Senator Harkin’s Rebuild America Plan

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin announced a new economic plan he’s calling the “Rebuild America Plan.” From The Nation:

The legislation is divided into three basic categories: the first is proactive federal spending an action meant to boost the flagging economy. It includes:

$300 billion for roads, bridges, energy efficiency systems and other infrastructure

$20 billion in school modernization funding

Boosting funding for agencies that regulate trade, to better enforce fair trade policies

Funding to states to hire teachers, public safety workers and other public employees.

To help workers and families:

Increased child care subsidies for working parents

Ensuring that workers, particularly white-collar workers categorized as independent contractors, earn time-and-a-half overtime pay

Raising the minimum wage

Strengthening the National Labor Relations Act, making it easier for workers to join unions and increasing penalties on employers for blocking unionization.

To pay for the increased spending:

Raising the capital gains rate and closing the carried interest loophole

A Wall Street speculators tax, of three basis points on common financial securities trades

Ending tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs.

Senator Harkin is aware that such a proposal wouldn’t fly in the current Congress. He does think that we need to stop thinking in Paul Ryan terms:

“I firmly believe that anyone running for election this year to the House or the Senate—if they take up this bill, if they take up the direction of this bill… I believe that will be a winning formula,” he said. “I think the American people are hungry, looking for some way out of this mess that we’re in and I think they’re saturated [with] these sort of quick-fix type things—that we can’t be bold, we can’t grow, we’ve got to, as the Ryan budget says, just keep shrinking and shrinking and shrinking.”

There are some options here that would create jobs by investing in fixing our broken infrastructure. There are options that would help struggling families get back on track.

We certainly need to discuss choices other than the current menu of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class while continuing to shovel tax breaks at the wealthy.

Photo of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis by US Department of Labor on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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NH House Overrides Veto of Unconstitutional Redistricting Bill

Last week, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch vetoed the Republican-controlled House’s redistricting plan, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. His press release is very clear on what his objections were:

The population of New Hampshire based on the 2010 census is 1,316,470. A straight division into 400 districts yields an ideal population per district of 3,291. Under federal and state law, towns and wards that equal or are within 5 percent of this ideal population are entitled to their own representative. Based on the 2010 census, there are 152 towns and wards in New Hampshire that qualify for their own representative.

HB 592 denies a total of 62 New Hampshire towns and wards their own seats in the House. For example, the towns of Atkinson, Hudson, Meredith, and Pelham all have sufficient population under state and federal constitutional standards to have their own representative, but all are denied their own representative under the House-approved plan. This is completely contrary to what the citizens of New Hampshire called for in the state constitutional amendment adopted in 2006.

Lynch also points out that the plan needlessly breaks up municipalities:

For example, in Manchester, the state’s largest city, HB 592 combines Wards 8 and 9 with the town of Litchfield. Pelham will again share its representatives with Hudson. Strafford will share a representative with New Durham. And Concord’s Ward 5 will now be made part of a district that includes the Town of Hopkinton. The leaders and governing bodies of each of these communities have expressed their strong opposition to HB 592, noting that it unnecessarily and unconstitutionally dilutes local representation, and have asked me to veto this bill.

He wrapped it up with this perfectly reasonable request:

I urge the House to take up my veto quickly in order to allow time for alternative plans to be brought forward, or for litigation in the event of the absence of agreement on a constitutional plan. The House was presented with alternative plans by members of both political parties that would go further to satisfy the requirement for equal representation and fairness. There is still time before the candidate filing period to enact redistricting legislation that will assure equal voting rights of all New Hampshire citizens.

The lesson with this legislature is: be careful what you wish for. They did take up his veto right away. In fact, yesterday, the House voted to override the veto. Or, to put it properly, the House voted to violate the state’s constitution in order to override the veto of an unconstitutional bill. From the Concord Patch:

The controversy began when House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, called for a recess for a 15-minute private caucus for Republicans, forcing Democrats, media and the public to leave the House chamber.


According to a release from the House Democratic office, O’Brien called for the private caucus “to present a legal opinion that he said allowed him to override the New Hampshire constitution and centuries of New Hampshire House tradition.”

The arrogance on display here is positively breathtaking.

Not everyone in the majority party was in agreement.

From the Concord Monitor:

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, pleaded with his caucus yesterday to sustain Lynch’s veto and try to amend the bill before it may be found unconstitutional by the courts. Ten years ago, Democratic former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the redistricting plans brought forward by the Republican Legislature and the court had to draw up the current House map, which has been challenged for putting groups of legislators into multi-town districts. House Republicans note their plan creates twice as many districts as the current map.

Vaillancourt said by overriding the governor’s veto yesterday, House Republicans are “virtually guaranteeing that you’re going to be in court.”

He’s correct. This will end up in court. Presumably our courts will find this blatant gerrymandering unconstitutional, and a new plan will have to be hastily adopted – given that the window for filing candidacy papers for state elections is open from June 6 through June 15.

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Hiring Bias Against Long Term Unemployed Continues

Hiring biases are still in place when it comes to the long term unemployed. Some states are in the process of passing laws that would fine employers running help wanted ads that warn unemployed folks not to apply. That kind of overt action is increasingly difficult to get away with, but the same basic intent has moved underground. Recruiters and screeners who do the preliminary screenings for big companies are likely to screen the long term unemployed right out of the interview pile.

From the AP via Yahoo News:

Terri Michaels, who manages a Hartford employment firm that primarily staffs temporary employees, criticized hiring practices that screen out unemployed job seekers. Despite the policies of small staffing companies such as hers, some large employers have an unspoken policy against hiring applicants who’ve been out of work for two years or more because they want workers with a stable job history and recent references, she said.


Michaels said employers may use unemployment to weed out applicants for no other reason than to cut down a huge number of resumes for coveted job openings.

“When you have 14 million unemployed, everyone is applying for everything,” she said. “You have to be somewhat discriminating.”


A New Jersey lawmaker who co-sponsored the nation’s only law barring ads that restrict applicants to those already with a job, agrees that job hunters need to show they’ve been active, even in unemployment.

“Don’t sit at home. Make yourself available to your community,” said Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley.

That’s the latest trend in advice for the long term unemployed. Do volunteer work. The jury is still out on whether that actually helps anyone get paying work.

Connecticut lawmakers are proposing legislation that would ban discriminatory job ads, but may back off from a more far-reaching provision that would permit unemployed job seekers who claim discrimination to file a complaint with the state’s human rights commission or sue in court.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association hates the lawsuit part of the bill, and is pressuring lawmakers to remove that part of the bill. The state’s human right’s commission isn’t sufficiently staffed or funded to deal with a glut of discrimination cases, which can be very difficult to prove.

The National Employment Law Project, based in New York, wants states to add laws that do more than ban discriminatory ads. Laws should explicitly prohibit employers and employment agencies from eliminating from consideration candidates who are unemployed, the advocacy group says.

That seems like sensible policy. We also need a shift in societal attitudes. As long as pundits and politicos continue to blame the unemployed for being out of work, the discrimination will continue.

The nation is slowly moving in the right direction, which we can certainly all feel good about, but we can’t allow the millions who remain unemployed to be forgotten.

Image from Yeah Im Kenny on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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Big Brother is Hiring You

There are questions we can all count on to be asked in interviews; questions about past jobs, experience, skills, and references. Some new questions are finding their way into the old stand-bys. From CBS news:

When Justin Bassett interviewed for a new job, he expected the usual questions about experience and references. So he was astonished when the interviewer asked for something else: his Facebook username and password.

Justin Bassett said no. He told them he did not want to work for a company that would invade the privacy of their employees.

Not everyone can afford to say no.

Back in 2010, Robert Collins was returning to his job as a security guard at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services after taking a leave following his mother’s death. During a reinstatement interview, he was asked for his login and password, purportedly so the agency could check for any gang affiliations. He was stunned by the request but complied.

“I needed my job to feed my family. I had to,” he recalled,


E. Chandlee Bryan, a career coach and co-author of the book “The Twitter Job Search Guide,” said job seekers should always be aware of what’s on their social media sites and assume someone is going to look at it.

True – but then she went on to say:

“I think that when you work for a company, they are essentially supporting you in exchange for your work. I think if you’re dissatisfied, you should go to them and not on a social media site,” she said.

In other words: when you work for a company they own you, and you should expect no right to privacy.

But Lori Andrews, law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law specializing in Internet privacy, is concerned about the pressure placed on applicants, even if they voluntarily provide access to social sites.

“Volunteering is coercion if you need a job,” Andrews said.

We can expect to hear more about this trend in the coming months. Legislators in Maryland and Illinois are working on legislation to bar companies from asking for access to social networking sites, and other states will undoubtedly create similar laws. Do employees have a right to privacy? Does one sacrifice that right in return for a paycheck?

Stay tuned.

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New Bill Aims to Help Older Workers Fight Workplace Discrimination

In 2009, the Supreme Court eliminated something called “mixed motive” lawsuits against employers who discriminate against older workers, in the Gross v. FBL Financial Services decision. From Think Progress:

Employment discrimination cases are difficult to prove because the plaintiff ultimately must show what their boss was thinking at the time they were fired or demoted–it is illegal for an employer to fire a worker because they think the worker is too old or too black or too female, but not because they think the worker is incompetent or poorly dressed. Since workers don’t have ESP, the Supreme Court long ago put certain procedures in place to make sure that laws banning discrimination amount to more than just empty promises.

“Mixed motive” suits are an example of these procedures. To win a mixed motive case, a plaintiff had to prove that discrimination was one of the reasons behind their boss’ decision to fire or demote them. It was then up to their boss to prove that they would have made the same decision regardless of the worker’s race or gender or age. Workers are spared the nearly impossible task of having to prove that that their boss was thinking only of bigotry when they lashed out at their employee; and employers are given a fair chance to prove that discrimination is not the real reason why the worker was cast aside.

With the Gross decision, older workers suddenly have been forced to become mind readers. At a time when older workers face an uphill battle trying to keep or find jobs, this decision has made life even more difficult for them, while making it easier for employers to discriminate.

This week a bill was filed to attempt to remedy that decision. From Think Progress:

A bill introduced Tuesday by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) will overturn Gross and restore to older workers the same ability to fight discrimination that they agreed before a 5-4 Supreme Court took it away from them. Although many Senate Democrats have long supported undoing the justices’ mischief in this way, this is the first time a Republican has signed on to the effort — Grassley’s endorsement of the bill is a hopeful sign that it could become law.

Overturning the Gross decision would make it easier for older workers to fight discrimination in the work place. It’s certainly a hopeful sign that this is a bi-partisan effort, which certainly makes it more likely that the bill could actually pass. This is worth keeping an eye on.

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Texas Voter ID Law Deemed Discriminatory

On March 12, the US Dept. of Justice blocked the new Texas voter ID law. From Ari Berman in The Nation:

The Justice Department today blocked Texas’s new voter ID law, which is among the toughest in the country, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, noting that “over 600,000 registered voters do not have either a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by [the Department of Public Safety]—and that a disproportionate share of those registered voters are Hispanic.”

The data provided by the state of Texas on two different occasions shows that Hispanic voters are more likely than white voters to lack the ID now required to cast a ballot. The law was clearly intended to benefit Republicans; for example, a handgun permit is considered an acceptable form of ID but a university ID is not.

That really says something about what the state legislature of Texas values.

For those voters who lack the proper ID, obtaining the correct documentation can be a difficult task. Texas is required to provide a free ID to voters, but an applicant must possess supporting documentation in order to qualify. “If a voter does not possess any of these documents, the least expensive option will be to spend $22 on a copy of the voter’s birth certificate,” DOJ writes. That expenditure can be rightly construed as a poll tax, which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited.

Moreover, getting that ID from the DMV is not as easy as you’d think. Hispanics in Texas are twice as likely as whites to not have a car. There are DMV offices in only eighty-one of the state’s 254 counties. Not surprisingly, counties with a significant Hispanic population are less likely to have a DMV office, while Hispanic residents in such counties are twice as likely as whites to not have the right ID. “During the legislative hearings, one senator stated that some voters in his district could have to travel up to 176 miles roundtrip in order to reach a driver’s license office,” wrote DOJ.

So, you get a “free” ID, but the cost of obtaining that free ID is pretty high. Paying for a pricey birth certificate, and taking the time off from work to travel hundreds of miles to the DMV is expensive. It seems likely that it’s intended to keep folks from getting the “free” ID.

The state hasn’t publicized the new law to make voters aware of it, nor have they trained poll workers to handle the changes brought about by the new law.

Meanwhile, the push for Voter ID laws continues around the country. The legislatures in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Hampshire will all be voting soon on ID laws.

And just to point this out, while Texans can use a concealed handgun permit as an ID at the voting booth, that’s not cheap either: A new permit costs $140, discounted to half price ($70) for seniors and the indigent.

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Teacher Morale at its Lowest Point in 20 Years

The results of a new teacher survey, from New York Times

The slump in the economy, coupled with the acrimonious discourse over how much weight test results and seniority should be given in determining a teacher’s worth, have conspired to bring morale among the nation’s teachers to its lowest point in more than 20 years, according to a survey of teachers, parents and students released on Wednesday.

More than half of teachers expressed at least some reservation about their jobs, their highest level of dissatisfaction since 1989, the survey found. Also, roughly one in three said they were likely to leave the profession in the next five years, citing concerns over job security, as well as the effects of increased class size and deep cuts to services and programs. Just three years ago, the rate was one in four.


More than 75 percent of the teachers surveyed said the schools where they teach had undergone budget cuts last year, and about as many of them said the cuts included layoffs — of teachers and others, like school aides and counselors. Roughly one in three teachers said their schools lost arts, music and foreign language programs. A similar proportion noted that technology and materials used in the schools had not been kept up to date to meet students’ needs.

In most places, teachers have to live in fear of losing their jobs every single year. That’s a level of uncertainty that only the truly dedicated would endure. It’s disheartening to read that one in five teachers surveyed are considering leaving the profession in the next few years.

Given the increased pressure to evaluate teachers, while budgets are being slashed, and class sizes are increasing – and add the anti-union/anti-public employee sentiment coming from some quarters, and the results of this survey can’t come as any surprise.

Here’s the survey.


New Hampshire Senate Passes Voter ID Bill

The New Hampshire voter ID bill has just cleared the senate. From the Nashua Telegraph:

“This bill is very workable,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “It does not disenfranchise any voters. It does not create a single barrier. What it does do is ensure our elections are clean. As long as you are who you say you are, you will not have a problem. If not, then don’t try to vote in New Hampshire.”
Unlike other failed voter ID bills of the past, this bill permits those without an ID to vote. They would have to sign a challenged voter affidavit under penalty of perjury.

This bill is the latest in a nationwide push by state legislators to restrict voting. Pennsylvania’s state Senate also passed a voter ID bill this week.

New Hampshire has same-day voter registration, and anyone who registers on election day is required to sign a domicile affidavit. Of course, this article doesn’t point out that New Hampshire doesn’t actually have voter fraud issues.

Sen. Amanda Merrill, D-Durham, said up to 5 percent of voters could be disenfranchised by this mandate.
“There have been no indications of anything approaching widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire,” Merrill said. “There are approximately 50,000 residents of our state without photo identification, which is roughly the population of an entire state Senate district. This bill threatens the Constitutional right to vote for thousands of citizens without any clear evidence of a problem.”

Given that this is a highly partisan issue, the chair of the New Hampshire GOP disagrees:

Republican State Chairman Wayne MacDonald disagreed and noted that in the state’s presidential primary, conservative activists were able to successfully pose as deceased voters and initially obtained ballots at targeted polls in Nashua and Manchester.

He’s referring to James O’Keefe (an acolyte of the late Andrew Breitbart) who is most famous for the “pimp” sting on ACORN, with highly edited film footage. It would be so much easier to take McDonald’s outrage seriously if O’Keefe and his pals were actually prosecuted for attempted voter fraud. There’s been no suggestion of that from the NH GOP.

Now that this bill has cleared the Senate (which has behaved slightly more responsibly over the last 2 years than the New Hampshire House) it goes back to the House, which is eager to pass the bill.

Photos will be taken at the polling places, which means a cost to the taxpayers, and more work for the community volunteers who run elections in New Hampshire small towns. As has so often been said, this is a solution in search of a problem. It also seems to be a rather blatant attempt at disenfranchising voters before the elections in November.

In June of last year Governor Lynch vetoed a Voter ID bill. The old bill was rewritten, so desperate is the New Hampshire legislature to pass a Voter ID bill.

Thirty-three states have introduced Voter ID laws this year. Coincidence? Hardly. It’s another gift from ALEC.

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Corporations May Not be People in Vermont

All over the state of Vermont, voters at town meeting will vote on resolutions calling for an amendment to the US Constitution stipulating that corporations are not people.
Town meeting is a form of very localized government that began in Massachusetts during the colonial era. Residents of small towns would meet annually to address the issues of importance to the town. Schools, sanitation, epidemics, roads (both building and maintenance) and the town budget and taxes. In Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and some small towns in Massachusetts, town meeting is still an annual event. In Vermont town meeting is held on the first Tuesday of March.

Town meeting is when towns vote on the annual budget, and make decisions about funding infrastructure projects. Town meeting is also when candidates for town office are voted in. All voters have a say, and are welcome to participate in town meeting. Every article on the warrant (the list of issues that will be discussed) is subject to debate and amendment. The meeting is run by a moderator (also an elected official), and most moderators use a combination of Robert’s Rules and their own. Forgive me for getting nerdy, I live in NH, and I’m something of a town meeting geek.

In any case, today in Vermont, voters in many towns will be voting on the resolution to amend the Constitution. From The Nation:

Communities across the Green Mountain State will go on record—“In light of the United States Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that equates money with speech and gives corporations rights constitutionally intended for natural persons…”—“to urge the Vermont Congressional Delegation and the U.S. Congress to propose a U.S. Constitutional amendment for the States’ consideration which provides that money is not speech, and that corporations are not persons under the U.S. Constitution…”

The Vermont communities that move to amend the Constitution will not be the first in the country to do so. A year ago, Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison and surrounding Dane County voted overwhelmingly to support proposals to amend the Constitution so that the money power does not overwhelm democracy.

Since then, legislatures in two states (Hawaii and New Mexico) and counties, cities, villages and towns across the country have endorsed amendment proposals. Members of Congress, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have begun to propose such amendments.

This seems to be turning into a movement.

According to a new poll by the Castleton Polling Institute, 76 percent of Vermonters favor amending the Constitutional to limit spending on political campaigns. Notably 57 percent of Vermonters who identify as Republicans support such an amendment.

It’s easy to write Vermont off as a small state full of Volvo driving, Birkenstock wearing, latte drinking liberals, but that’s not the case. There are plenty of old-school Republican yankees populating the state. That over half of the state’s Republicans support the amendment is important. This is an issue of crucial importance to our democracy – and to that end, it’s fitting that Vermonters are using the oldest US form of government to decide to propel it forward.

For more on town meeting: VT town meeting guide from the VT Secretary of State.

Photo of the Vermont Statehouse by Tony Fischer Photography on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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Teacher Layoffs Keep Coming

The US economy does seem to be doing better, albeit very, very slowly. But, as approximately 20% of the population is either unemployed or underemployed, states are also still confronting budget deficits.

Over the course of this week alone, some 255 teachers and school employees are on the verge of losing their jobs, mostly in small California school districts.

In the Beaumont school district of California 42 teacher layoffs are projected.

The Plainfield, IL school district is cutting 64 jobs in order to eliminate a $3.2 million budget deficit. This district has eliminated 280 jobs during the last 3 years.

The Mt. Diablo school district in Concord, CA approves 89 teacher layoffs.

In Porterville, CA as many as 60 layoffs are being projected, due to a looming $7 million budget deficit.

Then in the private sector: gloomy projections from Massachusetts. Federal budget cuts could bring about the loss of some 50,00 jobs over the next decade. From the Boston Globe:

Automatic across-the-board cuts are scheduled to start in 2013 unless the deeply divided Congress agrees to a better deal to lower the national debt. The automatic cuts would reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years by slashing the defense budget and support for other programs, including Medicare.

Such reductions could hurt industries that have helped the state recover from the recent recession faster than the rest of the nation, according to the UMass analysis. Roughly half of the jobs the state would lose would be in defense, health care, and professional and technical services.

While the gains in employment are good news, and the economy seems to be tentatively moving in the right direction, these stories indicate that both state and federal budget shortfalls will mean continued job losses, largely in the public sector.