Monday, March 30, 2009

Getting Ready for Augusta National

This is off topic, but awesome. Anyone else ready for Georgia's annual moment in the golf spotlight? The Masters is just a week or two away.....

Friday, March 27, 2009

Earth Hour

Earth Hour is this Saturday night. What is Earth Hour, you ask? It is a global effort to get everyone to turn off their lights for one hour, from 8:30-9:30 this Saturday night. Pretty neat idea.

Check it out, and maybe we can "turn out the lights" in Watkinsville for just a little while this weekend. I will try to remember and do my part. Check out the video below and consider doing yours. Maybe next year we can orchestrate a more organized effort to make this happen in our local cities.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Oconee Has State's Lowest Unemployment Rate

The Georgia Department of Labor has released statistics showing that Oconee County has the state's lowest unemployment rate at 6.0%. The AJC also has an unemployment map and accompanying story out that is worth examining. Overall, Oconee and neighboring Athens-Clarke fare well, as they are among a handful of neighbor counties around the state with average unemployment below 8%. This is a glimmer of good news for our area and region.

As bad as the recession seems locally, the data shows that it is much worse elsewhere, particularly in Northwest Georgia, where carpet manufacturers are shutting down mills. Traditionally rural areas of the state where employment has always lagged are also severely impacted. Case in point are Dalton and Whitfield county, which recently had the dubious honor of having the nation's second highest unemployment rate. As you can imagine, they are not happy about it. Full statistics and more charts beyond what I have pulled are here; thanks to the DOL for making them so easy to find and understand.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This and That

  • Stem Cells: Former Perdue spokeswoman and native Athenian Heather Hedrick Teilhet speaks for thousands of Georgia families in her editorial in the AJC today regarding SB 169. I truly believe this stem cell bill -- even if it goes no further -- is unnecessary and has angered many conservative and pro-business Republicans. Just by getting this far, the bill has hurt our local and statewide economic development efforts amidst a recession. What a waste of time and energy.
  • OC Party: Congrats to Watkinsville's Jay Hanley for being elected chair of the Oconee County Republican Party.
  • Enough Already: Over at Tondee's Tavern, Oconee resident Johnathan McGinty articulates what I have been thinking for months -- enough already with the pessimism, state climatologists! While it hasn't been a banner year for rain, here in Northeast Georgia, the resevoirs and rivers are full. I'm not saying we're out of the woods, but our state officials need to understand that if all you do is talk continuously about how bad things are, people will quit listening (especially when we just got 3 inches of rain).
  • Slippery Slope: Was surprised to see the Watkinsville alcohol issue get such prominent play in today's Oconee Enterprise (the story is not available online); ABH covers it here. If you read the OE article, it says I am opposed to retail beer and wine sales for philosophical reasons. I don't have a problem with alcohol, but here's my philosophy: there should be a good reason besides "everyone else is doing it" to change our ordinance. The situation in Watkinsville hasn't changed since we approved pouring licenses for beer and wine in restaurants, when we decided not to do retail sales. That was clearly a good decision as it helped our restaurants and enhanced our economic development prospects -- we had a good rationale for that decision. However, I don't think we should change our ordinance to "possibly" get a wine and cheese store or to save people a little gas when they want to buy beer. Frankly, the most likely immediate outcome is more gas stations, who will be the prime beneficiaries under the current ordinance. I have also suggested that if our goal is to get a gourmet food store, let's pass an ordinance for just that (I have provided a template for consideration), rather than one that accomodates all retail outlets. That said, a quick vote count indicates that the ordinance will pass with some amendments, and it is about as tightly constructed as one gets. I just don't see the need for it. And if we follow the line of the reasoning that "90% of the rest of the county has it, so why shouldn't we" on other issues, Watkinsville would be a very different place, wouldn't it?
  • Transportation: Odds for meaningful transportation reform continue to dwindle as the House, Senate and Governor continue to play a parlor game with an issue that is critical to the future of Georgia. If you think this has bad consequences for Athens and Oconee, imagine the hand wringing in Atlanta, Savannah, and elsewhere.
  • Republican Plans: Matt Towery has a nice piece on how the Republican party can become relevant again at Insider advantage. Unfortunately for us but probably fortunately for Towery's company, a subscription is required. An excerpt: "I recognize that this appears to be a simplistic set of proposals. They are, and for a reason. Simple bold concepts work. When people want change, and inevitably they do, they don't want halfway, watered-down reform. They vote for bold proposals and real change implemented as swiftly as possible." His ideas: bring back term limits. Get rid of the IRS. Eliminate federal agencies. And restore America as a manufacturing powerhouse. Towery is much better when he focuses on these types of issues rather than sniping over problems at the Georgia Dome, etc.
  • Medicaid: Our local hospitals have gone to war at the legislature over medicaid reimbursement cuts recommended by the Governor, with a full scale e-mail and fax campaign that is rarely seen from Athens outside of environmental issues. The House has figured out a way to keep the money in by accurately applying the new FMAP match that is part of the stimulus funds. The Governor and senate budget writers aren't buying the change. Hundreds of local jobs would be lost in Athens if the Governor's version of the bill passes. Lots of detail here.
  • Georgia Gets Railroaded: Shoutout in Flagpole for Voice of Moderation here. Thanks Ben. More detail on NC's intercity commuter rail program plans here. I'm green with envy.
  • Those must be some good lobbyists: Speaking of SB 169, the author of the original bill plans to run for state insurance commissioner because lobbyists asked him to. Not the way to start a campaign, according to the ABH.
  • It's a question of Priority: Charles Krauthammer gets to the heart of many Americans' growing unease with President Obama's plans and budget growth. They recognize energy independence is a problem. Healthcare is a problem. But are they the problems we should be dealing with right now? Did they cause our economic issues? Can we solve these in the middle of a recession? The least competent aspect of the new administration appears to be the Secretary of the Treasury. Not good. But can Republicans figure out an alternative besides the "wishing for failure" one being suggested by our esteemed talk radio hosts? Parts of the Obama platform have broad appeal -- energy independence, conservation, education investments, etc. -- others, much less so.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SPLOST Turnout

As of 7:50 this morning, only 3 people had voted at the Watkinsville East Precinct. The contrast to the jammed polls of November could not have been more stark.

While my son did enjoy the empty building and took the opportunity to show off his nascent football skills to the poll workers, it doesn't say much for voters in Oconee County to have such a small turnout. SPLOST will raise as much as $3 million for sewers, sidewalks, greenspace, playgrounds and public safety investments in the City of Watkinsville (and $37 million for the rest of the county).

Information (and some opinoions) can be found here, here, here, here, and here. The Chamber of Commerce has also weighed in in favor of SPLOST. As I have said before, it is a no-brainer.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Neat Story

I missed this neat story about President Lincoln -- check it out when you have time.

State Ownership of Transit

Our own State Rep. Bob Smith is proposing that the state have some control Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Watkinsville native Scott Trubey reports here for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Dan Matthews thinks it's a terrible idea, but doesn't say why.

I think it is interesting, at least. While the day-to-day operations of Hartsfield are generally well run, its approach to capital projects is often disastrous.
  • Example 1: the planned International Terminal, which is sorely needed as passengers arriving in Atlanta from foreign destinations not only have to deplane but have to collect and re-check all luggage (even if you are not changing flights!), which is a tremendous inconveinience. This project has doubled in cost since its conception. Recently Delta requested $400 million in budget cuts to the project (as an added bonus, the project is now three years behind schedule).
  • A new people mover to transport passengers to the rental car areas dubbed "CONRAC" has seen its budget spike by at least $30 million since inception as well.
  • See also the infamous "new runway" built several years ago where the contractor who provided the dirt was convicted of corruption (he was allegedly "required" to raise $100,000 for then Mayor Bill Campbell's campaign as a condition for getting the bid).
  • Until recent years, it was also always understood there was a certain level of corruption just below the surface at the airport, especially during the Maynard Jackson and Bill Campbell eras. Respected former Airport Manager Angela Gittens said essentially that as she left.
So the idea that there should be some level of state input on the future of this statewide asset makes sense to me, although state management of any profitable, successful asset gives me pause. I do believe that Ben DeCosta is a good manager (the airport has good retail choices, is clean, efficient, etc.), but it is obvious there is something that constantly gums up the works on big projects at Hartsfield, and I'd love to know what that is.

However, the real transportation asset that should be taken over by the state is MARTA. If there is one asset that needs new management, new capital, and new ideas, that is it. Limiting both our rail and air transportation assets -- which are of critical importance to the state's future economic health -- to the revenues and skill sets available in Atlanta and/or DeKalb counties, doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stem Cell

This week, there will be more debate on stem cell legislation in the Georgia House after a weaker -- but still dangerous to the bioscience industry -- bill passed the Georgia Senate late on Thursday.

Jim Galloway of the AJC continues to offer real insights from the Gold Dome, and his story on the issue shows that Georgia Right to Life really cares very little for a key industry in this state. Check out the excerpt below:

The Senate measure has injected uncertainty into the mind of any biotech executive operating in Georgia, Becker said. Keep up the fight year after year, and eventually businesses that rely on embryonic research will realize they’re not welcome.

Becker cited a similar strategy executed in Missouri. Many efforts at embryonic stem cell research in that state have shifted to nearby Kansas and Illinois.

There is no doubt this is a complex issue. After watching the debate around the Senate Bill on Thursday, I realized that the danger isn't necessarily that we are having a dialogue on the issue in Georgia. It is the non-scientific, non-informed nature of that debate that may be truly damaging to our efforts.

Whether you agree with President Bush's decision to ban the use of federal funds for stem cells in 2001 or not, at least he made a serious speech about it and explained his rationale. Watching Georgia's conservative senate delegation attempting to defend their own legislation as something benign -- and at times, as something totally different than it was -- was downright embarrassing, particularly when they claimed the bill would not harm the in vitro industry in Georgia. Fortunately, much of the offending language in that area was removed from the stripped down bill that passed the Senate, and its fate is uncertain in the House.

The stakes are particularly high for our region, which is seeking to position itself as a bioscience hub. One of our own senators introduced the legislation that is now in play -- what does this say for our area? Even if we never have a large stem cell research company in this area, the overall message that this legislation sends to the industry and to researchers is absolutely not a positive, and those who would rather not see bioscience industries in Georgia understand that. And so do other states, which are already using our "drought," transportation woes and other issues against us. They'd love to have one more issue to add to their list.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This and That

A lot going on, and not a lot of time to blog. Some quick hits:
  • Georgia's move to restrict stem cell research and in vitro fertilization is bad news for parents struggling to have children and for scientific research.
  • Surprise, Surprise. North Carolina, which has its act together on rail and transportation, stands to get $8 billion (yes, with a "B") for inter-city, high speed rail. That would be enough to fund the brain train as well as commuter rail to Lovejoy and Cobb County, the last time I checked. Georgia legislative leaders please take note about the power of actually having transportation plans in place and a dedicated funding source.
  • UGA professor Larry Nackerud stirred up a hornets' nest with his comments on ICE raids in the Athens paper yesterday. It boggles my mind that in this economy (with unemployment approaching 10%) that there are still people out there who want us to go out of our way to accomodate those who enter our country illegally rather than using the valid, legal processes.
  • In "Confessions of a Tax Man," blogger Grift Drift has a great post on why a move to "change the rules" for legislators with tax troubles doesn't make a lot of sense. That said, I do believe there certainly should be no special exceptions for elected officials.
  • Georgia desperately needs a solution for trauma care, and super speeder fines are one of the easier solutions. No brainer. The only real question is why there isn't a trauma care center closer to Athens than Grady Hospital in Atlanta. We probably can't afford one.
  • Jim Thompson and the guys nail it here. It is about time our legislators toned down the rhetoric and started really working to address our budget challenges. It only took 25+ days of work to get there.
  • David Brooks, my other favorite columnist, is at it again, offering up way too much practicality for most Republicans to handle. Guys, despite what Rush says, being "Dr. No" is not going to win us the next election. Nor will waiting on the President to fail.
  • In case you missed it yesterday, some Georgia legislators want to move the state back to the gold standard. If tax dollars were used to draft this bill the legislators should be reported to Casey Cagle.
  • Any predictions on how the largely conservative Bulldog nation would react to having the brother in law of the president as our next hoops coach?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sign of the Apocalypse, II

Okay, Georgia Legislators attempting to bring back the gold standard? Unbelievable. Biz Chron subscribers can learn more here. What is wrong with these guys (1, 2)? Do they have nothing better to focus their energy on?

Today's Sign of the Apocalypse

Is the apocalypse near? Favorite columnist/author Tom Friedman kicks off his column with a quote from The Onion.

But despite the reference, this column from Mr. Friedman will certainly get you thinking. While I'm not sure I buy everything in it as we generate a lot of intellectual capital in the U.S., and still do some true production here (I'm not sure the author totally buys what he's selling in this column either) . However, there is something about our consumer driven culture that disturbs a lot of us at an instinctive level, and he and his sources do a good job of articulating that.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Musings from the Dome

Some goings on at the Dome that have local relevance:
  • Heard from a source at the Dome yesterday who assured me that the House Leadership and others are working aggressively to break the logjam on transportation. It gives me a little more hope than I had on Tuesday that something may happen. My friend said that he has never seen the spirit of cooperation down there the way it is right now, and that's great. But cooperation alone ain't gonna cut it -- someone is going to have to seriously budge to make something happen in the waning days of the session, as the Governor is using his SRTA/GRTA act as a litmus test for passing the funding bills. My big wish is that the Governor hadn't thrown the "new governance" stink bomb into the mix this year, as transportation reform was complicated enough with competing funding bills. My opinion: we should tackle funding this year (recognizing it will be voted on in 2010 and a lot of voter education will be necessary for either TSPLOST or a statewide sales tax) and reform governance next year. My preference is still the statewide bill, which will help quickly implement some of the major improvements (rail, freight, ports, highways, transit) that we need, but I could live with any reasonable compromise that provides dedicated funding, and I think most Georgians could too. Opponents are attempting to use references to underground tunnels and the northern arc in the statewide bill to gin up opposition, but it is important to note that these are proposed as public-private ventures, not paid for with the sales tax funds. Note also this op-ed on transportation from the Rome News Tribune, always one of the state's more thoughtful publications.
  • One has to wonder if the Governor has an axe to grind against hospitals after yesterday's announcement and his earlier attempt to increase taxes on their revenues. Is there some sort of massive largess in our system that I am missing? This whole discussion hearkens back to my earlier point about cutting the state budget -- in my opinion, cutting around the edges just makes everything weaker. Look, we all know this is a TOUGH budget year. However, as I said in January, I wish we could cut off entire portions of the government instead and retain funding for transportation, healthcare, and education -- the things Georgians and local governments can't fund themselves. David Shafer, I might be coming around to your way of thinking on the budget process.
  • I am pleased that Austin Scott is talking sense to his Republican colleagues in the House. Why do they keep trying to tell local governments how to do business? How would Georgia Republicans respond if the Feds told them how much they could tax, what they could spend it on, and where their employees need to live? It makes no sense, and the Brunswick News agrees (story at left -- wish I could link to their editorials) -- I just wish Jerry Keen and Chip Rogers (see comments below) would listen to them.


I have recently been experimenting with Twitter. At first, I thought it was just a huge time suck, but am finding it increasingly useful for work and politics.

Below is a "Twitter Mosaic" that shows my Twitter followers. If you're interested in social media or keeping up with what is going on at a very grassroots, instant level in your community, or about a cause or product you are interested in, Twitter might be for you. I suggest using the Tweetdeck application to keep things organized. For those who want to focus on local commentary, there is a TwitterLocal app, and for those interested in sports, there is Twackle. Unfortunately, none of these apps are integrated.

I can see a lot of uses for Twitter and politics. Twitter searches can certainly help one keep up with issues at a grassroots level, and address controversial issues before they explode. Most politicians on Twitter offer little more than perfunctory updates (so far), which makes me think their staffers are likely handling it for them. However, those who comment on the political process are some of the most active users of Twitter.

Unlike Facebook and Myspace, it seems that locally Twitter has limited penetration beyond students, media types, and technophiles. So the jury is still out on whether it is ultimately useful and lasting, or just this year's version of the beta tape or the Newton.

And of course, there is the ultimate question: do people really care what their 374 followers are up doing or how they feel about an issue, and vice versa? So far, it seems that they do.

Get your twitter mosaic here.