Parties Fight for U.S. Senate Majority

Republicans are vying hard to capture 51 seats in the U.S. Senate. Likely holding onto their House majority, a Senate victory would prove incredibly useful for them — even moreso if Mitt Romney were to win the Presidency, in what remains a very tight contest. Indiana is now a focal point as Richard Mourdock and Joe Donnelly are also in a remarkably close race. Brandon J. Gaylord of the Daily Caller opines on the chances of both parties:

Until “legitimate rape” became part of the political lexicon, the Republican path to a Senate majority was straightforward. Take the four Democratic seats in Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri, and Montana, while accepting a loss in Maine, for a net of +3 Senate seats. This would create an even 50/50 split in the Senate. From that baseline the GOP would have needed to hold Scott Brown’s seat and win just one of the toss-ups in Wisconsin or Virginia. Other, less favorable options were open in Florida and Ohio.

In the past month, much has changed on the Senate landscape, but I’m still projecting the GOP will pick up three seats this November. Missouri is no longer a GOP lock. In fact, it barely qualifies as a toss-up. However, Republicans have expanded the map to compensate for the loss of one of their most favorable pick-up opportunities. In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson survived his primary and is a consistent favorite over the Democrat, Tammy Baldwin. Josh Mandel in Ohio and Linda McMahon in Connecticut have drawn even with their Democratic opponents in recent polling. The races in Virginia and Massachusetts have hardly budged and remain true toss-ups.

Democrats have also received encouraging news. Besides a much better chance to keep Missouri, Bob Nelson is maintaining his lead in Florida, although his numbers are still very shaky for an incumbent. Democrats are also hopeful that a new round of polling will validate favorable surveys taken over the summer in Indiana and North Dakota. Despite Republicans being expected to win in North Dakota and Nebraska, Democrats believe they have superior candidates and fundraising. In Nevada, Shelley Berkley’s ethics problems have not yet hurt her campaign. She consistently trails her Republican opponent, incumbent Dean Heller, by less than five points.

There’s Only So Much (Political Advertising) a Person Can Take

Who doesn’t enjoy a good campaign commercial? With politicians lambasting their opponents, blaming them for the recession, mortgage failure, tax crisis, Midwest drought and McDonald’s taking away the McRib sandwich (okay, those last two are a bit facetious – obviously no one controls the weather), what’s not to love?

And no doubt you’re already saturated with political campaigns. “How can this be?,” you proclaim. “It’s only August!”

You are not wrong in your exasperation. The sheer number of television campaign advertisements shown so far this year is shocking (with three months to go before the election, even) and the amount of money spent by candidates and Super PACs is astounding.

Think you’ve had enough? Be glad you don’t live in Ohio. Or Florida. Or North Carolina. The money spent on the presidential election alone in this cycle has been $37.2 million in Ohio on TV ads; $36.3 million in Florida; and $20.4 million in North Carolina.

In fact, across nine “battleground” states (the three listed, along with Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire), the presidential campaigns and Super PACs have spent $174 million on television spots alone. And that amount was just for nine states through the beginning of July.

Let me put that into perspective: According to ESPN, in 2012 the average cost for a 30-second television ad during the Super Bowl was $3.5 million. That $174 million spent so far on presidential advertisements in nine states equals about 50 Super Bowl commercials. (Unfortunately, politicians don’t include the Budweiser Clydesdales or barking dogs dressed as "Star Wars" characters in their ads.)

It’s not just which states you are in, but also the networks you watch. For instance, if you are a regular Fox News viewer, chances are you’ve seen a number of the 479,055 advertisements that have aired on the network thus far. CNN is next with 191,027 campaign ads and another news network, MSNBC, aired 75,207, according to NCC Media.

You can’t really avoid it by changing the channel, either. ESPN, TNT, USA, Lifetime, HGTV, and the Weather Channel, to name a few, top the list of number of ads aired this election cycle. Even Food Network viewers can’t escape the barrage (33,118 ads so far interspersed between Paula Deen and Bobby Flay).

It’s safe to say that as the election draws closer, we will see even more of these ads. But, are they effective? Americans that are planning to vote most likely have decided which candidate they will support – but there are always individuals that can be wooed at the last minute.

One thing is for sure, however: The broadcast television industry must really love election time.

Mine Workers Likely Not Supporting President This Time Around

The United Mine Workers of America fully supported President Obama in his 2008 bid against John McCain. But as Obama seeks re-election this November, it appears the coal union’s support has cooled. Not that coal workers are clamoring to help elect Mitt Romney either, mind you. National Journal has the interesting saga:

“As of right now, we’ve elected to stay out of this election,” said Mike Caputo, a UMWA official and a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. “Our members right now have indicated to stay out of this race, and that’s why we’ve done that…. I don’t think quite frankly that coalfield folks are crazy about either candidate.”

Both candidates are trying to prove otherwise to voters in coal-intensive swing states. Earlier this week the Obama campaign released in the first coal-issue ad of this cycle, claiming that Romney has flip-flopped his position on coal. The ad includes comments that Romney made as Massachusetts governor in 2003 standing in front of a coal plant, saying that he wouldn’t support jobs that kill people.

For his part, Romney is claiming Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is waging a war on coal with a slew of regulations.

The 54-year-old Caputo, who grew up across the street from a coal plant near Fairmont in central West Virginia and has been in the coal industry virtually his whole life, said he couldn’t remember a time UMWA did not endorse a presidential candidate. Caputo is a vice president on the UMWA’s International Executive Board.

“It’s unusual,” he said during an interview at UMWA’s Fairmont office. Caputo, who describes himself as a “hard-core Democrat,” intends to vote for Obama. “I’m loyal to my party,” he said.

David Kameras, a UMWA spokesman based at the union’s headquarters in Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C., said UMWA has not officially completed its endorsement selection decisions for the 2012 election and expects to do so by about mid-September. In 2008, UMWA endorsed Obama in May of that year.

"Our members count on coal-fired power plants and burning of coal to keep jobs,” Caputo said. “We’re a very Democratic union and we try to listen to the rank and file. They’ve sent a clear message that they’re not supportive of the environmental rules that are being put in place.”

Caputo pointed out that many of the biggest EPA rules, including one finalized last December to control mercury and other air toxic pollution from coal plants, were first enacted under Republican administrations, including President George H.W. Bush.

“A lot of our members don’t realize that,” Caputo said. “But whoever is in charge is going to get blamed.”

Caputo also noted that newly discovered resources of shale natural gas found all over the country, including the coal-intensive states of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, have contributed to coal’s decline as low natural gas prices compel utilities to shift from coal to gas as a power generator.

But politically, the EPA is the culprit for the coal industry’s woes. Throughout Appalachia where Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia converge, the coal industry’s disgruntlement with Obama is plastered on yard signs and billboards.

One billboard alongside a freeway near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia border said drivers were entering “The Obama administration’s no jobs zone.” The billboard was sponsored by a coal-industry group, the Federation for American Coal, Energy, and Security (FACES of Coal). Yard signs seen along back roads and throughout towns juxtapose the word “coal” with “fire Obama.”

Labor groups almost always align with Democratic candidates, and Caputo said the UMWA would be very unlikely to endorse Romney given his record with the coal industry and his positions on labor issues.

“Governor Romney’s record on coal isn’t any better,” Caputo said, referring to the comments Romney made in 2003 that were featured in the Obama ad—and the fact that Romney’s former air chief in Massachusetts, Gina McCarthy, now holds a similar position at Obama’s EPA. “Mitt Romney has never been a friend of our industry," Caputo said. "Now he’s out preaching he’s all for coal, but his history sure doesn’t show that.”

Hat tip to the Chamber’s Jeff Brantley for the story lead.

Bicycle Built for Two… or 93, at Sheridan Company

As it’s becoming more and more necessary for organizations to institute wellness initiatives and encourage employees to lead healthier and more productive lives, I’ve written a number of stories on the topic. And throughout the research and interviews for those stories, I’ve heard of a number of unique wellness programs.

But, I’ve never seen one like this: EMC Precision of Sheridan is celebrating a cost-saving achievement by giving each of its 93 employees a bicycle on June 1. Employees will be recognized with a company-sponsored cook-out that afternoon. (The company’s headquarters in Elyria, Ohio will have a similar celebration with bicycles for those employees as well.)

Each quarter, EMC Precision sets a theme and cost-saving goal. The first quarter of 2012 was “Eliminate Waste,” with a goal of employees submitting $150,000 worth of approved cost savings. The company exceeded that goal by double and now saves $300,000.

The precision machining company has a theme for each quarter and most recently the themes have focused on lean manufacturing. The second quarter theme takes it a step further and ties together being lean with being healthy, so the bicycles will come in quite handy. Each employee was also given a pedometer to track steps each day and every employee who reaches 10,000 steps a day will be entered into a drawing to give away 20 iPads.

EMC’s Travis Watson explains that the themes inspire the company as a whole – something that is often a challenge as the company grows.

“It sets the tone for the quarter and gives all the employees a central focus. We have a common bond of a goal that we’re trying to achieve,” he says.

For the previous quarter, Watson notes that employees submitted a wide range of ideas for cost-cutting: buying cheaper materials to make parts run faster, cutting down on outside operation costs, saving money on paper and more. He called the results “unbelievable.”

The company has partnered with Bicycle Garage Indy to secure the bicycles. Watson adds that if any employee does not wish to participate and receive a bicycle, those bicycles will be donated to a local charity that partners with Bicycle Garage Indy.

This School Board Deserves ‘A’ Grade

"Change" is not a four-letter word. And, despite what many seem to believe, it’s not always bad either.

Change is especially important when it comes to K-12 education. Reformers often appropriately use the term "kids first" when it comes to our educational priorities. Too many times, however, "adults first" is the prevailing philosophy. That has to change (there’s that magic word again) and it is in one Ohio school district.

Check out the excerpts from an excellent report by the Education Action Group:

Springboro’s old philosophy was like that of many public school districts: Teachers were given annual “step” raises and administrators received nice salary perks, whether there was money in the district’s budget or not. If the district couldn’t afford it, voters were expected to approve tax hikes to pay for it all, or accept cuts to student services.

That old “adults first” approach was on full display in 2009, when district officials chose to address their financial woes by eliminating busing for high school students, laying off 30 district employees, and raising pay-to-play fees for after school activities.

Not long after that, Kelly Kohls, a mother of five and a former college professor, joined the Springboro school board and a new “children first” philosophy began to emerge.

Kohls’ approach of challenging the “business as usual” mindset has proven very effective. The district now requires employees to contribute more for their health insurance plans. Backdoor bonuses for administrators have been eliminated, annual teacher “step” raises have been frozen, and a variety of spending cuts have been implemented.

The results are evident in the school’s financial trajectory. A few years ago the district was projecting a $30 million deficit. Today it’s projecting a $4 million surplus, even though the community is still reeling from the weak economy, which has caused a 400 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance from the local food bank, according to Kohls.

Kohls’ self-described “kids first” approach has caused a lot of heartburn among Springboro’s school establishment. During her brief tenure on the board, district officials have publicly blamed Kohls for the defeat of a $6 million school levy, the departures of a superintendent, a district treasurer, a school board president and the large turnover in school administrators.

Members of the Springboro Education Association – the local teachers union – use school board meetings to excoriate Kohls for opposing teacher pay raises and proposing budget cuts.
 
“Some people get so entrenched in the old philosophy that it’s tough to get them to think whether or not something is going to help the kids,” Kohls says of the criticism. “We need a different way of thinking.”
 
Voters seem to agree. Last November, they elected two of Kohls’ allies, giving fiscal conservatives control of the five-member school board, which began its current term in January.

Kohls says her approach has been to “ask a lot of questions” and to explain the board’s spending decisions to the community.
 
During her campaign for school board, for instance, Kohls asked why Springboro taxpayers were paying both the district’s and administrators’ contributions to the state retirement fund, especially since high school busing had just been cut to save money.
 
She reasoned that the amount of money spent on the retirement perk ($180,000) should be used to reinstate high school busing ($125,000). Kohls shared her proposal with the community on the Educate Springboro website and now the administrative perk is gone.
 
When the district’s health insurance costs increased by $830,000, Kohls proposed that employee contributions be raised to 20 percent – in line with what average Springboro residents paid – to offset the extra costs. She thought it made sense, especially since the district was in the middle of a financial emergency that left schools unable to purchase new textbooks or make basic building repairs. Her fellow board members at the time didn’t agree, and the district absorbed the increase.  
 
But Kohls used the Educate Springboro website to bring her case to the public, and the philosophical shift became evident.

“People started looking at the other four board members, and asked, ‘How could you say yes to the increase?’” Kohls says.

Today, employees pay 15 percent of their health insurance costs, and the district has joined a health care consortium which has resulted in nearly $6 million in savings.

Since January, the new board has enshrined its “children first” philosophy in a series of 28 goals, which include setting district money aside to help prepare students for the ACT test, among other things.
 
The board has switched to zero-based budgeting, meaning that school budgets will not automatically increase every year. Instead, teachers are being asked to submit annual budgets outlining specific resources they need.
 
The board is also developing policies that prioritize district spending, to ensure that student-centered spending needs are met before employee benefits and wage increases are considered. Kohls is crafting a point system to determine which employees will receive bonuses from the leftover funds.

Biggest UI Hole: It’s California By a Wide Margin

Indiana is unfortunately all too familiar with outstanding loans from the Federal Unemployment Account (that means borrowing money from the feds to provide unemployment benefits for state workers who have lost their jobs). At least Indiana’s balance of slightly over $2 billion owed pales to, guess who, California.

According to U.S. Department of Labor numbers at the end of February, California owed $10.2 billion of the $38.55 billion total that 28 states had borrowed from Uncle Sam. New York is second on the list with a $3.7 billion balance, followed by Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio.

California’s UI Trust Fund did not become insolvent until 2009, so the debt has been piling up quickly. Businesses suffer, however, as outstanding loan balances mean they lose credits and pay higher federal unemployment taxes until the situation is resolved.

Indiana Chamber efforts in 2011 helped move Hoosier businesses into a lower rate schedule to offset some of the increased federal payments. The move is expected to save employers a combined $2 billion through 2020.

Who else has outstanding federal balances? Florida, New Jersey and Wisconsin owe between $1 million and $2 million. Those with less than a $1 million balance (biggest balance first) are Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Connecticut, Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Virginia, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Michigan, Kansas, Vermont, Alabama, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.

Tuesday Vote; 2012 Consequences

Elections, no matter the year, do make a difference. Sure, some are more important than others. Michael Davis, who led the Indiana Chamber’s political affairs efforts before joining BIPAC in Washington, offers his analysis of what next week’s national votes mean for the states involved and for 2012. Here are some excerpts:

With three states holding gubernatorial contests, four states holding state legislative elections plus numerous special election and ballot initiatives, the 2011 elections may give us an early preview of how upset voters will be throughout next year.

The results for next week’s elections, particularly the fights for control of the Virginia State Senate and the Mississippi House of Representatives, may give us an early indicator of what issues will be top of mind for voters (economy, jobs), which voter base is more motivated (look for turnout numbers of those identified as younger voters, Tea Party supporters, 2008 Obama supporters and independent voters) and if voters will continue to be more than willing to retire incumbent candidates seeking re-election (should be higher than historical averages, but will they be higher than that of the last couple of cycles?).

One of the big stories of the night could be the locking up of the South by Republicans.  If the GOP can gain control of the Virginia Senate and Mississippi House, Republicans will control the State House, State Senate and Governor’s office of every Southern state except Arkansas.

Here is a list of top races to watch on Tuesday, November 8:

Control of the Virginia Senate.  Democrats currently control the State Senate by a 22-18 margin, but Republicans in Richmond are optimistic they will win back control.This would give Republicans control of the Senate, House and Governor’s office at the same for only the second time in state history. Following the election, control over the state’s congressional redistricting process looms large.

Control of the Mississippi House. Democrats currently control the House by a 68-54 margin with Republicans strongly knocking on the door to win control. Like in Virginia, this would give Republicans control of the Senate, House and Governor’s office. The Republican playing field is large enough and there are clearly enough districts with favorable numbers to put Republicans in control.

Ballot measures. Issue 2 in Ohio, an effort to repeal a 2011 act that places limits on collective bargaining for public employees, will likely attract the most national attention.

Iowa State Senate District 18 special election. With Democrats holding a 25 to 24 majority, this special election will result in either Democrats holding a 26 to 24 majority or the State Senate being evenly split 25 to 25 heading into the 2012 legislative session. Anyone who has been through an evenly a legislative session with an evenly split legislative body can give you an excellent definition of "chaos" or "gridlock."   

Classroom Competition a Good Thing

Contrary to the rhetoric that education choice proponents are out to harm traditional public schools, one of the clearly stated goals is for additional options to spark improvement in the public system. Whether the competition is public or private, the prospect of losing students should be an incentive to change — and improve.

The Cato Institute looks at Ohio’s EdChoice program and whether it has had that desired effect. The Fordham Institute, active in Ohio as a charter school organizer, reviews the Cato report below. The lengthy report from Cato focuses on data.

Rigorous school-voucher studies abound, with most research measuring the achievement effects of vouchers for students who use them. This study by CATO’s Matthew Carr — the first of its kind to investigate Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program — takes a different tack. It examines whether traditional public schools are spurred to improve in the face of a threat of losing students to private schools—if competition itself “creates incentives for systemic improvements.”

To test this, Carr analyzed fourth- and sixth-grade reading and math achievement data on low-performing EdChoice-eligible schools over three academic years (2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08). The results were mixed. While fourth-grade math and sixth-grade math and reading scores remained the same, Carr found the voucher threat correlated with significant achievement gains in fourth-grade reading (the equivalent of 2,200 extra students reaching proficiency). What’s most significant about this finding is that Carr’s analysis controls for (among other things) the “scarlet letter” effect—i.e., did schools improve not because of the voucher threat but rather because of the stigma associated with receiving a highly publicized poor rating from the state? 

Further, while fourth-grade reading gains were significant, they didn’t come from the “bubble kids” — those just below the proficiency cut-off; rather, students in the lowest and highest performing categories made gains. Though its findings don’t constitute a grand slam for voucher proponents, the report is welcome — especially as EdChoice adds another 15,000 students to its eligible roster. 

Buckeye State Bucks Estate Tax

Ohio has succeeded in something that many in Indiana have been pushing toward for years (and it has nothing to do with a Big Ten football championship). The Buckeye State successfully repealed its state estate tax. The Washington, D.C.-based American Family Business Foundation recently issued a statement on the matter:

Ohio will become the first state since 2009 to repeal its state estate tax, which was one of the worst in the nation, taxing any family with more than $338,333 in assets. The repeal goes into effect on January 1, 2013, and is a part of Ohio’s FY 2012-2013 budget, which Governor John Kasich is expected to sign into law by the end of today.

The American Family Business Institute (AFBI), a national trade association of family business owners, farmers and entrepreneurs across the country, applauds Ohio’s Governor and the State House for passing repeal, which was included in Ohio’s 2012-2013 biennial budget and which goes into effect starting January 1, 2013.

AFBI’s President Dick Patten, who testified before both the Ohio House of Representatives and Ohio Senate in support of the legislation, said: “By repealing and not just ‘reforming’ their state estate tax, Ohio has set an example for the 21 other states and the District of Columbia that still impose these onerous taxes.”

Those remaining states with estate or inheritance taxes include: 
  
Connecticut – Estate Tax
Delaware – Estate Tax
Hawaii – Estate Tax
Illinois – Estate Tax
Indiana – Inheritance Tax
Iowa – Inheritance Tax
Kentucky – Inheritance Tax
Maine – Estate Tax
Maryland – Estate and Inheritance Tax
Massachusetts – Estate Tax
Minnesota – Estate Tax
 Nebraska – Inheritance Tax
New Jersey – Estate and Inheritance Tax
New York – Estate Tax
North Carolina – Estate Tax
Oregon – Estate Tax
Pennsylvania – Inheritance Tax
Rhode Island – Estate Tax
Tennessee – Inheritance Tax
Vermont – Estate Tax
Washington – Estate Tax
Washington, DC – Estate Tax

“Ohio’s estate tax repeal is emblematic of the larger trend towards repeal or positive reform of estate taxes that is occurring throughout the nation,” said Patten.

For example:

  • In Oregon, voters spoke out and legislators backed away from a proposal to turn the state inheritance tax into an estate tax with the highest rate in the nation.
  • In Maine, the Governor signed into law a proposal to double the estate tax exemption.
  • In North Carolina, the State Senate rejected the governor’s proposal to do away with the current exemption, which would have caused more Tarheel state residents to be hit with an even heavier death tax.
  • In Minnesota, the legislature has proposed quadrupling the estate tax exemption as part of the state budget.
  • On Capitol Hill, nearly 150 Members of Congress – both Republican and Democrat – have cosponsored the “Death Tax Repeal Permanency Act” (HR 1259), a bill that would permanently repeal the Federal Estate Tax.

Indy News Anchor Files Complaint Against Union

WRTV-6 news anchor Trisha Shepherd is one of many American workers who believe she should actually receive the money she earns rather than a union she would prefer not to belong to. Most telling is her quote that she’s not trying to make a political statement, just trying to protect herself. While unions have every right to exist, how can forced membership be justified? The Indy Star reports:

A news program anchor for WRTV (Channel 6) has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union representing workers at the Indianapolis television station.

Trisha Shepherd, who anchors the evening newscasts, claims in a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board that the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is illegally trying to collect dues or fees from her.

Shepherd’s two-page complaint, filed this week with the NLRB office in Indianapolis, has echoes of the controversy over right-to-work legislation that failed to pass the Indiana General Assembly.

Unions consider such laws to be politically motivated attempts to weaken the labor movement by cutting their ability to charge fees even to nonmembers who receive the benefits of collective bargaining.

Shepherd said Thursday that her complaint to the NLRB isn’t intended as a test case on right-to-work issues.

She said the controversy in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states did not motivate her complaint against AFTRA.

"This is not intended as a political statement," she said.

"I’m just like any other citizen trying to protect myself," Shepherd said.

The union has been trying to collect $1,032 as of April 18. It hired a Pennsylvania collection company to try to get her to pay, according to NLRB filings.