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Coloradans have been marching in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., for 35 years now.

Some “Marades” have been headier than others. Like in 1992 when skinheads and white supremists swore at and spit on marchers, prompting chaos in the streets. And in 2009, when Barack Obama was about to swear-in as the first black president. And in 2016, when Black Lives Matter commandeered an event its members said had become co-opted by corporate sponsors and elected officials who’ve forgotten their roots.

Today’s Marade was cold. Not just the snowy morning 19-degree chill. But cold in a deeper sense – the kind of chill that, five decades after Dr. King’s death, comes from frustration with a president whose words and policies many said has set the civil rights movement back – way back. A minion of elected officials tried to put a happy face on the situation.

“50 years later, it may seem dark today, but we are shining brighter,” Sen. Michael Bennet told the crowd, urging them to “stand up” to Trump’s administration.

“If we outlasted and survived slavery, we can outstand this man in the White House,” added former Mayor Wellington Webb.

Congresswoman Diana DeGette took another tact, calling upon the crowd to fight bigotry with love.

For some marchers, the platitudes fell flat.

“Words. Too many words. Let’s move,” grumbled Bud Thompson, a longtime civil rights activist who moved to Denver from Missouri earlier this month and wanted to march rather than listen. Thompson’s grumbles seemed to be shared by the crowd, which livened and lightened up once the speeches stopped and they were able to work their way from Denver’s City Park toward Civic Center downtown.

As the two-block long mass of people began working its way west, the sun broke through the morning clouds and many said they could finally start feeling their toes again.

Thompson, 63, was wearing the same pair of brown workboots he had worn to see Obama inaugurated nine years ago and to march against police after they killed Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014.

“I don’t know what kind of comments you’re looking for,” he told The Independent. “I’m a guy who lets these boots do the talking.”

 

Photographer Kevin Mohatt took his camera to the event. Here are some of his best shots.

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All photos by Kevin Mohatt

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Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Melanie Asmar on January 12, 2018. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo by Victor Björkund via Flickr:Creative Commons

KEEFE: The Border Wall

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Day 4 of shithole-gate: Trump denies he said shithole. What he does say, probably not meaning to invoke Nixon, is “I am not a racist.” Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, who were at the meeting, initially said they couldn’t recall whether he said shithole. Days later, their memories refreshed, they affirm that Trump didn’t say shithole and basically accuse fellow Sen. Dick Durbin of lying about it.  Via The Washington Post.

On Meet the Press, Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the Gang of Six who wrote the proposed immigration that Trump rejected, said Trump’s shithole quotes were “racist” and “un-American.” On Face the Nation, Sen. Cory Gardner, also among the Gang of Six, said Trump’s words, if he said them, were “unacceptable,” but refused to say whether they meant he was a racist.

Trump’s shithole comments didn’t tell us he was a racist. We already knew that. What they do tell us is how far down he is dragging the country along with him. Via The New Yorker.

On the day before the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, African-Americans gathered in churches across the country to lament the words and deeds of Donald Trump. Via The New York Times.

From The National Review, the strange thing about the Trump/porn-star story is not the idea that Trump would have had sex with Stormy Daniels, but the idea that Trump would pay her $130,000 to be quiet about something he would normally want to see plastered on a billboard.

It looks like retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is going all in on his criticism of Trump, In a planned speech, Flake will say that Trump’s attacks on the press echo the words of Stalin and that even Khrushchev wouldn’t say the press were the “enemy of the people.” Via The Washington Post.

In other news, Trump hints that he’s giving up on any kind of DACA compromise and is, of course, blaming Democrats for the impasse. The question now is whether that will lead us to a government shutdown. Via Vox.

How did it take 38 minutes to call off the mistaken alert that missiles were heading Hawaii’s way, sending its citizens into panic? It seems that most of the blame goes to Hawaii and its governor. Via The New York Times.

Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic that the allegations against comedian Aziz Ansari let us know that “women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.”

Stu Rothenberg: Democrats won’t have Barack Obama as a unifying leader at the top of the ticket in 2020, but they’ll have someone nearly as good — Donald Trump. Via The Hill.

Photo By Tullio Sabo, via Flickr: Creative Commons. An angry Vice President Richard Nixon pokes at the chest of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during a confrontation. Translators and officials surround the men.
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Here’s a doozy.

“A pirate radio signal that first shot out across Longmont’s airwaves late last year has drawn an unusual, high-level scolding from the Federal Communications Commission — directed not at the illicit broadcasters, but to an online news outlet that wrote about their hijacking of an FM frequency,” reports The Boulder Daily Camera. “The letter from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly raised concerns about the Longmont Observer’s ‘tacit support’ of the pirate radio signal in a Dec. 6 article, then stated the ‘proper action’ would have been to alert the FCC’s Denver field office to its existence, ‘not suggest people listen while they can.'”

Oh, really? Because news-gathering operations should just act as an arm of the government whenever possible in that part of Colorado, apparently.

Here’s how the nonprofit Longmont Observer responded:

“The Longmont Observer generally doesn’t comment on letters to the editor, however, we do find it odd, and by what we can tell, unprecedented, that an FCC commissioner would write a tiny digital-only, locally focused news outlet in Longmont, Colo., and tell us what story we should write, and how to write it.”

Odd? These days? Pardon me while I go read more about simulation theory and rewatch Pump up the Volume.

That time Kyle Clark turned over his anchor’s chair

No, he wasn’t mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, and no he didn’t actually knock over the anchor’s chair. But he did do something you don’t see every day from a popular TV news anchor in a major metro market: He turned over his anchor chair to a reporter who not only doesn’t work at the station, but also isn’t even a news partner. But that’s what Kyle Clark of the KUSA 9News show “Next” did when he asked public radio reporter Bente Birkeland to sit in for him and moderate a panel for a segment about sexual harassment at the Colorado Capitol.

Why Birkeland? I mean, who else? She was the reporter who broke the story of a sexualized culture under Denver’s gold dome in early November and stuck on it like your kid’s tongue to a chairlift. “Bente has led the way reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol,” Clark told me. “I wanted her to lead the discussion, as opposed to being a guest panelist.”

When Clark first started “Next,” he gave an interview to Westword where he said this: “We are at a point where we can move past our traditional concept of competition. I would rather someone watch a competitor than not watch or read any news.” So kudos to him for walking the walk even when it means giving up his own throne. And he’s also still talking the talk. “Journalists shouldn’t be tearing each other down or ignoring scoops in the name of competition,” he told me. “If a viewer was introduced through Bente’s work on our program, I think that’s good for her news outlet, good for ours, and good for our community.”

Speaking of Bente…

Birkeland will be at The Denver Press Club on Tuesday, Jan. 16 at 6 p.m., where she and I will reprise the Q-and-A I did with her for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, but in front of a live audience. She’ll also offer updates on the impact of her reporting and the mood at the Capitol now that the legislature is back in session.

Wow, did you see this Comcast ad?

Here’s an ad that was appearing in news stories this week at ColoradoPolitics.com, the politics website for Clarity Media, which owns The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs.

Behold some reactions when I posted the pic on Twitter:

“A bit on the nose.”

“This has definitely become some sort of Orwellian dystopian prophecy come true. Especially since Comcast could not even see the problem with this ad.”

“Who the fuck thought that was a good idea?”

“It sounds like a threat.”

h/t Gavin Dahl for the spot.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages

The Gazette reported how animal poop could threaten an Air Force rocket programThe Greeley Tribune wrote how stricter regulation of wells is causing a local water shortageThe Loveland Reporter-Herald profiled a local police K-9 retirement foundationThe Pueblo Chieftain reported how election-year politics could shape the legislative sessionThe Longmont Times-Call reported on local lawmakers suggesting a flurry of oil-and-gas bills this sessionThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel focused on the plans of rural lawmakers for the session. The Steamboat Pilot looked at 2017 in reviewSummit Daily reported on traffic problems at KeystoneThe Boulder Daily Camera covered a lawsuit against the county by a substance abuse centerVail Daily reported the Eagle County real estate market topped $2 billion for the first time since 2008The Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported how sexual assault figures can be hard to quantifyThe Denver Post previewed the legislative session that began Jan. 10.

The Longmont Times-Call responds to calls for more local news by expanding staff

Here’s a man-bites-dog story from a Digital First Media-owned newspaper in Colorado.
“Readers, we hear you,” the paper reported this week. “Out in the community, on social media, even in this newspaper, you’ve been telling us you want more Longmont news. Starting Monday, you will have it. We’re adding two reporters to our staff who will be dedicated to covering general news and business.”

More from the LTC:

This era of shrinking newsroom staffs has not been easy on any newspaper, particularly the Times-Call. But that has not diminished the desire of our dedicated staff to work hard every day to deliver news to the community where most of us live, or of our management to give our readers a product worth what they’re paying for it.

So welcome new reporters Sam Lounsberry and Lucas High. (Lucas is another reporter from South Carolina who moved to Colorado. More than half a dozen have moved in and out of here from the Carolinas in the past four years if I recall correctly.)

Meanwhile, in Durango…

The alternative weekly newspaper DGO is hiring an editor and staff writer. “The jobs are great for people who love to write about off-beat topics, food, weed, beer, art, music and more. It’s not a mainstream weekly, so creativity is highly valued,” writes Amy Maestas, who is also editor of The Durango Herald. She adds, “To boot, we are a family-owned company that places a high premium on being locally owned and supports journalism first.”

Here are the job listings.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Dave Dugdale for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

Colorado GOP lawmakers seek repeal of magazine ban despite New Year’s Eve mass shooting

Shooter who killed deputy owned 100-round magazine

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Republican advocates of the right to bear arms with high-capacity magazines aim to legalize them again despite Colorado’s latest mass shooting.

On New Year’s Eve, Matthew Riehl ambushed Douglas County sheriff’s deputies, killing Zackari Parrish, a father of two, and wounding six other people before he was shot and killed.

It was the second time in five years that Colorado has been traumatized by a lone madman wielding a military-style rifle and other guns. 

James Holmes took a heavier toll in 2012. He killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at an Aurora theater as moviegoers desperately tried to hide or flee.

Both men owned gun magazines capable of holding 100 rounds of ammunition. Colorado lawmakers banned such magazines after the Aurora shooting, but Riehl bought his in Wyoming legally along with a cache of other weapons from a gun store in Laramie.

He fired a barrage of bullets from his apartment bedroom when deputies arrived to talk to him at dawn. The sheriff’s office identified four guns used in the shooting and said that more than 100 rounds were fired, but it would not specify whether or how many rounds came from the high-capacity magazine. A spokesman for the department said the number of rounds fired from each gun is still under investigation. 

On Wednesday, the opening day of the 2018 legislative session, Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs and Republican Reps. Lori Saine and Stephen Humphrey, both of Weld County, introduced bills that would overturn the ban. (Democratic leadership in the House immediately sent the bill to a kill committee.) Saine made headlines late last year after she was arrested at Denver International Airport for bringing a loaded gun through security. Prosecutors declined to file charges.  

State Sen. Tim Neville, a conservative Republican allied with the hard-line Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group, told The Colorado Independent that if Riehl did use a high-capacity magazine, his ambush demonstrated the uselessness of Colorado’s ban.

“Criminals will do what criminals will do,” he said.

Besides, he added, “no gun guy is going to use a 100-round magazine. They jam.”

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who represents the district where Parrish was killed, previously sponsored legislation to overturn Colorado’s ban, which limits new gun magazines to 15 rounds. Holbert said he would vote to do so again.

“Punishing law-abiding citizens is not the solution,” he said.

Holbert added, however, that the shooting may have demonstrated flaws in a background check system that is supposed to identify mentally ill purchasers. “That’s something I’d like to understand better,” he said.

The Denver Post has reported that numerous warning signs preceded Riehl’s ambush, including an involuntary stay at a veterans’ hospital in Wyoming, recent threats to police and a failure to take medicine for a bipolar disorder.

Gun control advocates say those signs points to the need for legislation that would give family members a tool to temporarily disarm a loved one in crisis. That tool, an extreme risk protection order, would allow a civil court judge to order a respondent deemed dangerous to surrender his guns for up to one year.

Eileen McCarron, president of the gun control group Colorado CeaseFire, said the Douglas County situation was “screaming out” for crisis intervention.

“It’s awful that family members can’t deal with it when they know somebody is going dangerously off the rails,” she said.

Yet she is pessimistic about the prospects of change, especially during an election year when Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate. She summed up her expectations of legislative responsiveness in a word: “Nothing.”

She is not giving up, however. She found two senators interested in sponsoring a Colorado extreme risk protection order and hopes Democratic leaders will support them. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” she said Wednesday. One of the senators is Aurora’s Rhonda Fields, whose son was gunned down with his fiancée before he could testify in a murder trial.

Ever since the Aurora shooting, Colorado legislators have waged yearly gun battles that typically end in standoffs. Senate Republicans vote to overturn the 15-round limit on gun magazines, only to see their bills die in the House. Gun control measures that make it through a Democratic-controlled House die in the Senate.

This year is shaping up as more of the same. Republicans expect House Democrats to kill efforts to broaden gun rights and contend that a restraining order law would violate constitutional rights to own guns and be protected against unreasonable seizures. Democrats are wary of offending gun owners in an election year that looks troublesome for Republicans nationwide.

In an office bedecked with plaques for championing conservative causes, Sen. Neville said he would worry about any proposal to allow gun seizures prior to a criminal act.

“You have a problem. You have an issue. You get a warrant,” he said.

The Aurora and Douglas County shootings bore some remarkable similarities. Both killers legally bought civilian versions of military rifles along with 100-round ammunition magazines. Both sprayed their victims with unrelenting gunfire. Both showed ample warning signs of impending psychological breakdowns. Yet neither was deemed to be mentally ill before the shootings and both still had access to their weapons at a time of acute psychological crisis.

Democrats responded forcefully to the movie theater massacre, pushing through laws in 2013 that banned new high-capacity magazines and required background checks on all gun sales.

An alliance of gun owners and Republicans rebelled, swiftly and successfully.

Senate President John Morse, a Democrat, was ousted in an expensive recall election. Sen. Angela Giron, a Pueblo Democrat who voted for the new laws, also was recalled. A third Democratic senator, Evie Hudak, stepped down to avoid a recall fight, enabling a Democrat to replace her.

Morse, who was narrowly defeated, blames Democrats in Colorado and nationally for their timidity during and after the recall elections.

“Democrats are afraid of their own shadows,” he said. “To this day, Democrats don’t talk much about guns, even though thousands of people die needlessly each year, including a deputy in Douglas County. This is the Aurora shooting again, but without the same number of casualties. And the casualties were in blue.”

Former House speaker Andrew Romanoff, now president of Mental Health Colorado, sees an opportunity to reduce gun deaths by enforcing existing laws that promise mentally ill Coloradans will not have to endure sometimes months-long waits for treatment. Many substance abusers are not getting help. Mental health professionals are paid less than those treating physical ailments. And the state Division of Insurance hasn’t penalized insurance companies that provide a smaller reimbursement for mental health treatment, Romanoff said. Those factors limit opportunities for intervention, leaving open the possibility that future shooters like Matthew Riehl or James Holmes will strike again.

Said Romanoff: “Those laws are almost entirely useless unless you enforce them.”

The Colorado Independent’s John Herrick contributed to this story.

Photo by Vlad Butsky via Flickr: Creative Commons. 
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So, before we get to the point of this column — that Donald Trump has once again revealed himself to the world as a racist — let’s get ”shithole” out of the way because 1) using it has been liberating for those of us who have spent a lifetime working for editors who would have fainted if someone had tried to get that word into a family newspaper and 2) we’re quoting the fu——ing president of the United States who used it to demean an entire continent and more.

The word itself is beside the point. I’ve said worse. Many presidents have undoubtedly said worse. We’ve got tapes of some of them saying worse. What does matter is which countries Trump considers shitholes — yes, countries with a lot of black people — and why he thinks America would be better off with Norwegian immigrants (read: white people) than Haitians (read: not white people).

Remarkably, as has been reported everywhere, Trump spent Thursday evening on the phone asking friends how his “shithole countries” comments on Africa were going over. One White House official described it to CNN as Trump taking a “victory lap.”

The next day, faced with the fact that his comments might not have been a success, Trump semi-denied the quotes, not that anyone would believe him. But if you’re still having doubts, there’s more.

I talked to Michael Bennet about Trump’s comments. Bennet — who along with Cory Gardner is a member of the Gang of 6 that wrote up the compromise immigration proposal Trump rejected — said he saw Sen. Dick Durbin soon after Durbin had left the meeting with Trump and before the Washington Post reported the story.

Bennet said Durbin “looked shaken.” And while Bennet wouldn’t reveal the details of his conversation, he did say that after talking to Durbin, “I have no doubt the president said exactly what he was quoted as saying.” Let’s just say Bennet did not mean that as a good thing.

And there’s this.

After Trump’s semi-denial — which followed White House non-denials — Durbin took to the microphones Friday morning to say that shithole was the least of it and that Trump’s comments were, in fact, “hate-filled, vile and racist.” He noted that he used those words “advisedly,” saying, “I understand how powerful they are. But I cannot believe in the history of the White House in that Oval Office that any president has spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak today.”

And this.

Durbin also said that Lindsey Graham, a Republican Gang of Sixer who made the presentation to Trump, called Trump out on his comments while sitting next to him, with Durbin noting that it took “extraordinary political courage” for Graham to have done so.

Graham, who has been going around saying unexpectedly nice things about Trump recently, wouldn’t comment directly on the meeting, but fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott said that Graham told him the quotes were “basically accurate.” Which is not exactly courageous, but still.

No one should be surprised by Trump’s latest outrage, even though many continue to be. There’s a reason for that, I guess. Whatever Trump does or says, we still try to cling to a notion of normalcy — and that as abnormal as Trump might be, the office of the presidency must be respected.

And then we remember. That Trump said if Nigerians come to America, they’ll never go back to their huts. And that immigrating Haitians all have AIDS.

And then we remember everything else. The good people among the neo-Nazi marchers. The Muslim ban. The Mexicans-as-rapists trope. The American-born Indiana judge Trump called out for the great crime of having been born to Mexican-American parents. And on and on.

We also shouldn’t be surprised by how many Republicans refuse to call Trump out. Paul Ryan said Trump’s shithole comments were “unfortunate,” which isn’t the same as calling them “racist.” We’re waiting for Gardner, who was recently called a “model” for coming out strongly against Jeff Sessions’ anti-pot crusade, to say something about Trump’s comments regarding a proposal that Gardner helped write. Here’s what a model response would be: Are you bleeping kidding me?

It’s even less surprising that Trump’s ideas on immigration are so backward. First of all, Norwegians are basically happy where they are. They’ve got universal healthcare. They’ve got good schools. Sure, the weather is problematic, but in the last reading, they were named the happiest country in the world. So they’re not immigrating.

Of course people who do immigrate to America often come from poverty and come to make a better life. It’s right there on the Statue of Liberty. These were the people who, according to everything we learned in school, have made America great, and these were the people who, in 1924, America all but cut off from immigrating here because they weren’t white enough (including, at that point, Italians and Slavs) or Christian enough or something enough. It wasn’t until 1965 that Lyndon Johnson and Congress upended the bigoted law.

Meanwhile, this just in: Botswana summoned the U.S. ambassador to the country “to clarify whether Botswana is regarded as a ‘shithole’ country.”

But it’s interesting, maybe even ironic, that, according to a Washington Post story, when large numbers of Norwegians did immigrate to the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, they didn’t perform as well economically as most other immigrant groups.

Which is, of course, indicative of … nothing. Except that there are shitholes and then there are shitholes. As any stable genius would know.

Photo by Alex.m.Hayward, via Flickr: Creative Commons

Hickenlooper delivers final State of the State address

Gov. John Hickenlooper reflects on his eight-year tenure and presents priorities to lawmakers in his final State of the State

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Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his final State of the State address on Thursday, laying out his priorities for the homestretch of his eight-year tenure while hinting voters should approve new funding for road and bridge repairs and changes to the state constitution. 

Over the course of his 49-minute speech, he reminisced over a tenure that began in the wake of the Great Recession and is now riding the wave of a booming economy. He recalled the summer smell of barbeque at Little League ballfields in Sterling, as well as the state’s trailblazing the legal sale of recreational marijuana, which he opposed in 2012.

Hickenlooper said there is a lot to accomplish in the next 119 days of the legislative session, which kicked off on Wednesday. As he enters his last year in office, the state’s public workers’ pension plan is at risk of insolvency in the event of another economic downturn. A backlog of needed transportation projects is nearing $9 billion over the next decade. Schools face teacher and special needs staff shortages. Families are trying to cope with life-threatening addiction to opioids. Residents are facing a looming water crisis due to a growing population and low snowpack levels. Rural communities still lack access to high-speed Internet needed for educational and economic opportunities. Abandoned oil and gas wells need to be cleaned up as future wells and housing developments encroach upon one another despite the Firestone explosion last year. And a constitutional amendment is squeezing rural local government and school budgets as property values rise in the Front Range.  

“It’s an opportunity for us to continue showing the country how it can be done. That politics need not be a blood sport. That we need not wage war between the ‘blue team’ and the ‘red team,’” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told a packed House chamber from the wooden lectern.

Some lawmakers have said this may be a lame duck year for Hickenlooper. But others see it as a chance for the administration to mediate differences between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House during a session in which the looming November election will cast its shadow over public policy.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert spoke to the Senate on the opening day of the 2018 legislative session on Jan. 10. Photo by John Herrick

“They’re not sitting on their laurels watching the session go by,” Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said of the Hickenlooper administration.

Fixing the state’s transportation infrastructure is one shared priority. But the solutions vary widely.

Hickenlooper told reporters after the speech he would support an “appropriate request to the voters for new revenue.” He drew a standing ovation from at least half the House chamber when he suggested a ballot measure for transportation. The Colorado Department of Transportation is facing a $25 billion funding gap over the next 25 years, according to its 2016 annual report.

“The cost of asphalt and concrete continue to rise. Yet we haven’t increased the state gas tax in over 25 years,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve been driving on a flat tire for a quarter century.”

Republicans, however, are opposed to raising new revenue through a ballot initiative. 

“They are holding your commute hostage for a tax increase,” House Minority Leader Patrick Neville told The Colorado Independent. “We have enough money. We have plenty of money. We’re swimming in it.”

Instead, Republicans want voters to approve a bond sale to shore up more upfront money for roads and bridges by allocating some of the state’s surplus this year to pay debt service.

Lawmakers are expecting a revenue surplus for the 2018-19 fiscal year of about one billion dollars. But they are certain to scuffle over how this money is spent.

Hickenlooper also called for innovation and additional funding for K-12 education. His budget request to lawmakers seeks $100 million above inflation and enrollment to pay down the state’s $828 million debt to schools. He stopped just short of calling for a statewide ballot initiative to pay down the IOU the state issued schools after the Great Recession in 2010.

“We need to be honest with ourselves and the voters. This number won’t go down much without their help,” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper, a former mayor of Denver, likened rural Colorado to a bristlecone pine: sturdy, resilient and beautiful, but a conifer that grows more slowly than a spruce. One issue that speaks to this metaphor is the Gallagher amendment, which Hickenlooper told reporters was like a finger trap for local governments’ budgets.

The Gallagher amendment sets the rate to tax residential properties, which was as high as 30 percent prior to the amendment and now is 7.2 percent. It could drop as low as 6.1 percent in 2019, according to the Legislative Council. In rural Colorado where home values are not rising as fast as those in the Front Range, less money is going into local government coffers. It also affects the state’s budget because the state must backfill constitutionally mandated education costs that are not covered by local property taxes.

Hickenlooper wants a new formula that recognizes conditions in rural Colorado. He did not propose a specific plan. Lawmakers are considering freezing the rate in place and restructuring the formula so that it is different for rural and metro areas of the state. No bills have been introduced on the subject. 

Another issue hurting rural Colorado is the lack of Internet coverage due to the economics of serving a small customer base. The governor said the state has made “modest deposit” on broadband and told lawmakers “we need legislation and funds to ensure full broadband buildout in rural areas.”

Proposed changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, may affect all of the pension’s 585,000 members by either asking them to contribute more from their paycheck or receive less in retirement benefits. Changes are needed to address the growing unfunded liability.

Hickenlooper mentioned reforming the pension fund during his speech, and afterward told reporters a fix can be as easy as dropping the cost-of-living adjustments to zero. But his proposal seeks to ask employees to pay more out of their paychecks into the fund. He does not support increasing the employer contribution because he believes employers already pay enough. This would come at a cost to taxpayers. 

Hickenlooper’s position on PERA may receive pushback from members of his own party who believe employers should contribute more to help spread the burden of the reforms. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Neville hopes to bring about structural reforms and did not rule out moving the pension from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan like a 401K.

Senate President Kevin Grantham briefed reporters ahead of the 2018 legislative session on Jan. 8.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, told reporters that reforming PERA is like playing with a soundboard. Lawmakers will turn dials and move slides to adjust the employer and employee contributions and tweak the cost-of-living adjustment.

“It’s hard enough when you have two people making the sound right. Think about 100 people,” Grantham said.

This is where the governor may be helpful.

“The power of the governor to call people in to talk through things is really important,” said Mark Ferrandino, who served in the House from 2007 to 2015, and as House speaker from 2013 to 2014.

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said the governor has brought lawmakers together before. During the 2015 legislative session, both chambers fought over proposals to reduce testing requirements for K-12 students. Holbert then met with Hickenlooper and his chief of staff to discuss the stalemate. Afterward, they agreed on a compromise. Holbert said on the last day of the session, lawmakers passed a bill out of House.

“No one thought we were going to get an assessment bill that year. No one thought we were going to agree on opt-out. But it happened,” Holbert said. “I think the word magic or magical was used.”

It remains to be seen how Hickenlooper wraps up his tenure. Lawmakers are hesitant to characterize his legislative legacy.

“I think the characterization of that will have to wait until May,” Grantham said. “We still got some big issues ahead of us that have not been solved during his governorship.”

Cover photo: Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his final State of the State address to a packed House chamber on Jan. 11, 2018. Photo by John Herrick 
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Colorado lawmakers started the day Wednesday with pledges of bipartisanship and odes to the Colorado way. 

Then Republicans in the state Senate promptly sent a Democratic bill that would fully fund all-day kindergarten to a kill committee, while Democrats in the House dispatched a Republican bill that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to take their guns onto school grounds.

And so began the 2018 session of the Colorado General Assembly, a session that many observers expect to be stickier and messier than the 2017 session, which saw major compromises on budget issues, construction defects reform, and charter school funding. The big issues for this session are expected to be reform of the state pension fund and transportation funding, and both will have implications for education.

Colorado lawmakers are in an unusual position this year of having plenty of money to spend. Colorado’s economy continues to do well, and state economists predict that changes in federal tax law will cause Coloradans to pay more income tax to the state. Lawmakers also have more money to spend this year after passing a bipartisan bill last year that eased some spending restrictions.

Many Republicans are pushing for the lion’s share of that extra money to go toward transportation after a bipartisan bill to ask voters to approve a tax increase for roads and transit failed last year. That precludes spending it on other needs, including education.

Democrats, on the other hand, want to spread that money around.

“Let me be clear: Transportation funding is a priority,” Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said in her opening day remarks. “Our Colorado students are also a priority. We will have the opportunity to address chronically low funding for K-12 and higher education.

“During this session, we will be reviewing every part of the state budget to assure that it balances the priorities and needs of the people of Colorado.”

That was about as specific as Duran got, though she also called out the need for more affordable child care options so that parents could pursue work opportunities.

Republican Minority Leader Patrick Neville said his party would work with Democrats on bills that offer “real hope for educational success,” but he pushed back against the idea that more money was necessary.

“We’ve spent a great fortune on K-12 education, but we haven’t gotten a great result,” he said. “The time has come for us to have an open mind to new approaches to education. Instead of spending that fortune to empower bureaucracies, why don’t we try to empower students and parents?”

The amount the state spends on education goes up every year with inflation and growth in the student population, and the governor’s budget calls for a 4.5 percent increase in per-pupil spending. Lawmakers also have reduced the state’s education funding shortfall that was created after the Great Recession. The shortfall is the amount of money the state should pay to local school districts under the state constitution but doesn’t because it can’t afford it. However, Colorado remains in the bottom tier of states when it comes to education funding, and doesn’t pay for full-day kindergarten.

The Democratic bill that was doomed on arrival would have found the money for kindergarten by asking voters to let the state keep money collected above a constitutional spending cap. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, is working on a different kindergarten funding bill that would find the money by not paying districts for high school seniors who are taking multiple study halls or less rigorous electives. At Chalkbeat’s legislative preview, he said he hoped to make the bill revenue-neutral to make it more likely to pass.

On opening day, members of both parties praised a bill last year that requires districts to equitably share revenue from voter-approved local tax increases with charter schools. An interim committee on school finance is only halfway through its work and isn’t expected to produce recommendations until after this session is over. Any bills out of that committee would be taken up in 2019, by a new set of lawmakers.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Cañon City Republican, did not call out any education issues as priorities for his caucus, but he did join Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, in stressing the importance of expanding internet access in rural areas as a tool for both education and economic development. Gov. John Hickenlooper has repeatedly identified rural broadband as a priority, but legislative efforts have failed in past years.

“We have an opportunity to advance the education, economic growth, and healthcare systems of Colorado by ensuring that every corner of our state is effectively connected to the internet,” Grantham said. “Whether it’s the fifth grader in Dove Creek trying to get his homework done or the business owner in Creede wanting to sell his goods online or a hospital in Hugo researching life-saving solutions for their patient, there are few opportunities that can bring so much benefit to so many Coloradans.”

Guzman struck a similar note.

Far too many rural and mountain communities across Colorado remain isolated from the growing opportunities offered by broadband services,” she said. “Many students in schools across Colorado are falling behind because of the lack of access to reliable Internet.”

Guzman also called for campaign finance reforms that would reach into school board elections that have seen large influxes of outside money from teachers’ unions, charter school proponents and other interests.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer on January 10, 2018. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Photo of opening day, 2018 Colorado Legislative session on Jan 10. 2017 by John Herrick. 

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The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com.

Last year, around this time, I sat with a group of Haitian detainees at the ICE facility in Aurora.  Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents took a large number of Haitian immigrants into custody near the Tijuana border and sent several hundred to Colorado to await hearings.  Having lived in Haiti for several years, I speak Haitian Kreyol, and volunteered to translate for the legal team processing their cases.

I first translated for Jean, a man of slight stature and commanding presence.  He described his path to Aurora with passion and composure, speaking clearly and firmly, willing me to understand his story.  Jean grew up in an isolated mountain town off the southern coast of the island.  After excelling in primary school, he went to live with an aunt in Port-au-Prince to attend high school and seek a college he could afford. After his first year of university he could no longer pay tuition, but stayed in Port-au-Prince fighting for odd jobs and opportunities. In 2015, he heard of a program in Brazil, a special visa for low-paying but reliable jobs.  He went, worked for some time, and when the opportunities dried up, he traveled through Central America, up the length of Mexico, and to the Tijuana border crossing. On arrival in the U.S. he was taken into custody and sent to Aurora.

“Why did you go to Brazil?” his lawyer asked.

“Mwen tap chache lavi.”

This literally means, “I was searching for life.”   He continued, “You don’t make a trip like that for vacation. It was no vacation. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak the languages. I can’t describe the things I saw. I didn’t do it for fun – I had no choice.”

It has been eight years this month since an earthquake devastated Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people, displacing hundreds of thousands more. People often ask me, “Has there been progress in Haiti?”  The question has taken on particular weight now, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s November decision to revoke the temporary protected status of nearly 60,000 Haitian men and women living in the U.S. The administration deemed that “Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.” They have until July 2019 to leave the U.S. or face deportation.

I lived in Haiti for more than two years after the earthquake, I’ve been there more than 30 times in the past five years, my sons are Haitian-American, and I am the director of a non-profit that supports local leaders in Haiti. It is my job to answer the question regarding progress. I’ve answered it hundreds of times and will answer it hundreds more, and yet each time I’m asked, my chest tightens as I wait to see what will come out of my mouth.

Unemployment and a lack of opportunity are stifling for the youth of Haiti. There is rampant and extreme poverty, inadequate access to healthcare, widespread homelessness, lack of clean water, lack of energy, and minimal infrastructure. A recent New York Times piece, which featured close friends of mine, shows how even burying the dead is a daunting challenge for many. Another Times piece after Hurricane Matthew showed people living in caves for lack of a better option.

My chest tightens, I think, because while all I reference above is true, there is an important, more complex reality that hides beneath the darkness and pain: Haiti is the most beautiful place I know. Beauty in its people, beauty in its countryside, beauty in its courage and grace. It is a place of unique history and singular resistance. I’ve heard it called the birthplace of the human rights movement, due to its triumph over Napoleon’s army and its subsequent status as the first independent black republic in the New World. It is a place with long tradition of homegrown community development, of neighbors looking out for one another, and of grassroots movements organizing to great effect.

These truths are not widely known or published, and while they do not negate the poverty and need referenced above, they are an essential counterpoint to them.  People who seek to invest in Haiti should be investing in local people and local structures, in communities like the one Jean comes from.

Progress is more than possible in Haiti: it is inevitable.

When Jean spoke of his hometown his eyes grew misty and his voice cracked. It was important for him to express that he did not want to leave Haiti, that his heart remained there the whole time. The people of Haiti love their country, are fiercely proud of their history and will fight for their communities if given a chance. They have the talent, capacity, and creativity to move forward, what is required is opportunity; a way to stay and fight; tools in their hands, and a chance to use them in their own communities. Given that, they will do the rest.

 

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Wynn Walent is executive director of the Colorado Haiti Project. He can be reached at wwalent@coloradohaitiproject.org

Photo credit: Angela Altus 
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As it becomes increasingly less clear what exactly the president is willing to sign in a bipartisan bill to address the plight of the Dreamers, House conservatives are making it increasingly more clear they’re not interested in doing anything remotely bipartisan. Meanwhile, as the Dreamers wait for someone to do something, they find themselves stuck somewhere in limbo. Via The New York Times.

Trump says at every opportunity that there’s no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia and that no one thinks there’s any collusion and that the entire matter is a Democratic hoax to explain away, you know, the Electoral College. But as we watch Robert Meuller, it looks like the real danger for Trump may not be collusion, but obstruction of justice. Via Vox.

Dutch journalists burn Trump’s new ambassador to the Netherlands over his comments that politicians there had been literally “burned” by the “Islamist movement.” The ambassador, Pete Hoekstra, was asked directly several times which politician had been burned. He couldn’t answer, of course, because it had never happened. Via The Washington Post.

Isaac Chotiner slams “Fire and Fury” in a review for Slate, charging that the shoddy journalism in the book is an indictment of both author Michael Wolff and of the entire Washington media ecosystem.

Susan Glasser takes us inside the insider world of Washington where, she explains, Michael Wolff never even tried to go, starting with that now-famous Ivanka breakfast at the Four Seasons. Via The New Yorker.

Frank Rich says that while it’s true Wolff does have just the kinds of errors you’d expect from him in “Fire and Fury,” he’d much rather read Wolff’s take than another of Bob Woodward’s nice-to-his-sources, just-the-facts-ma’am White House tomes. Via New York magazine.

You may be wondering how the Trump administration could decide to exempt Florida, and only Florida, from its decision to expand offshore drilling to all states that have a shore. If so, you’re wondering the same thing that a lot of other governors, both Democrat and Republican, are wondering. Let the lawsuits begin. Via The Washington Post.

From The National Review, George F. Will makes the argument that college meritocracy can be unfair and that “nuanced” admissions policies are needed. Sounds a lot like affirmative action to me.

How would Trump perform if it turns out that he is deposed by Robert Mueller? One thing we know is that he has had lots of experience with depositions. Trump says he has done more than 100 of them. Via The Atlantic.

California congressman Darrell Issa is soon to be gone, and a lot of other Republicans in the House aren’t feeling too good themselves. Via Real Clear Politics.

Play along with the experts at the Cook Political Report, who explain how to measure whether there will be a wave election in 2018. (Spoiler: There almost certainly will be.)

Photo by Tony Webster, via Flickr: Creative Commons. Border Field State Park / Imperial Beach, San Diego, California. The fence between the USA and Mexico along the Pacific Ocean just south of San Diego.
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In an effort to show he was not the unfit leader portrayed in “Fire and Fury,” Donald Trump let the world watch his sort-of negotiation with legislators  who had come to the White House to discuss the vexing issue of the 700,000 Dreamers in the United States. As Russell Berman writes in The Atlantic, while the cameras rolled, Trump said yes to everyone without resolving anything. He said yes to a clean bill. He said yes to a wall. He said yes to a comprehensive bill, saying he would take the heat for Republicans and Democrats alike. And, finally, he said he would sign whatever bill Congress sent to him.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in California has ruled that the Trump administration must put the DACA program back in place again. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is the Obama program that allowed Dreamers to work legally in the United States and that Trump ended last year. Via The New York Times.

Dana Milbank: Frustrated and impatient Dreamers need to get out of their own way if they want to get favorable legislation passed. Via The Washington Post.

What the 200,000 Salvadorans whom Trump is kicking out of the country face when they go home. Let’s just say it’s not good. Via The New Yorker.

Now we know why Republicans didn’t want anyone to see the testimony from GPS-Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson on the infamous Steele Dossier. Before Sen. Dianne Feinstein released the transcript over Republican objections, some had been actively pushing the theory that the dossier — funded, in part, by the Clinton campaign —had put the FBI onto a fake Trump story that had eventually turned into Robert Mueller’s Russian probe. One problem, Simpson told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia ties before it ever heard of the dossier. Via Vox.

A panel of federal judges ruled that North Carolina’s gerrymandered congressional districts were unconstitutional. That’s nothing new. But what is new is that the basis for the ruling is that the districts were drawn to favor Republicans.  Via The New York Times.

David Von Drehle on the rise and incredibly rapid fall of Steve Bannon. You can blame it on the jamokes, unless it was the jumos. Via The Washington Post.

Oprah should run, writes Eric Levitz in New York magazine — say, for governor of Wisconsin. From The National Review, Ben Shapiro writes that as long as Trump is president, President Oprah makes perfect sense.

Edward Luttwak writes in Foreign Policy that it’s time to bomb North Korea and its nuclear installations — before it’s too late. The danger posed to South Korea should not stop the United States, he adds, saying that South Korea’s defensive weaknesses are the fault of its own deliberate inaction.

Photo Credit: Molly Adams, Creative Commons, Flickr

The price of a national park fee hike

The proposed increase in entrance fees reignites old questions about who should fund the West’s open spaces.

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When Kitty Benzar bought her house in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest 30 years ago, federal law prohibited land-management agencies from charging people to use undeveloped public lands, like those in her backyard. Fees for developed campsites, public cabins, and access to certain national parks and monuments were legal and widely accepted. But if a trailhead or backcountry site offered only a toilet, a picnic table or drinking water, the 1965 Land and Water Conservation Act required that it be free.

That changed with the Recreation Fee Demonstration program in 1996, which allowed agencies to start charging for day use. But the new regulations didn’t directly affect Benzar until five years later, when the U.S. Forest Service began charging $5 to access a trailhead in Yankee Boy Basin, a high-alpine bowl not far from her house. Benzar and about 35 others protested the fee — not because they couldn’t afford it, but because, Benzar says, they felt it was part of a broader effort to “monetize our public land and turn recreation into a product to sell us.”

Today, access to Yankee Boy Basin is free, but Benzar hasn’t stopped fighting. As president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, she battles other fee hikes that she believes are contrary to the spirit of public lands.

Few such proposals have troubled Benzar more than the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Oct. 24 call to dramatically raise entrance fees at 17 popular national parks — in some cases from $25 to $70 per car.

The National Park Service says the hike could raise $70 million a year to chip away at a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance on roads and buildings. Proponents claim it’s a necessary step toward ensuring the future of chronically underfunded public lands. But fee watchdogs and many conservation groups see it as simply another example of a dangerous trend: federal lands run less like a public resource and more like a commercial enterprise.

The debate over how to fund the West’s sprawling public lands dates back to the Park Service’s founding, according to Barry Mackintosh, author of Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Legislative and Administrative History. Because the nation’s earliest parks received little or no congressional appropriations, outsourcing food and beverage services to private businesses and passing costs on to visitors made sense. In 1915 — the first year Yellowstone allowed cars in and charged an entrance fee — the park’s revenue exceeded its spending. Administrators believed that the burgeoning popularity of automobiles could make all parks self-sustaining.

But as the 20th century progressed, this became increasingly unrealistic. Some popular parks, like Mount Rushmore, were forbidden by Congress to charge for entry. Others, such as Alaska’s Lake Clark, are so rarely visited that relying on entrance fees to maintain trails and infrastructure isn’t practical.

Philosophical hostility to fees also emerged. In the 1930s, Utah Republican Reed Smoot led a growing group of lawmakers in opposition to the idea that Americans should pay anything to access lands that belonged to them. A 1932 Park Service policy barred the agency from seeking “financial gain” and asserted that parks should “be free to the people without vexatious admission charges and other fees.”

Yet entrance and camping fees remained part of public-land management. Although revenue generated by user fees has risen sharply since 1996, it still makes up roughly the same portion of the Park Service’s budget that it did decades ago. In 1947, 11 percent of the agency’s budget was generated by user fees. In 2016, 9 percent was, with the remainder coming from donations and congressional appropriations.

Political opinions, on the other hand, have changed drastically. Today, some conservatives find the very idea of public lands antithetical to their ideology. As Steve Hanke, a Johns Hopkins University economist, wrote in a June Forbes op-ed, public lands “represent a huge socialist anomaly in America’s capitalist system.” Republicans in Congress are increasingly reluctant to dole out money for public-land management, and appropriations in recent years have been far less than agencies need to manage an ever-growing numbers of visitors.

That’s why Shawn Regan, a former backcountry ranger in Olympic National Park and a research fellow with the Montana-based free-market think tank Property and Environment Research Center, thinks that raising user fees is the best way for public lands to maintain a “direct, consistent stream of revenue.”

Many GOP lawmakers agree with Regan, arguing that only Americans who actually use these lands should pay for them, and that public lands would be more efficient if they were managed like private businesses. It’s this perspective that underlies the Interior Department’s proposal to raise entrance fees at 17 national parks during the peak season.

Yet John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association says the fee increase “couldn’t possibly cover anywhere close to the actual amount of funding needed to address the maintenance backlog.” Eighty percent of the fees collected at any given park remain there, while the rest goes to a general fund split by the hundreds of national parks and monuments that don’t collect entrance fees. Garder says that 80 percent of the revenue from the fee hike would cover only 2 percent of the maintenance backlog at the 17 affected parks.

Plus, he and others worry that a $70 entrance fee will simply drive more people to purchase an $80 annual pass, which covers entrance at any national park. If a vacationing family buys an $80 pass at Grand Canyon National Park and later visits Zion and Arches, for instance, those parks won’t get extra money despite shouldering the cost of the extra visitors. Plus, if a yearlong pass costs just $10 more than visiting a single park, it’s likely that the cost of an all-parks pass will also go up before long.

Kitty Benzar has yet another concern. Under the new pricing structure, national parks will be able to charge higher rates during the summer months, when the most visitors come. If prices go up during peak season, visitors who can’t handle the $70 price tag may be more likely to visit during quieter times of year. And that, says Benzar, is exactly what private hotel and campground operators have wanted for decades: to fill more hotel beds and campsites in May and October, while turning away fewer paying customers in June and July.

In other words, she explains, “Rich people can see wildflowers in Rocky Mountain National Park at the best time of year, and poor people can’t see them at all.”

The question of how user fees impact public access is at the heart of the debate over their role in land management. And there are no easy answers. In one Forest Service study, 49 percent of visitors earning less than $30,000 a year responded to a $5 fee increase by reducing their public-land use or going elsewhere, compared to 33 percent of more well-off users. Another peer-reviewed study from 2017 found that low-income recreationists were willing to travel over three times as far to reach fee-free parks, something that could potentially shift socioeconomic diversity on public lands.

Research by the National Park Service, however, shows that visitor fees make up just 3 percent of the average family’s budget on a visit to Yellowstone; the rest goes to expenses like gas, food and lodging. Shawn Regan of PERC believes it’s possible to maintain socioeconomic diversity while still raising fees — perhaps by lowering prices for local families who just want to visit for a day, or by allowing individual parks to set their own pricing. Although he supports the latest proposal in theory, he considers it an experiment with a number of unanswered questions.

The public review period for the fee increase ends Dec. 22. At this point, no one knows what it will cost to visit certain parks next summer.

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s push to bring more free-market capitalism to public-land management may be just getting started. Last summer he told an RV industry group that he’d like to outsource more campgrounds to private operators, who almost always charge more than campgrounds run by public agencies. And an Oct. 25 leaked copy of the Interior Department’s five-year strategic plan revealed that Zinke also plans to “review” other fees on public lands, which could include the prices charged for camping, parking and backcountry permits.

As Benzar sees it, raising one fee opens the door for more fee hikes, and ultimately greater commercialization of public lands. With each turn of the screw, she says, “We lose more of our ownership stake and concede it to private companies there to make a profit.”

 

This story originally appeared in High Country News

Keith Cuddeback, Creative Commons, Flickr 
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The one on the left, with the pink backpack,
carrying the C-4, is wearing a headset
under that checked yellow scarf,
receiving final instructions.

The one on the right, with his hand to his temple,
is radioing in the coordinates.

The one in the middle, with the murderous eyes,
his hand in his pocket, has his finger on a trigger,
on a button.

And the other one, with his arm
around the other one’s neck, whispering in his ear,
urging him on. Do it, he says, do it!

 

Photo: Tetuan kids at school. By Scott Atran, co-founder of Artis International and author of Talking to the Enemy
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First, I’ll make a confession, which is only fitting when discussing Oprah. I have been occasionally guilty of mocking Oprah and her show. Yes, it’s true. It was long ago — back when she was giving away cars or telling us how normal Michael Jackson was or possibly for reasons I may no longer recall — but I regret it sincerely and will never do it again, not even in this column when I call out the absurdity of a proposed Oprah presidential run.

Oprah — who is the Pele of one-name superstars — made a great speech at the Golden Globes, a powerful speech that powerfully met the moment. That she upstaged every celebrity that night isn’t surprising because few, if any, of the Hollywood celebrities can match her star power.

She is famously, and rightfully so, known for her ability to connect to her audience. And with her speech, she reminded us of the power of words and the power of a story that isn’t about the person (OK, man) telling the story, which is something much of the country, according to the polls, keenly misses.

She also predictably got Twitter buzzing, because that’s what Twitter does, but more than that, there were people legitimately close to Oprah who were definitely not shutting down the idea. In fact, friends are now saying she is intrigued by the prospect. This idea is not new. For years, Oprah has been denying that she might run. What’s new is that a desperate country — or maybe just desperate Democrats and also some neverTrumpists like Bill Kristol — seem ready to embrace the one person who is both the anti-Trump and the celebrity answer to Trump. There’s more, of course. Although she’s definitely not the anti-Clinton — Oprah endorsed Clinton in 2016 — she’s clearly the very-public-embrace-of-empathy answer to Clinton.

But. But. But.

A thousand times, but.

I’m not arguing the fact that Oprah wouldn’t be a formidable candidate if she chose to run. It’s the fact that Oprah would be a formidable candidate that is the problem.

While she is hardly an absurd figure, as our current president most certainly is, and while she probably spends little of her days on “executive time,” as our current president does, and while she’s not a demogogue who would play to the nation’s worst instincts, as our current president is, and while she almost certainly knows all the words to the National Anthem and also reads books, that isn’t to say we should now elect someone with no more political or policy experience than Donald Trump to the White House.

What reason is there to think that she would be a good president other than the fact that she is Oprah, the beloved and famous figure who, if she ran, would suddenly become much less beloved and suddenly responsible for every famous word she has ever uttered? (I know. Trump isn’t held responsible for anything he has said, but that’s because Trump is a clownish figure who lies at every turn. Presumably, that’s not the path Oprah would take.)

We have little idea of her positions. We have no idea in what areas she has positions.  What we basically know is that she is a charismatic figure at a time in which charisma (using the term very loosely in the case of Trump) seems to rule.

I know that dismissing Oprah represents old-line thinking, but maybe old-line thinking isn’t so bad. We live in a time in which a gossipy, tell-all book has become the central framework in judging the Trumpian presidency and White House team. Fire and Fury confirms what most of us already assumed, that Trump is, like, completely unfit for the job. As one unsourced White House source memorably tells Wolff: Trump is “an idiot surrounded by clowns.”

Nominating Oprah would be, in effect, to say Democrats will respond to a uniquely unqualified and dangerous-to-the-country billionaire celebrity president (now, according to the Wall Street Journal, apparently considering a targeted strike at North Korea that would deliver a ”bloody nose” but not a bloody response) by nominating a vastly better, almost-certainly-not-dangerous billionaire celebrity candidate who speaks in well-formed sentences and tends not to say, like, like.

The major upside of an Oprah candidacy is that it would drive Donald Trump crazy, or crazier. The stable genius is already facing the looming prospect of being interviewed by Robert Mueller as part of the Russia probe, and now, reading his Twitter feed, he sees his daughter roundly mocked for tweeting: “Just saw @Oprah’s empowering & inspiring speech at last night’s #GoldenGlobes. Let’s all come together, women & men, & say #TIMESUP!”

As Steve Schmidt, the one-time John McCain adviser who ran Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign in 2006, put it:  “Oprah is, in fact, a self-made billionaire; Trump pretends to be one. Oprah is an enormous TV star, by orders of magnitude bigger than anything Trump accomplished in that space. And lastly she’s a powerful, smart, beloved African American woman, and Trump seems to have a reflective response towards African Americans and women who he views as threats or are critical of him.”

On other hand, Trump is now saying a race against Oprah would be “a lot of fun.”  He might actually think that, but it’s hardly the point. The critical point in 2020 is not simply to defeat Trump, although that’s vital, but to defeat the idea of Trump, meaning the idea that anyone like him — even a vastly improved version — would ever be president again.

 

Photo credit: Thomas Hawke, Creative Commons, Flickr