Sunday, May 31, 2009

Managed Care

This last Friday, May 29th was another interesting day at the State Employee Benefits Committee (SEBC). SEBC is the oversight body for the state employees' self-insured health plan. The SEBC has been on an extensive cost cutting mission this year. Towards that end, they are exploring a managed care component for radiology. Supposedly the radiology (MRI, CT, PET, X-Ray)expenses are high for the plan.

The SEBC heard a presentation on Medsolutions, a service that manages radiology use, from Blue Cross/ Blue Shield. The presenting physician said that radiology use for Delaware was above the national average.

Now, this is the point where managed care always go astray. A simple point like a high rate of radiology use is always considered to be over-use or abuse by managed care advocates.

I'm no doctor, in fact I don't even play one on TV, however, I would want to know more before imposing any system that affects access to service. For example, do we have higher rates of cancer in Delaware and thus have more need of CT Scans, MRI, and PET scans? Do we have a high percentage of senior citizens? Since we are a small state is there over-use by one or two providers that could skew the percentages?

The presenting physician several times used hyperbole, saying "We do not need people having MRI for a hangnail". Unfortunately, SEBC is a very closed system and public observers like myself are not allowed to ask spontaneous questions.

If I were allowed to engage, I imagine my dialogue to sound like the following: "Doctor, when you were practicing did you prescribe an MRI for anyone with a hangnail?"
"No? Well do you think so little of your colleagues in the medical profession that you believe they are ordering MRI for hangnails?"

We Americans have a strange attitude about health care use. That attitude applies to health care professional and consumer alike. All of us tend to believe that everyone outside of our immediate family is a hypochondriac and is abusing the system. Stand before any audience and ask all those who go to the doctor on a whim to raise their hands, and no one will. However, everyone in that same audience believes that the world is just full of people taking time off work, waiting in doctor's offices, undergoing painful and humiliating tests, just because they can.

It is a ludicrous myth that we have all been sold by people who would rather take on the health care consumer than the powers behind the health care industry.

Ultimately, if one is talking about the huge type of savings needed for universal health care, there are only two ways to get there. A public, non-profit entity must take responsibility for being either the single provider or the single payer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

So It Goes

Today in Dover the Joint Finance Committee continued to labor over a Herculean task, balancing a budget with a $650 million hole without significant revenue. Chairman, Dennis P. Williams is doing stellar work all the while defending our salaries.

Next week the rest of the legislature is back in session, another week, another chance to do the right thing and file revenue bills. We need substantive and sustainable revenue. Along that line of thought, it is interesting that some legislators who dismiss American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money as "one time money", by the same token have no problem considering salary cuts to balance the budget. How is it that salary cuts are not also "one time money" unless some lawmakers plan on continuing the cut next year, and the year after...

Considerations such as the above scenario are why we are serious as a heart attack about this salary fight. We are not going gently into that good night.
The House Republican Caucus again this week, has stated their opposition to salary cuts and their willingness to support reasonable tax increases.
Representative Valarie Longhurst has filed House Bill 157 to guarantee that teachers who are on Family Medical Leave will be returned to their exact same position. This will prevent superintendents who want to take advantage of the situation of FMLA leave to transfer teachers out of their regular teacher assignments.
Hats off to Rep. Longhurst.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Learn to Live on Lentils

This Wednesday night the Sussex County locals of the Delaware State Education Association held a legislative reception in Georgetown at the Brick Hotel. Like the two receptions that preceded it in New Castle County and Kent County, members turned out in droves, were knowledgeable, and passionately engaged their legislators. DSEA State President, Diane Donohue, was in her home turf and ready for the game tonight. She held the floor and assertively mixed it up with several legislators.

Representative Pete Schwartzkopf used part of his speaking time at the reception to criticize his colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee. He said they are not cutting enough and that he has told them he will not let any revenue bills onto the floor (using his power to control the house agenda as Majority Leader) unless the JFC cuts more.

Perhaps the JFC members will point out that the Governor and his loyal followers in the House wasted most of the legislative session on the sports betting bill and failed to put forward substantial and sustainable revenue legislation thus failing to provide JFC the revenue with which to reduce the deficit.

Representative Schwartzkopf has also been a vocal opponent of the DSEA position that zero percentage is the only appropriate number for a salary cut. Several Democrats now seem to be rallying to this position '8% is not going to happen, but it can't be zero, it has to be something'.

A word to the politically wise: Remember the Clinton Administration. Bill Clinton shafted Labor with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and an expansion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In his second term he also angered liberals with so called Welfare Reform that left millions of single moms with no safety net.

Clinton's reasoning was 'where will they (Democrats) go?', and indeed this proved true when voters stuck with Clinton over challenger Bob Dole. However the Democrats lost control of both the House and Senate. The lesson is that alienating your base may work for the top of the ticket, but it is hell on the rest of the Party.
A word to the spiritually wise: Remember the anecdote about the philosopher Diogenes. Diogenes was seen eating lentils for dinner by another philosopher, Aristippus. Aristippus had a comfortable lifestyle by flattering the king.

Aristippus said to Diogenes, "Learn to be subservient to the king and you will not have to live on lentils".

Diogenes said to Aristippus, "Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to cultivate the king".

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Looking for Commitment

During the last election legislators courted us, sweet talked us, and promenaded with us down the campaign trail. We have patiently built a relationship as we moved into the legislative session. Now, we are all dressed up with no place to go. Now, we need a commitment.

The Delaware State Education Association along with our coalition partners in State Workers United for a Better Delaware have started to approach legislators with a pledge statement. If lawmakers sign on to the statement, they are in opposition to the proposed pay cut and agree to work with the unions to find other solutions. We are getting late in the session and it is time for legislators to let us know if they stand with us.

On June 11th in Dover we will celebrate the legislators who have committed to us and send a message to those who have not. The event will feature speakers at 6:00PM.

Delaware Watch: Research Suggests a Fine Arts Education Increases Overall Learning

Delaware Watch: Research Suggests a Fine Arts Education Increases Overall Learning

This is a great article discovered by our friends at Delaware Watch. Check it out!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Spin Dry

Some of the true believers for Governor Markell and his proposed 8% pay cut to school employees and state workers are repeating the administration's spin about the workers being almost 46% of the cost of government. Under this logic, it therefore figures that state workers are not being over burdened by the cut, furlough days, and increased health care costs.

Maybe it is time for a little Civics 101 for all these folks. State government and the services provided by that government exist for all citizens, are used by all citizens, and benefit all citizens. Therefore a state budget crisis is the responsibility of all citizens, not just those workers providing the services.

We are now into the rabbit hole in Delaware politics:
The Governor and some Democrats are putting out spin that sounds Republican; anti-tax, cut state worker pay, state workers' benefits are too generous, government is too big...
Meanwhile, the Republicans are opposed to state worker pay cuts, and in favor of raising revenue.


The Joint Finance Committee will meet again next week. It is unclear if they will take a vote on the proposed cut to state worker salaries, or delay this into June. In any event, when regular session begins again June 2nd the legislature must jump into action in order to have a budget by June 30th.

State workers stand united in the demand that the only correct vote for us on salary reductions is zero percent. We do not want decision makers coming to us and saying 'You're right 8% was too harsh, how about 4%...2%'

This idea of salary reduction could ruin school employment as a career. If any salary reduction were to stand, that would legitimize salary reduction as a budget balancing tool from now on. Perhaps next time it will not be an economic depression, just a mild recession and they only need to take away 1.5%. You get the point.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Day in Worker Paradise

Today, once again a couple of thousand state workers filled the legislative mall in Dover to protest Governor Markell's proposed salary cuts. The event was billed as a "Unity Rally and Candlelight Vigil". Several representatives of the State Workers United spoke including DSEA President, Diane Donohue. Also, state representatives John Kowalko, Brad Bennett, and Tom Kovach addressed the crowd.

State Workers United for a Better Delaware is making Delaware political history. Never before have all the organizations representing state workers and school employees united to promote the welfare of their members. No group has broken ranks in an attempt to cut their own deal; this has no doubt confounded some in power, and impressed all.

There is one more chance to make history. State Workers United is planning an event for June 11th, so stay tuned for details.
In a recent blog I brought to your attention that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with a little help from President Obama, is challenging California's attempt to cut the wages of home health workers. The question is if a state accepts ARRA (federal stimulus) money, can they cut wages?

ARRA requires that states have a "maintenance of effort" to their 2006 spending level. That is the basis upon which SEIU is challenging California law makers.

Initial investigation into this matter would indicate that Delaware may be able to cut salaries and still meet this threshold. We will keep you posted as we investigate further. In the meantime, keep up the activism because most likely we will have to do this the old fashion way with hard work.
The regular legislative session has been on recess this week and will remain so next week while the Joint Finance Committee attempts to mark up the budget. The JFC has virtually no revenue to apply to the budget because gaming is the only revenue legislation to pass so far.

Representative John Kowalko deserves special recognition for being the first lawmaker to speak boldly about the need to raise significant revenue and to put forward a wide array of options. Thankfully, in the last couple of weeks more and more lawmakers have started to talk seriously about revenue. We expect to see legislation filed when the General Assembly returns the week after next.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Values verses Numbers

There is a recurring theme in the News Journal and other media outlets that Delaware has too many state employees. The Governor has contributed to this idea by talking about the need to make state government smaller. The justification given is a relatively high number of state employees per capita in Delaware. No in-depth analysis by either media or Governor has been forthcoming on this issue.

Small states deliver public services differently than large states. They naturally lose a bit in competiveness due to a lack of economy of scale, but there is more to it than that. In small states jursidictional lines blur and services that would be performed by counties and cities in larger states become the responsibility of the state. For example, state troopers act in lieu of local law enforcement for some localities, and state transportation workers plow roads that would be maintained by the county. This sort of transfer of services happens more frequently in the two southern counties. That's not a condemnation, it's just the way we do things here.

Ranking states by the number of state workers per 1,000 citizens proves little in terms of the efficiency of government. If one wants to get closer to the truth, one could count the number of all public employees per 1,000 citizens and then compare states. Using this method, Delaware usually ranks around 18th in the nation. Yet again, attempting to quantify public services produces more questions than answers:

Who is going to accept the responsibility for essential service?

Who is going to pay?

What demographics do we serve? Do we have high numbers of senior citizens, of children, of people with illness?

What kind of state do we safe, how clean, how educated, how healthy?

Upon consideration, our attitude towards public services and servants is more a question of values than numbers.



Congratulations to all those bold teachers and school employees who have been stepping out of school at the end of their contract day this week. It has been a great show of solidarity and a demonstration of the fact that you already give a lot to this state and asking you to do it all for less is just wrong.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Consolidation and Other Musings

There has been much talk this year about the consolidation of Delaware school districts. Now, the talk is on paper in Senate Bill 95. This bill would have each county as a district and one vo-tech district for a total of 4 in the state. The bill proposes that this change take effect in July, 2011. The Department of Education is charged with drafting the legislation details.

Friends and foes of DSEA alike need to realize that the union stands solidly behind the principle of "leveling up". This means that one would take the highest salary schedule within the county and make the new consolidated salary schedule equivalent. DSEA cannot have teachers working side by side on different salary schedules.

There are additional concerns. In New Castle County some school employees still remember the consolidation of the county into one district during the desegregation order. This was not a positive experience. In fact teachers went on strike (and won) over the above mentioned leveling up issue. In the southern counties school districts are often connected to community identity and the fear is that consolidation will destroy communities.

Moreover, what happens to existing union bargaining units (ie Local unions)?

On the positive side, there would be decreased administrative costs and economy of scale for purchasing.

With all of this said, why is the legislature considering such traumatic change this year? Is it not enough that teachers and school employees are facing personal economic disaster?

I used to work for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representing low paid service workers in industries such as commercial cleaning companies and nursing homes. All of the industries in which we organized were plagued with undependable workers. People would not show up for work, were habitually tardy, and often called in ill.

On the surface, the behavior of these workers might seem irresponsible. However, the workers did not have character flaws; they were simply poor. When workers are not paid well, life falls apart and impacts their work. Under-paid workers have transportation challenges. If they can afford a car, they cannot maintain it properly. If it breaks down they cannot afford to have it repaired. Many times these workers depend on inadequate public transportation. These workers often fall behind on utilities payments so may lose power, water or phone. Low paid workers may share living space with others. Low paid workers could have more than one job. Daycare is a constant challenge when you struggle to pay for it. The working poor must often deal with bureaucracies for essential aid such as food stamps.

Is it hard to imagine how just dealing with your life as one of the working poor could make you miss work, be tardy, or be more likely to have illness?

Now, imagine essential public services such as those provided by school employees or by state hospital nurses with this type of unreliability.

When you threaten Delaware public employees with irresponsible wage and benefit cuts, you threaten the Delaware quality of life for everyone.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Smarter before Smaller

I'm not feeling warm and fuzzy about the last few days in Delaware. First, on Friday the Delaware Financial Advisory Council did their best to make basically encouraging revenue news sound like doomsday. The next day, the News Journal has a headline about an $800 million state deficit albeit that number does not include federal stimulus money, low balls the gaming revenue, and under estimates the bank franchise tax. Finally, on Sunday we have a front page headline, "Delaware State of Waste".

The Sunday headline article accurately describes an absolutely ludicrous policy of paying state expenses on a massive scale with credit cards, thus making our purchasing process needlessly expensive. However, the article ends with Governor Markell bemoaning the size of state government: "State government will have to be smaller next year, and it will have to be smaller the year after that, and it will have to be smaller the year after that. There's no question about it."

Well excuse me, but what has been happening with state purchasing isn't about the size of state government, it's about the smarts of state government.

According to one expert quoted in the article, if purchasing was done smarter, it might save the state between $100 million and $200 million. That is probably on the optimistic side, but let us remember that the proposed 8% salary cut is worth $91 million.

Mr. Governor, you might have looked at this situation or others before going after our salaries. You might want to audit existing practices, get your house in order, and then evaluate state services and the amount of personnel needed to deliver those services, before promising to downsize state government for the next three years.

Once again, it sounds like state workers will pay for the sins of state management.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

professional vs unprofessional

Before getting into the main body of today's blog, I must make a few comments concerning the reporting of the News Journal for this Saturday, May 16, 2009. First, in the Local section a headline blasts, "Deficit Estimate Swells to $800 Million". You have to read further into the article to see that the figure accounts for neither $155 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA ie Federal Stimulus), nor the $53.5 million from the gaming bill. There are other things you should know as well. The revenue estimate on the gaming bill is almost entirely made on the increased "point split" (tax on existing casino profits). The new sports betting revenue is downplayed and table game revenues are not calculated at all. Regarding the bank franchise tax, the estimate was intentionally ratcheted down around $5 million not to account for anything happening this year in actual returns, but because of possible Federal regulations next year or beyond.

Having observed a couple of the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) revenue subcommittee meetings, I can tell you there is a lot more art than science and a lot more ideology than cold logic that goes into revenue estimates in Delaware. The most powerful interests in Delaware are represented on the committee.

Additionally in the News Journal today is an editorial by Shaun Fink that runs up the old ragged flag of 'let's cut taxes and cut state government'. This philosophy is supposed to incentivize businesses to "create jobs". Businesses do not create jobs per se, they create profits. Giving a business a tax break does not mean that the owner will say, "I'm going to take this money and go hire three people". If there is no need for the labor because there is no demand for the service or product the business does not hire just because there is extra money in the bank. Trickle down economics has greatly contributed to the mess the nation is in now. If one looks at a graph of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from the mid-1970s to the present and compare that with wages from the same time period, you see GDP going up in a steady arc and wages leveling and going down until the present time with a huge gap between the lines. In other words the fruits of productivity are not trickling down to those doing the producing. We have a gap between the rich and poor that has not been seen since the Gilded Age. The middle class, on the way to their demise, were making less and less in real wages and were borrowing more and more in dubious credit schemes. Eventually it all collapsed and there were a lot of contributing factors but at the heart of it, we do not have the bulk of the population earning good wages and benefits anymore.

All of this economic and political conversation around the distribution of wealth is important to school employees and state workers because they are ground zero in the next battle of the class war. Private sector employees and their unions have been under a thirty year attack. Only about 7% of the private sector remains unionized compared with about 37% of the public sector. Now, wages and benefits of the public sector are under the same attack.

OK, OK, I have to get to my title blog, "professional vs unprofessional". This coming week is the "bell to bell" week for Delaware State Education Association" members. It is the week that members are asked to demonstrate how much they do beyond the contract day by gathering together before the first bell and entering at the start of the contract day and leaving together at the last bell. In other words this is a protest against reducing our pay 8%, working more for less, when we are already working beyond contract day, every day.

There are some members who will say that is "unprofessional". I want to dwell on this a moment before ending an already too long post. Truly, our members are professional in the way they perform their extremely difficult job duties. However, are they professionals in pay, shared decision making, respect, control of their own schedules, control of their own work environment, etc.?

The sad truth is that the label of "professional" has in too many cases become a control mechanism: "Professionals don't complain about their hours. Professionals don't talk back to their principals. Professionals do not consider themselves labor union members. Professionals do not make demands. Professionals do not attend rallies or protests."

One of the great things about DSEA being involved in State Workers United (the coalition of other public employee unions) is that our members see other professionals such as, state troopers, nurses, social workers, technicians, and investigators, all engaged in the union movement and active protest against those who would take food from their families.

Having the power to demand professional respect means the difference between actually being a professional verses a slave with a degree.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

walking and chewing gum

Last night, the members, leaders, and staff of the Delaware State Education Association proved that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. In addition to being involved in an epic struggle against salary cuts, DSEA locals in 6 school districts engaged in competitive school board races. The DSEA prevailed in eight out of nine seats. Recommended candidates won in Brandywine, Christina, Colonial, Red Clay, and Cape Henlopen. Red Clay candidates Kim Williams and Eric Randolph won decisive victories in spite of the opposition of powerful status quo forces. Indian River fell short by a scant 71 votes in a spirited contest between challenger Harold Walters and long time board president Charlie Bireley. We are proud of our locals and their ability to use the democratic process to improve the quality of school boards in Delaware.

Meanwhile, at Legislative Hall...Combined lobby teams of the State Workers United coalition continue to descend on Dover every Wednesday. The reports from the teams indicate a shift in the right direction, with an increasing number of legislators saying they do not support the 8% salary cut.

We will feel more confidence in those statements when we see some revenue raising bills filed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A new gaming law for Delaware awaits only the Governor's signature after passing the Senate today by a vote of 17 to 2. The bill passed the House last week. The expectation is that revenue from this legislation will provide $50 million towards the $600 million shortfall.

The Joint Finance Committee is supposed to start mark up on the budget next week. Gaming is the only new revenue with which they can work. We are six weeks from the end of session and no substantive and sustainable revenue proposal is on the table.

DSEA and their coalition partners have pushed a number of revenue options into the public debate. Today, DSEA went a step farther and showed the legislature that raising new revenue is politically viable.

DSEA sent the results of a poll of Delaware voters to every legislator. The survey was conducted by the opinion research firm of Belden, Russonello, and Stewart at the request of DSEA. Some highlights of the poll include;
  • 86% of Delaware voters oppose closing the budget deficit by taking 8% of teacher's salaries.
  • 61% believe Delaware public schools need more funding.
  • 68% support increasing personal income tax for those earning over $150,000.
  • 77% of voters believe we should change the current income tax structure, which stops at $60,000, by adding a bracket to tax at an increased rate above $150,000.
  • 62% favor restoring the tax on inherited wealth.
  • 64% favor increasing the corporate franchise tax.

The citizens of Delaware are ready to be led out of this recession. Are the decision makers ready to lead?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Watch California

The news this weekend has a fight brewing between the White House and the state of California. It is a fight that could have a major impact on Delaware state employees, teachers, and school employees.

California lawmakers are attempting wage cuts for home health workers (in CA they are state employees). The White House is saying 'hold on you took American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA also known as "stimulus plan") money we don't think you can do that'.

ARRA included language regarding "maintenance of effort" for state programs. It is not clear if a state can accept ARRA money and cut salaries.

Some conservative media outlets are portraying this issue as Obama doing a favor for his union buddies. In this case they are referring to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which represents the health care workers.

However, the purpose of ARRA was to keep the economy from totally stalling out in this deep recession. The President realizes that any state slashing salaries is going to worsen the economic situation. If you took ARRA money, you are expected to go with the program: Maintain the core public services that underpin our economy and support the employees who deliver those services.

Public employee unions in Delaware will be all over this issue like a seagull on a snail.

Friday, May 8, 2009

So it begins.

My blog begins today. I am entering the cyber age of political communications; albeit kicking and screaming. In spite of the challenges and potential pitfalls of posting political information and commentary for all the world to see, it has become necessary as the hunger for information makes demands.

The news from Dover today is that in the early morning hours, the Delaware House passed a gaming bill. Why should this concern teachers and school employees? Only because this issue has been foisted upon us by many of the political powers.

The Governor has repeatedly attempted to bring teachers and other state workers into the fray. The idea being that the revenue from the gaming is tied to our proposed salary cuts. Well, if so it must be in a "stick" over the "carrot" sense because the 8% salary cut is still on the table.

The relief for us, in the seeming resolution of the long-running gaming battle, is that we can move on to real revenue solutions. Gaming, was never the kind of comprehensive answer we needed to the revenue crisis, any more than is wage cuts.

We need a fair and up-to-date tax system in this state to preserve the Delaware quality of life, which is threatened by the current economic situation.

The Delaware State Education Association and other public employee unions have repeatedly stated that we cannot cut our way out of this budget crisis. By contrast, the Governor attempted a reverse spin and said, "With this proposal, we cut more than we raise because we cannot tax our way out of this problem." That sounded quaintly Reagan-like.

In truth, many economists including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office believe that states cause more harm to their economies during recessions by spending cuts than by tax increases.

I'm no Nobel Prize winner, but it stands to reason with the State as Delaware's largest employer, cutting their workers' salaries 8% is like trying to fight the darkness with more darkness. Turn on a light Governor.