I’ll take what I can get

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It was a travesty to begin with, and the amendments have only made it worse: Same number of uninsuired people! Now with half the deficit reduction! But it has been a dog’s age since we have witnessed our legislators actually legislating, and I have to say I find it refreshing to read accounts of late-night caucuses, whips whipping, White House pilgrimages to Capitol Hill, and of members of Congress agonizing over which way to go on this spectacularly disastrous piece of legislation. At least the blood is flowing, and there is going to be a vote.

It’s a vote that’s going to happen for the worst reasons: a single-party government trying to whip itself into a consensus to ram through a half-baked idea of a law whose animating logic appears to be now you can choose to be unable to afford health care! while the opposition sits on the sidelines. But it sure beats the dreariness of gridlock.

Photo via visitthecapitol/Instagram

Just trust us

On March 18 the Independent Journal Review published an interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia visit. It might have ranked as a rather ordinary check-in with America’s top diplomat, except for the fact that he refused to allow members of the press, aside from the IJR’s Erin McPike, to travel with him.

In so doing, and under McPike’s questioning, Tillerson revealed exactly the kind of backwards thinking about open government that is distressingly common, from the highest American offices down to City Hall. Here’s a snippet from the portion of the interview where McPike pressed the secretary to explain his refusal to allow the usual press contingent to tag along at their own expense:

IJR: Right so your answer is you don’t intend to change this model for your next trip.

Tillerson: It’s gonna be trip dependent. It doesn’t mean we won’t, but we’re gonna look at every trip in terms of what my needs are. Look my … First and foremost is what is my mission and why am I going? How can I best accomplish that mission? What’s the most effective way for me to do that? I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done.

“I personally don’t need it.” The secretary has it precisely backwards. It’s not about him needing acess to the public. It’s about the public needing access to him. The press does not exist to be his megaphone. It exists to give his fellow countrymen the information they need to monitor the performance of their government.

Look, no one is making the case that the press should follow Tillerson into every meeting or eavesdrop on sensitive discussions. By definition, dipolomacy is an art practiced partly in public and largely behind closed doors.

Democracy is difficult and inconvenient, and blessedly so. The default setting is: It’s public unless the law compels it to be private. It can be a royal pain. It is supposed to be a royal pain to anyone with designs on tyranny. From Tillerson down to the dog catcher, however, government officials wrongly apply the inverse default: It’s private unless the law compels me to make it public. That’s more convenient, but our is not a government of convenience. It is supposed to be a government of the People.

Gerrymandered into a corner

E.J. Dionne of WaPo makes the following observation today:

[T]here is an important truth to what the president’s camp is saying: Republicans in Congress who privately express grave doubts about Trump will be reluctant to break with him as long as he remains strong among those who dominate party primaries and could threaten their reelection.

State lawmakers across America have been so successful at transforming their congressional districts into non-competitive Democratic and Republican enclaves that they have gerrymandered their congressional representatives into a corner. Even Republicans who want to provide correction to DJT’s agenda can’t afford to step out and lead, because to do so would anger the president’s minority-sized support base.

And why should a Republican member of Congress worry about a noisy minority?

Because the boundaries of too many congressional districts have been redrawn so extensively that they contain extra-rich concentrations of either GOP or Democrat voters. In far too many districts, the only elections that matter any more are the primaries. In my own CD, the incumbent Republican puts all his energy into winning the party nomination. The general election is an afterthought.

It’s the fringes of the parties that dominate the primaries. In the case of the GOP, that means Trump voters are in charge, punching above their weight.

If we had more balanced, competitive congressional districts, members of the majority party in Congress would have less to fear from the DJT minority among the American electorate. They could provide the leadership necessary to oppose the president where necessary.

Instead, they have gerrymandered themselves into the captivity of a third of the electorate.

Dept. of Corroborating Testimony

 

[T]he president remains intensely unpopular among Democrats, who continue to nurture hopes that Trump is one Russia connection away from impeachment. As a senior White House official told me of Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court: “The comment we often get from Democrats is, ‘That’s a great nominee.’ Oh, so you’re voting for him? ‘I can’t.’ Why not? ‘My base would go crazy, and I’d be primaried.’ That environment has to change before we can have any of these conversations.”

Robert Draper, March 26, NYT Magazine, Trump vs. Congress: Now What?

Some perspective

A couple days ago, I blurted out a few reactions to “Clearing the Haze,” the Gazette “perspective series” on Colorado’s first year of regulating, or trying to regulate, recreational marijuana. My initial take on it was that it was a deceptive presentation, dressing up an extended piece of opinion writing as regular news reporting. I still hold that view, but now that I’ve digested more of the series and have reflected on it, the more the whole episode seems to me to be less nefarious than it is just plain odd.

Others have examined the series in the light of various codes of ethics, and I won’t rehash that here. Columbia Journalism Review got the much-clamored-for interview with Gazette publisher Dan Steever, who pretty much acknowledged the entire effort was meant to present the dark side of Colorado’s legalization scheme, out of frustration that it isn’t being covered by the news media (though, see this March 25 report by AP [note: link has expired]). Presumably, that indictment included his own newsroom.

Odd. He could have just asked his editors and reporters to check into it. Problem solved.

Strange, too, that the Gazette devoted 4 days and 18 extended editorials to the subject. No question that legalized pot is a big deal, but that’s a lot of newsprint to spend on making what amounted to a few not-very-profound points. For example, at gazette.com, Day 1 was announced with this teaser:

“Sunday’s stories suggest the net gain from taxes and fees related to marijuana sales will not be known for a while, as costs are not known or tracked well, and there are many other unknowns about pot’s effects on public health and safety.”

I voted against Amendment 64 in 2012, but even I am not feeling much righteous vindication at this revelation. Amendment 64 forced the state to draw up, overnight, an entire regulatory scheme for something never before legalized in America. Of course the net effects are not going to be known in the first 12 months. Far simpler things have taken far longer to smooth out. A multi-page spread in the Sunday paper to make this point is all a bit . . . odd.

A newsroom examination of that question — in contrast to an opinion-driven report with a pre-determined point to make — would have asked the same question: How are the tax revenues stacking up against projections? But it would have asked further questions: How long will it take before we know if this is really working out? Is there any other regulatory endeavor we can compare this to? Apparently, the mandate behind “Clearing the Haze” contained no directive to ask such questions. Odd.

Day 2, meanwhile, was devoted to health impacts on pot, primarily on youth. The surprising finding: Prominent segments of the medical community continue to frown on kids using marijuana, even after Colorado’s vote on Amendment 64. Some studies continue to conclude smoking weed is bad for you; other studies continue to reach different conclusions. It has ever been thus, and one wonders what part of this widely known reality the creators of “Clearing the Haze” expected they would change.

Those who plowed through editorial after editorial, page after page, day after day, found a few nuggets worthy of examination: The tiny segment of the prison population consisting of people busted only for pot-related crimes (a fact perhaps well-known to others, but it’s new information to me). Or the rising number of pot-related incidents in local schools. Or Colorado’s emergence as a primary supplier of illicit marijuana to the rest of the country.

These strike me as real concerns. They would have been just as real, but more potent, in a news report that examined those facts from the perspectives of legalization advocates and detractors alike. Steever, however, told CJR he wasn’t interested in a variety of perspectives. The editorial on the black market contained some arresting information that begged for some explanation, some answer, from the state. Not a word was to be found. These findings could have had real power, real impact, if they had been presented in a context of transparent news reporting. Instead, they were delivered like a dour sermon.

That’s a weird way for a newspaper to behave. It’s not unheard-of for newspapers to use their opinion departments to produce investigative work, but when they do, they publish it on their opinion pages, not on the front page. More often, however, they let the newsroom dig out the facts and ask the questions, and leave the opinion writers to use those facts to build their arguments in the editorials. In this case, the same people who reported and wrote “Clearing the Haze” also wrote the concluding Gazette editorial that argued for an overhaul of Colorado’s pot-regulation apparatus, if a complete repeal of Amendment 64 can’t be arranged. How very strange. Whether you agree with the Gazette’s editorial conclusions is not the point; the point is that the Gazette’s editorial team could have made those very same arguments had the newsroom done the reporting.

Stranger still is the way the series, for all its gravity, never really follows through on the potentially real and serious facts it serves up. A Day-3 entry in the series contains intriguing testimony from a local lab about a dramatic rise in the number of parents bringing in their kids to test them for marijuana use. So, how many of these kids are actually testing positive? A rookie news reporter would not have failed to ask that question, and if somehow she did, a newsroom editor would be sure to send her back to the lab to find out. “Clearing the Haze” did not ask the question. Or, if it did, it did not report the answer. How odd.

The lead item on Day 4 of the series announces “Medical marijuana business still growing in Colorado.” It reveals that the number of Coloradans on the state’s medical marijuana registry continues to grow, even after sales of recreational pot became legal. Of course, medicine is medicine, and recreation is recreation, and in theory, one shouldn’t have any effect on the other.

Unless, of course, A) significant numbers of patients are moving into Colorado, or B) the whole “medical marijuana” concept is a sham, nothing more than a way for folks with a taste for pot to get a joint legally, in revolving-door clinics where unscrupulous physicians hand out red cards like Halloween candy. In which case, legalization should draw non-medical users out of the clinics and into the bright sunshine of no-questions-asked pot purchasing.

And really, this is one point where no serious person has any argument with “Clearing the Haze.” It is patently obvious, even to the most earnest believer in cannabis medicine, that the vast bulk of medical-marijuana clientele have no medical reason to consume it. This nudge-and-a-wink arrangement is so obvious that even state lawmakers have noticed it, and have pledged new scrutiny upon the doctors who are too free with their prescription pads. On this matter, it hardly seems the “Clearing the Haze” series was even necessary.

Nor is it a revelation that, owing to the comparatively lower taxes on easy-to-get medical pot, sales of the recreational stuff are not hitting the projections that state revenue forecasters had anticipated. The Tax Foundation made the same observation in two brief paragraphs seven months ago. It’s not as if Colorado’s revenue officials are in a cave, unaware that the tax rates need to be recalibrated.

Taken as a whole, the article portrays medical marijuana as an anchor dragging down recreational pot sales, in turn holding tax revenues below the official prediction.

But here’s the odd part: Recreational pot tax revenues actually are skyrocketing, according to Colorado Department of Revenue sales-tax reports. Since the day recreational pot became legal, monthly sales taxes collected on the stuff have increased by 2 1/2 times. During the same period, the monthly take of sales taxes from medical marijuana has decreased somewhat — even as the number of card holders has increased. The current monthly take in sales taxes on recreational marijuana is nearly six times the monthly amount collected from medical marijuana.

Sales taxes

If you take into consideration all taxes levied on marijuana, including the 15 percent excise tax charged on wholesale purchases by recreational-marijuana retailers, then the total amount of tax money raised by recreational pot since January 2014 is five times the amount generated by medicinal marijuana during that time. If you add in license fees collected by the state, the money generated by the recreational-marijuana industry is nearly three times the amount generated by medical-marijuana operators. I’ve assembled the numbers here.

None of this invalidates the points about too-easy medical marijuana and out-of-kilter tax rates that create an incentive to purchase medical marijuana.

But it is a bit of perspective.

“Public” really means “Secret”

Jeffrey Roberts at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition brings us distressing evidence that key public officials really have a backwards understanding of open-records laws:

State lawmakers on Thursday defeated a bill that would have made the State Public Defender’s Office subject to the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), preferring to let the Colorado Judicial Branch write its own rules for releasing administrative records for that agency and other agencies under its control.

With their 7-6 party-line vote, House Democrats decided the public defender is the person best qualified to judge what information about the public defender’s office should be available to the public.

“These are the real experts…,” said Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs.

I mean, sure. Why have open-records laws at all?

In his testimony, state Public Defender Doug Wilson displayed yet again the gymnastics that public employees will attempt to turn CORA inside-out. Defending his office’s refusal to release spending records related to the defense of accused Aurora movie theater James Holmes,

Wilson gave the judiciary committee three reasons why he has rejected multiple requests for information on Holmes case expenditures: 1) the Gleason decision [exempting state courts from CORA rules], 2) a gag order that prohibits him from discussing the case and 3) ethical rules for lawyers that prohibit him from revealing client information.

Because of those ethical rules, Wilson said, “If there was no Gleason case, if there was no gag order, if we were under CORA today, I would still be denying requests as they relate to individual cases.”

Translated: Public officials must keep public records locked up unless they are compelled to release them.

This is a misconception, a photo-negative view of government accountability curiously common among government officials. In fact, CORA itself declares just the inverse: Public officials are compelled to make all documents available to the public unless they are forced to keep them locked up:

[A]ll public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times, except as provided in this part 2 or as otherwise specifically provided by law.

Wilson’s reasoning runs directly upstream against CORA’s preference for access. (And his assertion that releasing his office’s budget records will violate attorney-client privilege beggars belief.)

Before he was done, Wilson reached for one last straw:

Wilson added that subjecting his office to CORA would open it up to lawsuits over the denial of records, potentially costing “a lot of money if I’m wrong” and must pay requesters’ attorney fees.

He’s right: he could be sued, and his budget would pay a hefty penalty if he’s wrong — a government agency that loses a CORA lawsuit can be ordered to pay the winner’s attorney fees. And that’s exactly why CORA exists: to give Coloradans standing to sue government agencies into compliance with what is, after all, a state law aimed directly at the behavior of state government offices. Wilson should feel the pressure of potential lawsuits; it’s the big stick that prods bureaucrats to default in favor of releasing records, exactly as CORA demands.

If nothing else had prompted any impatience with Wilson’s testimony, this last one should have brought peals of laughter. Instead, the panel sent a portion of government accountability to a 7-6 death.

Print becomes digital

Remember that time when we talked about how digital news was eventually going to lead to a flexible, portable piece of digital “paper” that could update the stories and photos in real time, like a copy of the Daily Prophet of Harry Potter fame?

Here you go.

The Daily Prophet metaphor has been used many times, mostly in connection with tablets. Now we’re talking about a flexible screen. There may be commercial applications (animated advertisements plastered on irregular surfaces), but I wonder how many retail consumers are going to want a digital broadsheet for breakfast-table or commuter-train reading. My guess is not many, when phablets have already taken their place as mealtime-reading devices.

But the development is one more bit of evidence closing the gap between print and digital. Print has become digital.