact.

No state can “win” the film subsidy war. Film subsidies are sometimes described as an “investment” that will pay off by creating a long-lasting industry. This strategy is dubious at best. Even Louisiana and New Mexico — the two states most often cited as exemplars of successful industry-building strategies — are finding it hard to hold on to the production that they have lured. The film industry is inherently risky and therefore dependent on subsidies. Consequently, the competition from other states is fierce, which suggests that states might better spend their money in other ways.

Supporters of subsidies rely on flawed studies. The film industry and some state film offices have undertaken or commissioned biased studies concluding that film subsidies are highly cost-effective drivers of economic activity. The most careful, objective studies find just the opposite.

Such findings aren't sitting well with many in Hollywood, according to the Los Angeles Times, who until now could dismiss them as the nit-picking of fiscally-conservative fussbudgets. Now they simply dismiss the conclusions as "slipshod" and "politically-motivated," although most Tinseltown liberals would be hard pressed to explain how CBPP's politics differ from their own.

The truth always hurts -- but no more so than when it comes from natural allies.

Colorado legislators flirted in recent years with embracing such incentives, lead, in at least one case, by a fiscally-conservative Republican, but ultimately demurred. We ought to be glad this idea ended-up on the cutting room floor.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Monopolizing Young Minds

The problem with most Americans, I once heard a senior official at the National Geologic Survey say, is that they don't know where stuff comes from. They are the most prodigious consumers of energy, minerals, wood products and other raw materials in world history, yet they're completely clueless about what it takes to procure and produce these things. They appear as if by magic, at the gas station, or in the grocery store, or when they flick on the light switch, and most Americans have forgotten (if they ever knew) from whence they come. And thanks to the eco-indoctrination they receive in schools, many young Americans are raised to have contempt for the individuals and industries -- the evil logger and miner and oil driller -- who produce what they consume.

This disconnect is one symptom of a very confused and self-destructive society.

A group of Utah state legislators hopes to help address the disconnect by using surplus oil and gas revenue to teach school kids more about the benefits of mining and drilling. But environmental groups naturally oppose the idea, arguing that this amounts to an attempt to justify the destruction of the planet. At present, greens have pretty much taken over our education system. Many schools today serve as eco-indoctrination centers, where malleable young minds celebrate Earth Day, say the Pledge Allegiance to the Planet, dutifully learn their recycling rituals, hear the sensationalist spin on climate change and rarely hear a word rebutting the propaganda. But propose bringing a little balance to the discussion? Then its you who stands accused of trying to hijack the curriculum.

It's truly Orwellian.

Totalitarians always make a play for the kids. Greens are no different. And they will vigorously fight any attempt to end their monopoly over young minds.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Here it Comes, Over the Mountain

I'm not sure Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross's 7 Stages of Grief apply to the onset of winter, but if they do I'm still in Stage 2 -- denial. Still ahead are anger, bargaining, testing, depression and acceptance.

At that point, I go skiing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Debt Wish

Major media outlets reportedly are refusing to run this ad by Citizens Against Government Waste (where I once worked and where my sister, Leslie, still does), because it's been deemed too controversial for public consumption. I think it's a devastatingly-effective wake-up call that every American needs to see and think about.

Isn't it a blessing that the Internet has freed us from our former reliance on the Idea Police in the so-called mainstream media, who take it upon themselves to decide what messages we should, and shouldn't, get? If the networks aren't courageous enough to run this ad, we have alternative means of seeing it, and of sharing it with others.

So defy the MSM censors and pass it along.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fighting Back in Flyover Country

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” William Butler Yeats famously wrote. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

But "the centre" did hold, yesterday, when the literal and figurative center of the country – the sensible people who inhabit “flyover country” – rose up against the control freaks and spendaholics who rule in Washington. “Blue America” is now mostly camped along the East and West Coasts, on the literal and figurative fringes. America’s heartland for now remains grounded enough in common sense and independent thinking, and in the limited government precepts on which the country was founded, that it just isn’t willing to go where the Obamatons are leading. And thank goodness for that.

It’s just one election, one swing of the pendulum, which could reverse itself in two years if Republicans fumble the ball. They are operating on "double secret probation." I hope party leaders understand that. The volatility of the current political climate makes sweeping observations about long-term trends and “realignments” ridiculous. I have none to offer.

All we can say for sure is that the center held, at least for now. The anarchy Yeats evoked seems temporarily at bay. “The best” among us still have, and show, conviction. The falcon can still hear the falconer.

It feels to me more like a temporary reprieve than a lasting realignment that conservatives and libertarians can crow about or count on. A runaway train has been slowed. Maybe that's the most we can say at this point.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day Reflections

Republicans today seem poised to benefit, at least temporarily, from the anti-Obama-Pelosi-Reid backlash. I'm one of those who is looking forward to the return of divided government in Washington. But I'm feeling more relieved than triumphant, more cautious than elated, given the speed with which the pendulum could swing back in Obama's favor if Republicans don't make the most of this shot at redemption.

Part of what killed Democrats was their hubris -- that and their fatal misreading of the "mandate" they thought they were handed two years ago. Republicans should not make the same mistake.

These could very well be short-term gains, given the unprecedented volatility of today's political climate, unless the GOP rediscovers its Reaganesque roots and begins building a coherent and compelling alternative to the super-statism of the other party. The Tea Party testifies to a growing public distrust, and disgust, with both political parties, but Republicans will suffer most if they don't heed the message this movement is sending. Being the anti-Obama and anti-Pelosi will be good enough for now, perhaps, given the mess they made of things. But it wasn't that long ago that Republicans were making a mess of things. And this will be a very short, unhappy honeymoon if they misread the message and return to old form.

Is two years of wandering in the political wilderness long enough for Republicans to have truly seen the light? I have my doubts. But unless they soon do, they'll be wandering in the wilderness again -- next time, maybe for good.