Sunday, September 30, 2007

Paradise Lost

Commentators on the local scene frequently note what admirers call the focus, and detractors the lockstep mentality, of Republicans in the Monroe County Administration and especially in the County Legislature. By implication, perhaps on occasion directly, these comments suggest that County Legislature Democrats are lacking in this regard.

It's a suggestion both wrong and unfair.

No politically knowledgeable critic of our Legislature in recent years can overlook the focus or determination of its Democrats in pursuit of their prime objective:   to force Maggie Brooks to increase the property tax, and Republican legislators to vote for it. For this reason, County Democrats attack any proposal that could meliorate the County's fiscal position.

Showing similar discipline in proposals of their own, legislative Democrats hew to a rigorous protocol:

1. Propose no measure that, if permitted by law, would reduce costs or otherwise improve the County’s financial position.

2. Propose measures that would help, but are legally prohibited.

3. Propose measures that conform to either rule above, and would pit Republican constituencies against each other or otherwise help Democrats politically.

These principles emerge from Democratic policy statements at

Some examples illustrate the point.

One.   Early in her term Maggie Brooks tried to extend county funding for City school nurses.  How?   Brooks liked a new State Comptroller’s program to refinance a portion of existing debt at a lower interest rate.  Same amount of debt.   Same length of indebtedness.  No “closing” costs.   Only change:   lower interest rate.   Result:   enough savings to pay for nurses.

As with all bonding measures, it required a two-thirds vote in the County legislature.   Rarely an issue because both Democratic and Republican legislators routinely vote for bonding resolutions.   But this one wasn’t routine.  In addition to funding nurses, substantial additional savings would have accrued to the County for some years to come.

Joe Morelle himself was there for the vote, to hold his troops against the measure.  The former county legislator who told us of this episode recounts that, when a member of the county employees’ union complained to Morelle, Little Joe shot back that his job isn't to fund nurses, it's to make Maggie Brooks look bad.

Two.   Legislative Democrats stated their agenda for Monroe County in a “Blueprint for Progress.”  It follows so scrupulously the rules noted above that it amounts to a Blueprint for Bupkis.

The centerpiece is a plan to reconfigure paying for Sheriff’s services.   Democrats claim it would save over $20 million annually.   The details show it would save nothing.   It would shift the cost of paying for Sheriff’s services from all the towns to just a few of them (all with Republican legislators).   But the County would take in the same revenue to pay for the Sheriff’s department, and the County’s cost would stay the same.  No improvement to the county budget.

The Democrats argue that towns without police departments should foot the entire bill for Sheriff’s services.   A great point to demagogue, and one that could pit Republican towns and legislators against each other:  some represent towns with police departments; others don’t.   Democrats were humiliated when they finally introduced it late last year.   Undersheriff Daniel Greene rolled out data showing that the City and town police rely heavily on Sheriff’s deputies, both on calls for service and having Sheriff’s cars and deputies as backup, thereby allowing towns to staff police at affordable levels, and that nearly all “road patrol” deputies comprise the staff of special services that each local police department uses directly.

So much for examples of the main point:   that Monroe County Democrats have shown discipline in working to force Maggie Brooks closer to having to raise property taxes.  As Medicaid expense keeps rising, as the County gradually runs out of budget cuts and other revenue sources, Democrats have moved ever closer to their goal.

This explains their near-hysteria at the special meeting last Wednesday that adopted Maggie Brooks’s budget plan on a party-line vote.

The Holy Grail had been almost in reach.   A $50 million projected deficit.   No obvious way out.   Mere days before the clock ran out on being able to pay Medicaid with sales tax.

And remember, paying for Medicaid with sales tax -- by itself -- would reduce funds going to the Towns, the City and school districts outside the City.  Democrats in the Assembly thought they had this wired, by blocking the sales tax increase that Brooks wanted to use to compensate the other municipalities.   County Democrats were starting to warn about a big property tax surprise in the budget to be introduced in November.

Then Brooks pulled the rabbit from the hat.   Her plan uses the new Medicaid payment option, compensates all municipalities but suburban school districts for any loss of revenue, looks to record increases in state funding to school districts to take care of the districts.   The cruelest blow of all:   Brooks caps off her plan with a property tax decrease.

Monroe County Democrats felt political paradise at their fingertips.  On Wednesday it became a paradise lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery . . .
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy!

Milton, Paradise Lost, Book ii, lines 562 - 565


Will They Respect Us in the Morning?

We’ve lost our virginity on Mustard Street.   We attended a meeting of the Monroe County Legislature.

In separate postings we’ll be looking, first, at the political background to Maggie Brooks’s “FAIR” Budget Plan. Then into the Brooks Plan itself, political ramifications of it and reactions to it.

First, though, a few random comments on Wednesday's meeting and some of the players.

Some Democratic legislators seemed on the verge of hysteria or panic or both. Notable exception:   Legislator Ted O’Brien, who was calm, professional and focused in his comments and throughout the meeting. Why isn’t this guy the Democratic leader?

Republicans should view the impending retirement of term-limited Majority Leader Bill Smith as coming none to soon. Making a “point of order,” or point of something else that sounded irrelevant, Smith stepped on an answer coming from a Brooks Administration spokesman about the effect of the plan on some tax credits. An answer that, it turns out, would have been favorable to Brooks and her plan. With friends like this . . .

Democratic legislators made a stupefying blunder in voting against funding the City and Towns to compensate for effects of Brooks's Medicaid payment plan. Even O’Brien, who otherwise seemed to have it together in this meeting, voted against restoring funding to Irondequoit, the town he represents. There was no “poison pill” in the resolution, just a straight-out refunding of monies lost due to the Medicaid plan. Yet every Democratic legislator voted against restoring funding. Note to Democrats: Republicans will be writing their own campaign mailings against you.   You don’t have to do it for them.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

If Your Name Were Joe Morelle ...

Wouldn't you really, really wish today that you had run someone for County Executive?


Sunday, September 16, 2007

No Vice

The late, great, Quentin Crisp said of himself, "I don't fly to extremes.   I live there."

We were reminded of this by an especially good analysis posted yesterday on Rochester Turning by the essayist Exile on Ericson Street.

Responding to a newspaper editorial, Exile considers accusations of "extremism" and whether that term has value in understanding a political position or the person who supports it. One of the larger points we take away from the essay is that imputation of political "extremism" can tell us at least as much about the imputer as about his target.

Is it "extreme" to be fully committed to a position or principle? To be a passionate advocate? That seems enough to trigger suggestions of "extremism" from self-identified moderates.

We've wondered often, with respect to important public issues, just what there is to be moderate about.

Suppose you believe the death penalty is morally wrong. A reasonable person holding this view should oppose all executions. Yet if we apply to this position the standard employed by newspaper editorialists, we conclude perforce that opposing all executions is "extremism."

But isn't that the only rational position that derives from a belief that executions are immoral? That, then, makes a person extreme?

It's because editorial writers typically don't characterize opposition to executions as extreme that we choose this example to show where the regulation-issue take on "extremism" can bring us.

Approach the same issue from another angle. You believe the death penalty is morally wrong. But you don't want to be an extremist. What then constitutes "moderation?" That we execute half the people sentenced to death? That we leave the rest alone? That doesn't make you a moderate. It makes you a nut.

A burning building contains 10 people. You rescue them all. Are you an extremist, when you could have been moderate by saving 5?

Consider examples from the historical annals of extremism. Exile cites Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Here's another:

"No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution.

Anyone insisting on legal enforcement of these words risks branding with the Scarlet E.   And usually with another label even worse. This is because of the implications for preference-based affirmative action programs if we were really to require equal protection of law.

Yet, just as opposing all executions is the only rational consequence of believing the death penalty to be immoral, opposing programs that assign preferences on the basis of race is a rational consequence of believing in "equal protection of law."

Apologists for these programs tell us they're necessary -- to compensate for historical injustice, or to offset effects of racism. Supporters of the Patriot Act tell us it's necessary to reduce the risk of terrorism. But the Patriot Act's unconstitutional, too.

The point is that to label as "extreme" opposition on constitutional grounds to race-based preferences or the Patriot Act, or on moral grounds to executions, is to render the term "extremist" meaningless. At least for much of our political discourse.

Which returns us to the conclusion of Mr. or Ms. Exile: that the epithet "extremist" is useless for reasoned consideration of political issues.

To which we'd add the corollary: except as understood in a defined context.   In a room full of drunks, the teatotaler's an extremist. (For further elaboration, consult H.G. Wells's The Country of the Blind.)

This spares us from the error that no one properly might be deemed extreme as long as he's sincere in his principles, consistent in applying them and vigorous in asserting them. That describes the Unabomber. But that's why the corollary about context is important.

We think the commenter to Exile's posting got it right who invoked Patrick Henry's famous dictum, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Calling something "treason" or "extremism" doesn't make it wicked. Whether it's wicked depends on the relative merits and demerits of the argument and of the goal. Understanding that lets you turn the argument around.

And for turning the argument around, maybe no one since Patrick Henry has said it better than this:

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Nor are they today.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Left's Insurmountable Problem

"...self interest and family orientation is not the product of capitalism, but is human nature due to selection from evolutionary pressure over billions of years."
From an essay by University of Chicago Professor Gary Becker.


Monday, September 3, 2007

Taking on a Sicko

Our focus is local, but now and again something turns up that's not, that interests us and that we haven't seen elsewhere.   Mustard Street resident Lucy found this gem today, after reading a story on NPR's website about Fred Thompson.

Thomson criticized socialist icon Michael Moore for visiting Fidel Castro.   Moore then challenged Thompson to a debate on health care and criticized him for smoking Cuban cigars, thereby violating the trade embargo.

Something appeals to us about a person armed with the truth, the courage of his convictions and a "right back atcha" chutzpah.   (We're calling it chutzpah because Lucy calls Thomson a real mensch.)   All three are displayed in Thompson's delightful response to Moore.

Fred, you're our new bubbee.


Saturday, September 1, 2007

Pittsford "Damsel" Outed by WXXI

Pittsford, Pittsford, Pittsford ... why is so much happening in a place that never offered political excitement before?

The Brighton-Pittsford Post reported recently on a Michael Slade, who shot video at a Pittsford town council meeting, doctored it and posted it to YouTube.  Finding the taped events too tedious to make council members look bad, Slade added titles and comic music to help matters along. The video features dialogue during a public comment session between the Supervisor and one Gerry Minerd, who the titles describe as a "Damsel in Distress" because of the Supervisor's questions.  Just a guileless, ordinary citizen getting what's claimed to be a hard time.

For all we know, maybe she was. Video snippets can never convey the full story, even if unedited and presented straight.  Beyond that, our view of public comments at government meetings is that they're for members of the public to speak.   The elected officials should be listening, not (for a change) doing the talking themselves.   They're lucky that people can attend meetings and clue them in on some things.

Of course we checked out Slade's video.   The discrepancy between the actual events and superimposed titles made us understand that the real story here isn't about a town council, but about an eccentric with time on his hands.   One YouTube commenter hit it right on the money:

You might as well film a Mayor walking in the town's 4th of July parade with titles saying "The Fuhrer leads his troops against Poland."
That might have been the end of it.   But here on Mustard Street we're early birds.   We caught the WXXI local newscast last Wednesday shortly past 6 am.   Reporting on an anti-war protest in Brighton, WXXI identified the speaker in its soundbite with the following words: "Gerry Minerd is with, a left-wing activist group."

A remarkably candid acknowledgement of ideological motive for public radio, where (to give you WHAM listeners an example) its network reporters refer to the Cuban dictator lovingly as "Fidel."   So remarkable that we wrote it down word-for word when we heard it, recalling the name Gerry Minerd from the YouTube video.

The "Damsel in Distress" was a ringer.

The ringer in a staged performance by a left wing group to evoke a response, any response.   Apparently Minerd and Slade came with a group that arrived together and left together at the close of public comments.   Minerd wasn't just another citizen addressing her town council but a performer, in a piece of street theater choreographed with the person doing the filming.

Ms. Minerd was last heard from in the letters column of this week's City News, praising the "soundness of moral character, uprightness, and honesty," of the only political candidate in the history of Pittsford to have been found guilty, by the Fair Election Practices Committee created by the Interfaith Alliance and the League of Women Voters, of campaign ethics violations -- in this case of lying to voters.

Almost makes even Fidel look good.