Thursday, March 10, 2011

Don't punishing school districts for good budget practices

Save money and spend wisely, but not too wisely.

What?

That’s right. A state senator thinks that school districts that save money should be punished for saving too much.

School districts in the state of Michigan have a cumulative savings account in so called “rainy day” funds of $1.6 billion. The districts have scrimped and saved as much as they could so they would have a cushion against drastic cuts in state aid or other funding. This not only is a wise thing to do, but fits very well into concepts supported by the Responsible Community.

State senator Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison, thinks this is “obscene.” He is the chair of the Senate finance committee. It is Brandenburg’s belief that in the slow economy and with the state’s budget problems, each school district should spend their fund before they receive any more state aid. For each school district with a budget surplus the bill that he wants to offer would cut off of school aid until the fund is below 15% of the district’s annual budget. It would seem that Brandenburg would want it to be the other way around. He should offer incentives to school districts to save money and be financially responsible.

Brandenburg is a member of the party that demands government be operated like a business. Any business around, large or small, would be happy to have a reserve of more than 15%. A responsible community, school district or municipality, should save as much money as it can while still providing the services that its citizens expect. The fund, besides being a cushion against swings in funding, can be invested to help provide income to defray the costs of operating, or perhaps, be self sustaining.

Brandenburg is also a member of the party that believes in local control. Making sound budgeting decisions by each of the school districts that has enough of a surplus to establish a rainy day fund reflects exemplary local control. The state should not dictate the budgeting principals of these school districts.

When a community operates out of the establish norm, such as not being able to pay its bills, it is taken over by the state to bring its budget in alignment with general accounting and management principals. But, if that a community swings that other way, operating in a way that reflects sound business practices, it should not be punished.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We must be certain about convictions

A community can’t know with any certainty that they have the right answer if it doesn’t allow challenges to decisions it makes.

The United States Supreme court has opened the door to allow some forced DNA testing of evidence in Skinner v Switzer out of Texas. This is a very complex case that involves a lot of legal issues. With that in mind, only a brief explanation will be offered here. (For more on this issue, please visit http://www.supremecourt.gov/ )

In 1993, Hank Skinner was convicted of killing his girlfriend and two sons. He claims he was asleep on a coach in an alcohol and cocaine induced haze when the killings took place. At the trial, the result of DNA testing on some of the evidence at the crime scene was presented, but not all the evidence was tested. Mr. Skinner’s attorney, concerned that the results from testing all of the evidence would prove to be injurious to his client’s defense, decline to request all the evidence be tested. After his conviction Mr. Skinner requested that the remaining testing be done. The district attorney refused on the grounds that it is merely a post conviction time and resource waster.

Of course, Mr. Skinner sued.

Then, in 2001 Texas passed a law that allowed post conviction testing of DNA. But, prosecutors and the lower courts all decided against Skinner. All deciding that it was pointless since no other evidence conclusively proved that Skinner did not commit the crime.

The Supreme Court decided that in very limited cases, courts must grant a post conviction request to be sure that state law allowed him due process. But, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, emphasized in strong terms that this was a very narrow ruling. Only in very particular circumstances could someone sue in the way Skinner did.

So many convicted prisoners claim their innocence that the joke is that the prisons are full of innocent people. This may be just more of the same. In our court system, with all the Constitutional protections, it is difficult to believe that there is a lot of error. Death Penalty Paper, a pro-death penalty web site, reports that 69 innocent death row convictions have been over turned since 1973. Based just on that number, it seems that the proverbial “99.9%” of all convictions have not been overturned and presumed rightfully convicted.

But, this case is more about two other issues than the innocence of Skinner. The first issue is our advancement in science. As science advances, more certainty about evidence can be presented in the courts. As more post conviction challenges are made based on the advancement of science, a responsible community can’t deny a person’s rights based solely on the fact that he was already convicted. Within narrow guidelines, as the recently Supreme Court ruling said, a state can’t deny someone’s basic due process.

The bigger issue here is certainty. The United States has built a criminal justice system that we can have confidence in, not that it is without errors. The way those errors can be reduced and abuse can be prevented is to allow challenges to the system to be given due process. When advances are made in science, there is no reason that a responsible community shouldn’t allow them to be applied to post conviction cases within reason.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

More guns is not the answer

There is an old and tired logic that says the solution to a problem is more of the same. That logic is often applied by those that are for the unlimited support of the Second Amendment. It is seeing a revival after the shootings in Arizona. Now that we have had a little time to reflect, let’s think about that logic.

Most are aware of the shootings. But to briefly recap, Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot by a lone gunman on January 8, 2011. Representative Giffords was holding a public event at a Safeway Food Stores shopping center in her Arizona district. The gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, has been charged with the shooting and currently being held by Arizona authorities.

The gun of choice for Loughner was a Glock 19. It has a standard magazine size of 15 rounds and brags about its small size that makes it easy to conceal. Loughner was able to fire all the rounds from one magazine and was getting ready to replace it when the second one fell to the ground. An unarmed man managed to grab that magazine. Another unarmed man hit Loughner on the back of the head with a metal folding chair. He was subdued by many other people who where nearby.

The total time of the event before Loughner was subdued was less than 30 seconds.

The argument that is making the rounds is if a “trained, rationale person” had been at the scene with a gun, the number of people that were injured could have been less. That someone could have responded to the event by firing back at Loughner and preventing him from injuring more people. This is an old and tired argument in support of carry laws in the United States.

The truth is, this happen in arguably one of the most conservative states about personally carrying weapons. In fact, Arizona is making it even easier for people to carry guns in public. They just passed legislation that allows people that carry a gun to ignore policy in public places that asked that people not carry a gun. If the public place doesn’t scan for a weapon, it is not against the law to violate the policy. If more guns would have prevented this tragedy, why didn’t it in Arizona?

If someone had been on site that was carrying a gun, it is doubtful the “trained, rational” person could have been able to shoot back before the end of the first clip. By that time, even if the second clip hadn't fell to the ground, the unarmed people around the area would have been able to take him down.

Also, if many other people had a gun, you can be sure, not everyone would have been well trained and rational. In the confusion of the event, just like the confusion that comes from any crisis, people who are carrying might not have seen the entire event so they wouldn’t know who was the bad guy and who was the good guy. Everyone could have been shooting at anything to try and be a hero.

What makes things more difficult to support the logic, Loughner was not concerned about dyeing. There is every reason to believe that he choose such an event to find a bit of glory, no matter how perverted that thinking was. He anticipated going down in gun fire and still continued with his plans.

Finally, Loughner was able to purchase a gun from a local retailer in Arizona after passing a background test. But, Loughner's application to get into the Army failed because of a drug test. Should people that fail drug tests conducted by the Army be allowed to own a gun? He was kicked out of college until he could prove that he was mentally competent, yet he still was able to purchase a gun. Finally, he had been in trouble with the law before. Again, he was still able to purchase a gun. People who have had no trouble with the law and not a blemish on their record can be on a no fly list, yet Loughner was able to purchase a semi automatic hand gun that advertises how easy it is to conceal because of its small size.

For sure, one understanding of the Second Amendment guarantees our right to own a gun. That doesn't mean that right is absolute. A responsible community can place reasonable restrictions against those that abuse any of the rights in the Constitution. The right to carry a gun has very little time between its abuse and the injury that can be inflicted. Therefore, a responsible community can take a harder line restricting this freedom than with others.

The logic of more guns means less injured isn’t true. There are better ways to address this issue that don’t make the problem worse.

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