Thursday, January 29, 2009

Phil Gingrey

I was proud of Phil Gingrey earlier this week. With his comments he implied what many conservative and moderate Republicans believe -- that Rush Limbaugh's attitude and approach are a major hindrance to building a big tent under which undecided voters can gather.

Now I am incredibly disappointed in him. He spoke his mind. Sure, he got hammered. But the sucking up to Rush Limbaugh was just unbelievable.

Listen to the audio. Amazing.

Lets face it, Rush Limbaugh has millions of devoted fans. Great. But if Rush and Sean Hannity could run the country, they would be doing it. They are gifted talkers, but should not be the leaders of the Republican party.

Full recaps here and here.

Capitol Visit

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Capitol on Tuesday with a group of local business leaders from Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties. It was one of the first times the two counties have joined forces to send a group to Atlanta to do much lobbying, and it was an interesting day. Our mission was to support continuing investments in higher education, transportation, infrastructure, and demonstrate the strides we are making towards regional cooperation. Kudos to the Athens Area Chamber and the Oconee County Chamber for putting the event together.

We saw most of the top lawmakers in the state who have major policy initiatives, and hosted a lunch that had almost any local legislator or lobbyist with an Athens connection attend. A few takeaways:
  • The legislators are nervous. Most claim there isn't much fat to be cut from the budget, and there is squabbling over where the $2+ billion revenue shortfall will come from.
  • The legislature continues to want to control the revenue that goes to local governments in some form or fashion. Several referenced a fact about how fast local governments were growing and the need to rein them in. The reality is that it is much easier for voters to kick us local officials out of office than it is to unseat a state legislator. Most also claim they want to save the property tax exemption that has been hotly debated; I'd just assume they go ahead and let it go at this point. It was bad policy to begin with, and it won't be back next year, that's for sure.
  • One legislator even said he expected Georgia to be at 10% unemployment before the session is complete.
  • There is a lot of uncertainty around transportation, and everyone is still waiting to see just what Rep. Vance Smith and Gov. Perdue will propose. This will impact our area greatly -- the proposed TSPLOST legislation is much more well suited to Atlanta than an area like ours, which doesn't have an effective regional transportation governance body. Our region would likely benefit greatly from a more simple statewide sales tax, if GDOT or another agency can utilize the funds efficiently. One point that resonates with me -- GDOT should worry less about cutting staff and more about executing projects at this point.
  • Among those I spoke with, there seemed to be universal respect for UGA and its impact around the state, especially research funding and capital projects.
  • The crisis has forced everyone to work together more closely. The senate, house and governor's office seem to be pulling in the same direction on many issues and limiting the bickering that has been typical of the past few years. That said, based on some side conversations with members of our group, it is obvious that the stripes haven't changed on a few cats.
  • Sen. David Shafer (a candidate for Lt. Governor) and Rep. Jerry Keen (who has been rumored to aspire to higher office) offered startlingly different reviews on whether Georgians are getting more or less value from government than they were 10 years ago. Shafer claims Georgia's population has grown from 6 million to 8 million while its budget has doubled. Rep. Keen claimed that the per capita numbers have been consistent. It is obvious Sen. Shafer is going to make cutting government spending a big part of his campaign. Seems like these numbers would be easy to find.
  • Everyone wants to avoid a potentially nuclear war over a proposed 1.6% tax on health care system revenue. The Governor's position is that the feds have forced him to do this, but legislators aren't buying it. I can see why. Obviously, this bill will result in job cuts or be passed through to consumers or employers. And legislators understand that picking a fight with your healthcare institutions and their powerful boards is the last thing you need in an already complicated year.
  • We also heard from Secretary of State Karen Handel on election policy, Rep. Keith Heard, Rep. Bob Smith, Senator Bill Cowsert, and many others who gave generously of their time. Many thanks to all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

GONSO for new media?

There is a new statewide online news service helmed by several ex-journalists that should interest small town Georgians. Called Georgia Online News Service -- or GONSO for short -- it is the brainchild of ex-Creative Loafing editor John Sugg, famous for his liberal bent, muckraking journalism, and distrust of political and business establishments. Despite Sugg's high-profile reputation, the content and reporting so far has been balanced and diverse, including a column from Ralph Reed and a fascinating story from Bill Osinski on the success of small-town Senoia in preserving its unique downtown and recruiting film makers.

There are still some bugs in the system -- does not appear to work, and it doesn't come up when you search for it on google -- but several of Georgia's top journalists are now writing about statewide news on the site. Many are veterans of the AJC and other top tier publications. It is nice to have someone who focuses on interesting Georgia news on a daily basis other than the Associated Press. Check it out when you have a moment.

My day job is in the communications business, and it is fascinating to see the business of "information delivery" evolve. As the pressure on newspapers and their legacy cost structures (printing presses, delivery, etc.) increases, we will a) either see them shed those structures or b) see more layoffs, and then more independent, online "news" services will emerge. Whether or not this is good for the accuracy and reputation of reporting remains to be seen.

Oconee Education Stimulus

Some numbers are out, and according to the AJC, the Oconee County school system stands to get a little over $1 million in 2009 and close to $800,000 in 2010 if the stimulus plan passes as is. Am sure our BOE members would be excited to get that boost, even if temporary. The question is, how do you spend it on things that won't require local funding in the years that follow? More details on overall education funding and rationale here.

Local education funds, support for R&D at higher education institutions, and transportation funding (although not nearly enough at just $30 billion) are among the good things to come out of the proposed stimulus package, which also includes $335 million for STD prevention and many other shiny baubles to entertain bureaucrats and fans of big government. Details on the baubles here.

The stimulus bill needs to be totally focused on things that make America more competitive in the future -- meaningful transportation projects, technology investments, education, R&D, etc. These items will help somewhat with our revenue and job creation problem, but most importantly will help prepare our country to compete with China, India and the rest of the world in the years ahead.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Editing the State Budget

There are a lot of times when I'm writing that I have to fit a certain word limit. Sometimes 500 words, sometimes 1000 words. There have been many times when I start work and quickly realize I am at 1,200 words, and realize I have to cut 20 or more out of the story. I usually can't accomplish this by just cutting 20 percent from each paragraph. I have to take out entire sections or ideas that, while important, were not essential to the overall piece.

Our state legislators should take a similar approach to Georgia's budget. Lets be realistic -- with a $2 billion budget gap, you are going to weaken every piece of state government if you just slice 10% out of operations equally. Unless we are willing to increase revenue (doubtful), legislators need to prioritize, and frankly, eliminate, some elements of state government, or we risk weakening every single element to the point where none of it is effective.

Here's my plan: the state should focus on three priorities: education, transportation, and environmental and public health. In other words, things local communities cannot accomplish on their own. If it doesn't fit in those buckets, cut it out or give the money for those functions to local governments or private partners and let them execute it.

What we are seeing now -- particularly in secondary and higher education -- is an evisceration, and it is sad. While I don't support "throwing money" at education, taking money away, especially from one of the nation's best higher education systems, is a tragic mistake.

On the transportation side, the lack of activity and leadership is tragic, although some of the more recent proposals offer hope. Both of these areas are critical areas to our state's future and require state leadership and investment.

Support for public and environmental health -- especially EPD and trauma care. Adding taxes to local health care systems is ridiculous.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I have friends and clients that operate in all three of these areas. I also have a lot of clients impacted by other areas of state government. But the bottom line is this: does anyone else want to offer up some solid solutions?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Time to Refi

If you have decent credit, now is a great time to refinance. 30 year rates are at less than 5%, and you can even find a 15 year loan at less than 5% if you have a good loan officer watching for you.

Am sure this is not an option for everyone, but most financial planners will agree, getting that interest rate as low as possible and keeping the term as short as possible is one of the best things you can do for your long-term financial health. There are a number of easy mortgage calculators you can use to figure out just how much you can save and how long it will take you to "break even" on any closing costs, etc. you incur from a refi.

Anyway, enough amateur financial advice -- if you're interested in a refi, be sure to call up one of our great local banks and give them an opportunity to go to work for you.

Watkinsville Council and Other Updates

Good city council meeting tonight. We approved changes to our land use code that will allow recreational facilities -- everything from tennis courts to swim centers to climbing walls to places like Pump it Up -- in the Employment Center and Commercial Corridor areas. This will allow Zion Skate Park -- a privately run skateboarding and rollerblading facility -- to set up off of Morrison Street. Hopefully this will give kids and teens who want to skate a safe, supervised place to do so, and allow future recreational facilities in areas that have the infrastructure for traffic or the type of buildings that allow for indoor recreation.

We also approved several business licenses and discussed an updated solid waste ordinance for the city, which will likely be adopted next month once we work through some issues on concrete pads and screening for dumpsters at businesses (exciting, I know). Budget wise we are on track but next month we should know more based on Local Option Sales Tax Revenues. We are also going to check into voluntary recycling options for city residents as part of trash pick up (likely with a fee).

Also, if you catch a hard copy of the Oconee Enterprise this week, be sure to read the story on residential property values. It appears that the Tax Commissioner's office is beginning its annual "campaign to justify increasing property values" a few months early this year. I'm sorry, but the premise -- that if you hold on to your house long enough you can get a return -- doesn't hold water. There is a cost to holding onto your home, especially if you have to or need to move. Anyone with any sense in Oconee County knows that we are overbuilt, that the vast majority of property values are flat or down. So lets not hide from that fact. We've all benefited from pretty aggressive increases in property values over the past 5-10 years. See my previous rant on property assessments here.

It's a little bit far afield for me, but if you ever wonder what is wrong in Atlanta, here's an indicator from the AJC:
Franklin has estimated it would cost at least $20 million to hire, train and equip 200 officers. The police department currently has 1,633 sworn police officers and 79 recruits who are on track to becoming officers, said Sgt. Lisa Keyes, a police spokeswoman.
What???? That is $100,000 per officer -- is that normal? Seems unbelievable. They should already be trained. And they can share vehicles. I still own a rental unit in Atlanta, and believe me, they need more police, but this explains why they have budget problems.

Back to the local scene, there is also a front page story in the OE about the demise of Creekside as well as significant coverage in the Athens Banner Herald earlier this week. Folks, whether you call it Green Hills or Creekside, the only question about this course is how in the world it made it so long. For most of its history, it was poorly maintained and has always been 15 minutes from civilization in any direction. There are too many quality and affordable golf options in this area for it to make it. Having financing with the now defunct The Community Bank out of Loganville did not help either. Moving ahead, Creekside would make a great passive recreation area if it could be picked up cheaply by Oconee -- install some horse, running, mountain bike trails that requires minimal maintenance but mostly let it return to the wild. There are beautiful woods and great terrain out there. There is also lot of history in that area that is disappearing (see item below) so it might be neat to preserve some space out there. And if you are looking for outstanding local public golf courses, start with newly renovated UGA and Lane Creek and the Georgia Club. There are many more.

Last thing -- two fascinating stories and photos in the Athens Banner-Herald's Oconee section today about Barnett Shoals Dam (wonder if Georgia Power is renewing its lease on the Dam next year?). This was a mile or two upstream from the old wire bridge (pictured) that connected Oconee and Oglethorpe Counties that is the namesake of Wire Bridge Road. Roy Ward -- his art and his knowledge -- is a gem in our community that should be recognized more often.

Photo credit: Vanishing Georgia, Georgia Division of Archives and History, Office of Secretary of State

Transportation Logjam Breaking Up?

I was able to attend yesterday's Eggs and Issues breakfast hosted by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and came away as confused about Georgia's efforts to fix transportation as ever. A quick summary:

Governor Perdue, in his classic COO style: "I will support transportation improvements if and when we can find a plan and a way to fund it."

Lt. Governor Cagle, playing it safe: "I support regional choice in transportation."

Speaker Richardson: "I am leaving it to Vance Smith and company to come up with a plan, but I don't like the regional approach."

Now as a local official, I like the local approach. But I think one reason local officials like the T-SPLOST or more locally driven options is because there is a vacuum right now -- nothing is getting done or funded at the state level, and there is no "plan."

But what I am hearing today is exciting -- that Rep. Smith has put his proposal on the table, and it includes myriad road, transit, cargo, and rail projects that would be funded by a 10-year, one percent statewide sales tax. Folks, the early list includes things like the Brain Train, light rail to the suburbs, the Atlanta Belt Line, and much more.

This is exciting news, and if the bill is well thought out, could be a game changer for Georgia, if GDOT can implement once the funds are raised. It is exciting to see Republican leadership in Georgia understanding that transportation is about more than rails. Fingers crossed....

Monday, January 5, 2009

Is a Penny Saved a Penny Earned?

If you're wondering why this recession is going to be a doozy, read this article in today's Wall Street Journal (no password required for this article) and a related sidebar on what a penny saved really costs.

It looks like American families are finally doing what they should have been for a long time: spending less and saving more. Paying down debt. Being thrifty, like our grandparents were. All of this with some help from tighter reins on credit by banks and others.

The problem: a large chunk of our economy is built on unsustainable consumerism. Remember Bush's suggestion for how we could "sacrifice" in the wake of 9/11 -- "Go shopping." Perhaps the worst move of his presidency.

But what happens if consumers (and businesses) aren't spending? It means consumer spending will not lead us out of this recession in the short term. Or hopefully it won't, because if it does, it means we will not have learned a thing from our borrowing binge. Government and consumers (and in some cases, business) have been spending more than they are earning. Never a good combination.

To move the needle away from our consumerist addiction, we need investments in real innovation and infrastructure in this country. Mass transit, high speed and strong cargo rail on the transportation side (to help alleviate business killing congestion), and research, science and math education on the education side. The sort of things that create jobs but just as importantly spur new ideas that can take our economy in new directions and solve the challenges that are facing us (social security, medicare, medicaid, etc.). Our investments must help us take advantage of the direction that the world is moving in.

How does this translate locally? In my opinion, it means retailers are going to have to work harder than ever for the consumer dollar, and that new retail won't be built any time soon, no matter what my fellow bloggers believe. The feds and local governments should think bigger than simply applying money for "ready to go" highway projects that have minimal impact and focus on infrastructure projects with true region-changing potential. Banks will be helping consumers save, invest wisely, and borrow. It means that local leaders must continue to advocate for investments in secondary and higher education, especially at UGA, Athens Tech and Gainesville College where innovation and ideas emerge. Homes will be built to live in, not for short-term monetary gain.

What do you think?