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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

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Nailing down the new normal: Walmart, Obamacare, and part-time, low wage America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th December 2012

Last week the Huffington Post’s Alice Hines reported,

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours — something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

As several experts contacted for the story noted, the story is of a piece with other corporate actions responding to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with labor cutbacks, such as the Papa John’s, Applebee’s and Olive Garden/Red Lobster announcements (discussed a couple of weeks ago on this blog) that the companies intended to move workers from full-time to part-time status to take advantage of provisions in the ACA.

“Walmart likely thought it didn’t need to offer this part-time coverage anymore with Obamacare,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is another example of a tremendous government subsidy to Walmart via its workers.”  [...] 

For Walmart employees, the new system raises the risk that they could lose their health coverage in large part because they have little control over their schedules. Walmart uses an advanced scheduling system to constantly alter workers’ shifts according to store traffic and sales figures.

[...] in recent interviews with The Huffington Post, several workers described their oft-changing schedules as a source of fear that they might earn too little to pay their bills. Many said they have begged managers to assign them additional hours only to see their shifts cut further as new workers were hired.

The new plan detailed in the 2013 “Associate’s Benefits Book” adds another element to that fear: the risk of losing health coverage. According to the plan, part-time workers hired in or after 2011 are now subject to an “Annual Benefits Eligibility Check” each August, during which managers will review the average number of hours per week that workers have logged over the past year.

As Marcy Wheeler (“emptywheel”) pointed out, she had already seen in late 2009 that “incenting s#!t plans” was an advertised feature of the developing health care “reform”, not a bug.  Writing that the proposal was “a Plan to Use Our Taxes to Reward Wal-Mart for Keeping Its Workers in Poverty,” she explained in 2009,

…if Wal-Mart wanted to avoid paying anything for its employees under MaxTax, it could simply make sure that none of them made more than $14,403 a year (they’d have to do this by ensuring their employees worked fewer than 40 hours a week, since this works out to be slightly less than minimum wage). Or, a single mom with two kids could make $24,352–a whopping $11.71 an hour, working full time. That’s more than the average Wal-Mart employee made last year. So long as Wal-Mart made sure its employees applied for Medicaid (something it already does in states where its employees are eligible), it would pay nothing. Nada, zip. Nothing.

The upshot?  Congratulations, America: you’re “subsidizing the gutting of our local economy so that the descendants of Sam [Walton] could continue to get disgustingly rich.”  Read the rest of this entry »

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Lessons from Katrina: Shock Doctrine… or Occupy Sandy?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd November 2012

Goldman Sachs Tower during Sandy blackout

Goldman Sachs Tower, New York City during Hurricane Sandy blackout, 10/29/2012

Hurricane Katrina was not the first large scale American natural disaster.  But whether because of the magnitude of the storm, the inadequate federal and state responses, or both, it was perhaps the first one to shake American confidence that our country was up to the task of taking care of its citizens after a disaster, or of helping communities recover from one.

Even natural disasters, it seemed — usually imagined to be a time of unity and shared commitment — could bring out both the best and the worst in people.  On the one hand, thousands of volunteers poured in to the disaster areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, and affected residents themselves rallied in many innovative ways to begin rebuilding their communities.

On the other hand, though, some people took strategic advantage of the crisis to push agendas they wouldn’t have been able to before — the phenomenon known as “Shock Doctrine” ever since Naomi Klein’s 2007 book of that name.

To give but one example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan once claimed Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.“  But teachers like Mike Klonsky thought otherwise; what really happened, he said, was “the firing of every teacher in the city, the driving out from the city’s schools more than 100,000 mostly African-American children, the busting of the teachers union, and the creation of a new two-tiered school system around a core of privately-managed charters …[with] mostly inexperienced and unqualified TFA teachers teaching poor kids “study and time management skills.” I can only imagine what would happen if this recipe was foisted upon white, middle-class parents. But don’t worry. It never will be.” *

In an essay marking Katrina’s second anniversary, New Orleans professor and activist Bill Quigley identified ten lessons from Katrina, including self-reliance, telling your own story,** and understanding that disasters will reveal the structural injustices in the communities involved.  But first and foremost, he wrote,

One. Build and rebuild community.

When disaster hits and life is wrecked, you immediately seem to be on your own. Isolation after a disaster is a recipe for powerlessness and depression. Family, community, church, work associations are all important –get them up and working as fast as possible. People will stand up and fight, but we need communities to do it. Prize women –they are the first line of community builders. Guys will talk and fight and often grab the spotlight, but women will help everyone and do whatever it takes to protect families and communities. Powerful forces mobilize immediately after a disaster. People and politicians and organizations have their own agendas and it helps them if our communities are fragmented. Setting one group against another, saying one group is more important than another is not helpful. Stress and distress is high for everyone, but community support will multiply the resources of individuals. Build bridges. People together are much stronger than people alone.

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy seems to be shaping up similarly for the communities of the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York seaboard as Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath did for the Gulf Coast: a monumental cleanup and repair job, a struggle for aid — and also sometimes a race between residents rebuilding community and outsiders exploiting opportunities for their own policy and/or business agendas.

Thus Yves Smith of “naked capitalism” notes, in” Shock Doctrine, American-Style: Hurricane Sandy Devastation Used to Push for Sale of Public Infrastructure to Investors,” the immediate pressure in Pennsylvania to deploy shiny new “P3″ (public/private partnership) initiatives for the rebuilding process.  Philly.com’s Joseph DiStefano reports: “Rebuilding the shattered Shore and the swamped New York tunnels, along with badly needed updates to the Northeast’s exhausted roads and rails, will be an opportunity to implement streamlined construction laws backed by Republicans and pro-business Democrats in Congress and the states, says Frank Rapoport, Berwyn-based partner at New York law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge L.L.P., and counselor to contractors who support “public-private partnerships” (P3).”  

Read the rest of this entry »

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Congratulations to the EU on the Nobel Peace Prize! You guys *rock*!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th October 2012

Now please consider earning it.

I don’t have much of a problem with the European Union getting a Nobel Peace Prize — I just have a problem with it getting one right now.*   Europe’s elites are using a a cause that once seemed noble — to make Europe too busy, too integrated, and too prosperous to conceive of another war — as a blunt instrument to exacerbate hardship, create conflict, exploit natural resources, and unravel the social contract:

  • Greek health system crumbles under weight of crisis (Tagaris, Reuters, 6/14/12): “Greece’s rundown state hospitals are cutting off vital drugs, limiting non-urgent operations and rationing even basic medical materials for exhausted doctors as a combination of economic crisis and political stalemate strangle health funding.”
  • Hunger on the rise in Spain (Daley, NYTimes, 9/24/12):  “[Dumpster diving] tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution. “
  • Greek anti-fascist protesters ‘tortured by police’ after Golden Dawn clash (Margaronis, Guardian, 10/9/12): ““This is not just a case of police brutality of the kind you hear about now and then in every European country. This is happening daily. We have the pictures, we have the evidence of what happens to people getting arrested protesting against the rise of the neo-Nazi party in Greece. This is the new face of the police, with the collaboration of the justice system.”"
  • Greece to become Europe’s biggest gold producer (Zacharikis, Die Zeit, 10/11/12): “The Greek government has been working on administrative reforms since the beginning of the debt crisis. The “Fast Track” accelerated licensing process developed last year is apparently attracting international gold mining companies. [...] But there’s popular opposition to the mining projects. People fear serious environmental damage, for instance from clearing about 26,000 hectares of forestland. [...] there were violent encounters with police during September protests against the gold mines in the northern Greece region of Chalkdiki.”  (transl. by the author)
  • Eurozone demands six-day week for Greece (Traynor, Guardian, 9/4/12): “In the letter, the officials policing Greece’s compliance with the austerity package imposed in return for the bailout insist on radical labour market reforms, from minimum wages to overtime limits to flexible working hours, that are likely to worsen the standoff between the government and organised labour in Greece.”

Stack these things up next to each other, and it seems reasonably clear that the European Union, led by German right-wing chancellor Angela Merkel, is basically executing a bald “Shock Doctrine”-style economic takeover of the region’s southern tier, with the help of conservative and sometimes fairly fascist political groups in the region.

Opposition is loud, angry, sometimes violent, but as yet apparently quite ineffectual in countries like Greece and Spain. But it appears to be timid-to-nonexistent within Germany, where the middle and working classes are coming off a prolonged period of income stagnation and “Hartz IV” semi-austerity of their own.  A recent report (by Josh Rosner for Graham LLC, via “naked capitalism”) suggests that

Unfortunately for the German population, while German business profited handsomely, and German Banks exported capital to the rest of the world, the costs were borne by German workers who faced wage pressure. German households never reaped the fruits of their labor. The imbalances … were being built into the very structure of the Eurozone by the German government’s sole focus on protecting domestic business interests at the expense of their own population.  [...]

The German population has been led to believe, over the past decade, that they are frugal and that frugal is good. [Germans] are indeed frugal, but not entirely by choice. This is a perverse spin on the real situation, the German people have been deprived of wage increases and therefore of consumption of goods.

Rosner warns that “the German government will be forced to choose either a large share of the costs of supporting a further integration of the European Monetary Union or, alternately, the larger economic and social costs of its failure, including the massive costs of recapitalizing German banks and financial support for German industry.”

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Wisconsin union buster legislators greeted by protesters

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th March 2011

On Wednesday, many of the key GOP legislators who voted to end collective bargaining for public unions in Wisconsin planned on coming to DC for a March 16 fundraiser — essentially sneaking into DC to pick up their checks for their sneak vote against labor.  A lot of different groups — AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Public Campaign — started telling their supporters to show up at the site of the fundraiser: the BGR lobbying firm headquarters, at 601 13th St NW in Washington DC.

I was among those who joined the demonstration.  As ever, I brought along my camera and video camera.

At first we just walked up and down in front of the building, I’d guess maybe five or six hundred people all told.  Then all of a sudden a guy standing at the door starts waving people in, so everybody so inclined crowded inside, chanting, blowing whistles, etc.

What greeted us was an all but perfect stage setting for a confrontation with the ruling class, something out of Bertolt Brecht’s wildest dreams: a marble and glass indoor atrium, lined with palm trees below, stretching up for ten stories above, each floor with balconies at which startled denizens of the building gathered to view the impromptu occupation. A heroic statue* stood at the center of a stairway reaching up several stories; a “Respect Workers Rights” banner was quickly hung on the balustrade in front of it. It developed that three or four hundred people can really raise a pretty deafening ruckus if they are so inclined.

The organizers showed a deft touch with the whole thing in that they did *not* stay in any one place for long.  After a few remarks by an AFL-CIO organizers, a Wisconsin teacher, and a Sheet Metal Worker union official, the word was OK, we’re leaving now, clean up, leave it better than you found it.

At this point many hundred more had gathered outside, and the DC police decided to just cordon off the block and give it over to the protest.  So that’s what happened — but after a few minutes the crowd proceeded away from that as well, heading straight to the White House.  We got there in about ten minutes, stood there doing many of the same chants — “What’s disgusting? Union busting” etc. — and then left *again* along a diagonal path through Lafayette Park, away from the White House.  I had no idea where they were headed and tagged along.  But when they got to H Street they doubled back heading east — towards the US Chamber of Commerce.  And by golly if they didn’t head straight in there too!  So I did as well.

This time the place was smaller, a regular lobby maybe forty feet by forty feet, with several dozen of us inside, one guy banging a drum for all he was worth, everyone else chanting “hey hey ho ho” and “people united will never be defeated” and whatnot.

One security guy was apparently steamed about it all — and decided he’d pull a fast one on us and close and lock the doors with us still on the inside.  I started to leave, but he blocked me — and he was a *big* guy, bound and determined to keep me from leaving and on bottling up everyone else behind me.   At no time did I hear him or anyone else request that we leave, though I may have missed that part, I was maybe the 30th person to go in.

By the time he was trying to shut the doors, there were about three or four dozen of us inside.  One guy ducked under his arm, he tried to stop that (so he wasn’t just trying to block further entrants). A bunch of us started to press out, me in the lead (I didn’t want to get trapped in there).  A bit of a nonviolent scrum ensued, him and one or two security guards on the outside trying to close the doors on us, 4 or 5 of us pushing out, me getting pushed from both sides — kind of the cork in the bottle — thinking hmm, this is the proverbial tight squeeze.  But our push won, the door stayed open.  On the outside, people began chanting “let them out,” and as far as I know everyone did stream out — and dispersed, this time for good.

In just a few minutes my friend Tim and I had left as well.  We headed over to a bar, and celebrated the day with some beers and fish and chips.  I gave away my “We Are One” ATU sign — which someone else had given to me — to some tourists who asked me for it.

I’ll post some videos below.  The first two are fairly raw footage — i.e., sometimes I forgot the camcorder was on and you’ll see the bag or my feet or the world turned upside down.  But in a way, it was, and the topsy turvy videography almost gets across the spirit of the moment as well as anything else.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Other accounts of the protest:

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* The statue in the center really was magnificent, it seemed all but designed for the occasion. It turns out it’s called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” by Donald De Lue; perhaps sadly, the original is at the Normandy American military cemetery in France. I like to think this was its happiest day in many a year.

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Why win when you can lose: tax debate postponed to after election

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th September 2010

First they said they wouldn’t.  Then they said they would.  Now they say they won’t.  In a move that may be one of the last nails in the November coffin for Democrats, the debate about which Bush era tax cuts, if any, to extend has been postponed until after the election.  Lori Montgomery reports (“Tax-cut vote likely set for after elections,” Washington Post):

Democrats said they are counting on the pre-election impasse over taxes to ease when lawmakers return to Washington in mid-November for the first of two work periods before a new Congress is seated. Senate Democrats, who control 59 seats, will need to unite their caucus and win the support of at least one Republican to overcome a potential GOP filibuster. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said that will be easier after the elections.

“In a September session, it’s hard to separate anything you do from politics,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) “And the politics ultimately triumphed. We didn’t get much of anything done. And that’s why I think, ultimately, members of the Senate have decided the best thing to do is go home, particularly those who are running.”

The thing is, debating the justice and wisdom of extending Paris Hilton tax cuts was an eminently reasonable and necessary debate to have if growing deficits are truly a concern. But set aside that it would have been good policy — it would have been great politics.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Save Paris Hilton’s tax cut! Not.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th September 2010


Click the image to send a petition
to your Congressmembers

Good point from CREDO:

There is very little that so clearly demonstrates the callous venality of some members of Congress than the simultaneous demand to give Paris Hilton a tax cut while pushing benefit cuts to Social Security.

They continue:

…President Obama has called for the Bush tax cuts that affect the richest 2% of Americans to expire. We need to have his back.

Tax cuts for economic elites aren’t free and they aren’t effective. The government still needs revenue and giving away money to millionaires (who on average would receive over $100,000 in tax cuts per year if all the Bush tax cuts are extended) takes away from the money we can spend to help the victims of this economic downturn.

It’s almost incredible all this needs to be said, but all too many Democrats, as usual, are running scared trying to avoid a fight they should win, and a fight they should be proud to win.

They should take on this fight because ending the Bush era tax cuts is one of the main ways to support a stable economy, infrastructure, and political system (and fix the deficit): the wealthiest among us pay progressively higher tax rates for a system within which they have flourished more than others. They’ll still be the wealthiest, and the system will function better for everyone. Including the wealthiest, unless they enjoy risking a declining nation and all that entails. (The other main way is reducing our military budget, ending our wars, and reducing our commitments/claims overseas.)

But if that doesn’t mean anything, wavering Dems might still consider it for simple reasons of self-preservation: less money for the superrich to play with may mean fewer, um, peculiar political candidates like Christine O’Donnell or Sharon Angle. (Notice how Rand Paul or Sarah Palin almost seem mainstream by comparison).

Now I can see why the Koch brothers, the O’Donnells, or the Angles of the world would like things to stay the way they’ve become. The Great Divergence — and its related developments: (a) the new “Citizens United“  rulebook allowing unlimited corporate spending on campaigns, (b) the great media noise machines like FOX, Rush, or Beck — is both cause and consequence of the super-rich getting super-richer, and their minions and allies getting attention and electoral successes they’d never achieve otherwise.

I just don’t see why the rest of us should welcome that. The super-rich are buying our country out from under us with campaign contributions, advertising, and astroturf movements (or heavily fertilized ones at any rate). They’re turning it into a country with a government ever more openly by, for, and of the wealthy few.

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NOTE: built from comments and links on Facebook.

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Down here below

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th February 2010

pale male the famous redtail hawk
performs wingstands high above midtown manhattan
circles around for one last pass over the park
got his eye on a fat squirrel down there
and a couple of pigeons
they got no place to run
they got no place to hide
but pale male he’s cool, see
‘cause his breakfast ain’t goin’ nowhere
so he does a loop t loop for the tourists and the six o’clock news
got him a penthouse view from
the tip-top of the food chain, boys
he looks up and down on fifth ave
and says “god i love this town”
For Wall St., Question on Top Bonuses Is 7 Figures or 8 – (Story, Dash, NYTimes, 1/9/10)
The bank bonus season, that annual rite of big money and bigger egos, begins in earnest this week, and it looks as if it will be one of the largest and most controversial blowouts the industry has ever seen.
but life goes on
down here below
and all us mortals struggle so
we laugh and cry and live and die
that’s how it goes
for all we know
down here below [...]
pale male swimmin’ in the air
looks like he’s in heaven up there
people sufferin’ everywhere
but he don’t care
An Update on State Budget Cuts

(Johnson, Oliff, Williams; Center for Budget and Policy Priorities; updated January 28, 2010)

Governors Proposing New Round of Cuts for 2011; At Least 43 States Have Already Imposed Cuts That Hurt Vulnerable Residents

With tax revenue still declining as a result of the recession and budget reserves largely drained, the vast majority of states have made spending cuts that hurt families and reduce necessary services. These cuts, in turn, have deepened states’ economic problems because families and businesses have less to spend. Federal recovery act dollars and funds raised from tax increases are greatly reducing the extent, severity, and economic impact of these cuts, but only to a point.

The cuts enacted in at least 43 states plus the District of Columbia in 2008 and 2009 occurred in all major areas of state services, including health care (29 states), services to the elderly and disabled (24 states and the District of Columbia), K-12 education (28 states and the District of Columbia), higher education (37 states), and other areas. States made these cuts because revenues from income taxes, sales taxes, and other revenue sources used to pay for these services declined due to the recession. At the same time, the need for these services did not decline and, in fact, rose as the number of families facing economic difficulties increased.

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Lyrics in the left column are of “Down Here Below”, by Steve Earle on the album “Washington Square Serenade.”
The Pale Male photo is at and links to the excellent palemale.com site maintained by Dr. Ward Stone.

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Good for a grin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th August 2008

# http://www.nounverbpow.com/

# Jonathan Schwarz (“A Tiny Revolution”) — “Almost all political conflict, especially in the US, boils down to a fight between the Sane Billionaires and the Insane Billionaires. It generally follows this template:

INSANE BILLIONAIRES: Let’s kill everyone and take their money!
SANE BILLIONAIRES: I like the way you think. I really do. But if we keep everyone alive, and working for us, we’ll make even more money, in the long term.
INSANE BILLIONAIRES: You communist!!!

Works in China, too.

# http://barneysmith2008.com — because we don’t just need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney, we need a president who IS Barney Smith.

# YouTube Comment Snob “is a Firefox extension that filters out undesirable comments from YouTube comment threads. You can choose to have any of the following rules mark a comment for removal: * More than # spelling mistakes: The number of mistakes is customizable, and the extension uses Firefox’s built-in spell checker. * etc. etc. # All capital letters# No capital letters # Excessive punctuation (!!!! ????)…” etcetera etcetera. Patrick Nielsen Hayden asks the right question: “Can we have this for the entire Internet?”

# Take A Load Off Fannie at “CalculatedRisk”: “The story of Fannie Mae, as narrated by The Band.”

# The Guardian: the whole world’s only source for backup Fafblog. It’s true.

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HAT TIPS: Aviva Othirtytwo (Barney), Andrew H. (Fannie)

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Coffee with State Delegate Heather Mizeur

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th June 2008

This past Saturday I attended a coffee hosted in a nearby neighborhood for Maryland District 20 delegate Heather Mizeur. She talked with us both about her work in the past legislative session and about local and state political developments, and I thought I’d share some of that here.

Mizeur’s 2006 campaign emphasized her health care policy ideas — she co-authored John Kerry’s 2004 health care proposals. While the playing room for one state legislator is constrained, she’s clearly had a lot of success in improving access to health care for Marylanders. In an interesting story, she talked about how one of her campaign volunteers, Emily Herman, helped alert her to the prevalence and seriousness of “cutting” — self mutilation — among adolescents. After Herman testified about the problem, the result was legislation to develop and disseminate educational materials about the problem to school systems — not bad impact for someone still in high school.

One of Mizeur’s biggest successes was last year’s “Family Coverage Expansion Act,” which extends the time young adults can stay on their parents health care plans after leaving school or college. The legislation helps cover as many as 100,000 young people.  Mizeur has added to that this year with successful “Kids First” legislation. She told us that Maryland ranks 31st in the nation in health coverage, and that a major part of the problem has been that an estimated 90,000 Maryland children don’t have health coverage despite their families being eligible for assistance. Mizeur sponsored a bill requiring parents to report whether their kids were covered by health insurance on their Maryland tax forms — in order to find and notify families who qualify for assistance.

The slots referendum was another big topic. Del. Mizeur remains as strongly opposed to slot machine gambling as a revenue source for Maryland as she was last year — she’d said she’d rather support initiatives for sectors like nanotechnology (which Mizeur is very enthusiastic about) that grow a good economy, rather than ones that are more likely to spawn pawn shops. But the anti-slots outlook may be poor; since Governor O’Malley strongly supports slots — it was a key part of his budget proposal for the special session — and few major state politicians other than Comptroller Peter Franchot seem willing to take on O’Malley on the issue. One of the coffee attendees reported that the pro-slots forces are already campaigning; she’s seen e-mails inviting people to workplace pro-slots ‘awareness’ type meetings. Unfortunately, both the local AFL-CIO and the state teacher’s association have recently endorsed slots; however, Montgomery County teachers voted to remain neutral on the issue. Mizeur felt that anti-slots forces in Montgomery County would be best off helping to work for as large a county turnout as possible — and urging voters to vote the whole ballot, not just for Obama.

There was also news (to me, at least) about the Purple Line. That’s a long hoped for mass transit system, likely light rail, that will connect PG and Montgomery Counties with connections to the Metro system at Bethesda and Silver Spring. Mizeur said that proposed underground construction would essentially kill the project, driving expenses too high to stay competitive for needed federal funds. Around Takoma Park and Silver Spring, the likeliest route now seems to be along Wayne Avenue, though Mizeur and Patrick Metz both stressed nothing was certain. Metz was willing to guesstimate that the earliest groundbreaking would be in 2012.

The get-together was also interesting for the variety of concerns brought by those attending — municipal utilities, bike trails with too many pedestrians on them (that one got surprisingly heated), the difficulties parents with autistic children face in getting their child into appropriate school programs, medical malpractice insurance costs, and others. Delegate Mizeur will be holding more of these meetings in the coming weeks, and if you have a chance to go you should.

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