Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teaching a Culture That Does Not Tolerate Abuse

A recent survey of Wyoming school children reveals more than half of middle-schoolers say they’ve been bullied at school, and a fifth of high school students say they’ve been bullied in the past year.

Everyone decries this problem, and there are programs to reform the bully and help the victims resist the abuse or deal with the mental and physical injuries. We seem to overlook a strategy that could do as much – maybe even more – and that focuses on all the rest of the children. That is to teach our children to speak up when someone is being bullied, to say picking on a classmate is wrong.

Recall the Edmund Burke quotation about the victory of evil when good people do nothing. This is something like that. A bully shouldn’t get the reinforcement of admiration or terror from his or her peers. There may be many motivations to bully, but at least take away the power over others, and the victims know they are not alone. We should be teaching our children from an early age to speak up when they see someone being abused.

It’s not okay to look the other way or remain silent while someone is hammering someone else, in person, via social media, physically, verbally, whatever. That is a lesson we sure could use today by adults in cases of all kinds of abuse. How many people at Penn State looked the other way while young boys were abused by a popular assistant football coach? I heard a professional hockey player on the news say he was sexually abused by a youth coach for several years, and he wondered why so many adults surely suspected something was going on but did nothing.

We don’t want adult bystanders?  Let’s teach the lesson to our children right now, from an early age. This is not just a school project. I know we are asking a lot of them to speak out against bullying. I’m talking about changing the culture of the school yard, so speaking up is the norm, not the courageous act of a solitary child. But let’s promote the idea of the brave individual, too.   

Last year, columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better Project” to tell gay teenagers whose lives are made miserable by bullies that their lives improve later on. I propose that the culture of American high schools is to treat all classmates with tolerance. Now. Not later.

I attended 11th grade in a Montgomery, Ala., high school in 1966, just two years after it was forced to admit African-American students. Things were quiet but tense. My father was in the Air Force, and we all knew we would be leaving in one year. It was easy to let the racial slurs in classroom conversations go by. I regret to this day that I didn’t say something – not because I would have changed anything, but my silence was tacit approval.

In Wyoming, we have the ethos of minding our own business, which is good. But we have the equally important Wyoming value of helping our neighbors.

Of course, part of this culture of speaking up involves teaching our children to know the difference between teasing and flat-out bullying and not to overreact to every comment. But kids should learn when they themselves or anyone else is crossing the line from teasing into cruelty. (Think about the cases of hazing that turn fatal.) Kids and adults who are bullied can turn around and be mean to someone else. Instead of focusing on labeling students “bully” and “victim,” help them all create an environment of mutual respect and concern when someone is being abused.

We should know abuse when we see it – as children and as adults – and say, “Stop.”  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Legislative races should be crucible, not a cakewalk

I just read a column describing this long, sometimes brutal battle for the GOP presidential nomination, saying it’s good for the candidates and good for the electorate. It’s like a crucible that fires strong candidates, burns up weak ones and reveals all to the public.

And that’s what is sadly missing from too many legislative races in Wyoming. Each election, scores of races are decided in a primary or don’t need deciding at all, because only one person files for a seat. Each election, all 60 House seats and half the Senate seats, 15, are on the ballot. We electors are the losers in having such paltry choices.

No one is served by an uncontested or lop-sided election. Not the voters, obviously. But the candidates lose out, as well. The candidate who gets a free or near-free pass misses out on that crucible, untested by the fire and scrutiny of debate. The candidate doesn’t have to deal with an opponent’s challenges and hard questioning and may not even have to take a stand on tough issues. (Why alienate any voters if you don’t have to, you know what I mean?)

But the worst part comes when the unchallenged candidates take their seats in the Legislature, filled with a moral certitude and rectitude that makes for a stiff, uncompromising neck. In their eyes, they come with an unquestioned mandate, and they aren’t inclined to listen to and understand other viewpoints. Some come with a mission and a set of blinders, and they go home after 40 days just as clueless as when they arrived. Constituents rarely hear from them between elections, and the lawmakers would prefer not to be bothered by constituents, either.

Usually, legislators learn after a couple of terms that the unyielding, categorical style of representation doesn’t work. (Usually, but not always.)

Some legislators understand the importance of understanding right from the first day, including some who ran without a challenge. But, when you have a challenge, you have to listen.

Why do we have so many unchallenged races? One reason is the hard work of diligent legislative service. It’s a huge commitment of time away from work and family during the sessions and in the interim. Not many people can swing that. There’s also the cost of running – about $8,000 for a House race and $12,000 for a Senate race – and devoting a summer of knocking on doors. Another reason, I suspect, is the general lack of citizen awareness of what the Legislature is and the significance of service. That’s the fault of an uninformed electorate that substitutes yard signs for real information-gathering.

Some people are inclined to blame our single-member legislative districts, which encourage head-to-head competition and have residency requirements. Back before the 1992 redistricting, Laramie County was one at-large district. Imagine dozens of people running in a pack for the county’s  nine House and five Senate seats. It was hard to know much more than the names of candidates in that race. I don’t remember vigorous debates.

Single-member districts make for more accountable representation of a defined constituent area. But we need candidates who will oppose each other in primaries and general elections and challenge each other to be excellent candidates and then excellent legislators. We need a crucible, not a cakewalk. I’m not sure how we get that. It’s a shame that we don’t.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sometimes it's about the herd

I drove my daughter to Minneapolis and spent two days helping her get settled for the start of law school at the University of Minnesota. This required much driving on the interstate highways in and around the city, which carry a lot of traffic all day long. Despite the heavy traffic, it is easy to merge, change lanes and keep track of everyone.
 The distinctive feature of Minneapolis traffic is the mentality of motorists to watch out for each other and accommodate each other. I call it the “cooperative model” of working together so everyone gets where they need to go quickly, safely – efficiently. Compare this to the “competitive model” employed by the motorists on the Interstates around and through Denver, where the overriding mentality is “every man for himself.”
 What they have on Minneapolis roads is a sense of community, of people whose welfare is tied together, recognizing that helping someone else benefits me. And that is what is sadly missing not just on Denver highways but in some of the large debates in Wyoming and our country, where law- and policy-making become competitive sports to score points. This characterizes most of the discussion of health care reform. If you’ve read The Healing of America by T.R. Reid, you know that the United States has a remarkably inefficient model of providing health care – costing twice as much as other developed countries to achieve a ranking of 37th best health care in the world.
 I had a recent conversation with a very nice individual for whom the domestic issues of health care and unemployment were solved by deciding it was someone else’s problem. You assign responsibility, and job done! It’s their fault (or their family’s fault) for being out of work or being poor or being uninsured, so end of discussion.
 The thing is that we all benefit when people get health care, when they stay healthy, when people are educated, when people are productive citizens who buy goods and services and who pay taxes. (And by the way, we all end up paying for all the health care consumed in our country – including care for people who are uninsured or underinsured –only we do it in the most inefficient and costly method possible.)
 It is this lack of community (“not my problem”) that permits the thoughtless individual to toss a cigarette butt out the car window or talk loudly to his companion at the movies or speed through an already-turned-red light. These are relatively minor annoyances. Others are serious and are lightly illegal, for instance driving while drunk. 
 In fact, people who argue for individual responsibility in order to deny community interest are just arguing for self-indulgence. They so conveniently ignore the individual’s responsibility to the community. That is not the admirable defiance of the maverick. That is irresponsible disregard for the herd. 
 I argue for enlightened self-interest and a sense of community. Take a lesson from Minneapolis highways. Our welfare is tied together in health care, education and many other ways. Let’s respond responsibly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Trusting the Trustees to Lease Trust Oil and Gas

While thanks are due to the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners for approving revisions to lease terms for oil and gas on school trust lands, a few observations are in order.

This new lease form tightens up the process of setting the value of oil and gas for computing royalties, to prevent the liberal deductions producers have taken to reduce the royalties paid to the trust’s permanent land fund. Just to remind everyone, these are trust lands held by the state to be managed for the beneficiaries, our school children.*

The vote by the Land Board last week wasn’t a big surprise. The lease revisions had been in the works for a year and were overdue by a decade. The lease had been in negotiations for several months between the board staff and the oil and gas producers, particularly the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. But four things deserve comment.

Image of Trustee
One is the way some commissioners bristled at the suggestion they weren’t living up to their fiduciary duty as trustees of the school lands, as assigned in Wyoming’s Act of Admission and Constitution. Lori Brand speaking for the Equality State Policy Center and attorney Greg Hacker speaking for the Wyoming Education Association scolded the commission for failing to consider and approve a royalty rate increase and a “Pugh Clause” that is standard in mineral leases to ensure a lease is used.

Gov. Matt Mead and Treasurer Joe Meyer objected to the accusation of foot-dragging or caving in to the powerful mineral lobby. To his credit, Meyer has been a reliable voice for the trust over the years, turning aside requests to put other interests before the school children of this state. One correction, however. He said the Land Commission has been a conscientious trustee since he was elected to statewide office 12 years ago. My memory is that 12 years ago, politics seemed to have equal footing with the beneficiaries, public schools.

The commissioners are justifiably sensitive about their image as good trustees. This is good.

What Did He Say?
The second thing is the confused statements by Bruce Hinchey, director of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, to deflect arguments for the higher royalty rate and Pugh Clause. He tried to argue that schools didn’t need the money, so we didn’t need to be talking about royalty rates. Anyone with an elementary understanding of trust knows about the fiduciary duty to beneficiaries, which doesn’t change according to their perceived need. If Hinchey wants to argue about school funding, he should take it to the Legislature.

PAW’s spokesman also seemed to forget on this occasion that ad valorem, royalties and severance fees are not just added one on top of the other. Oil and gas producers in Wyoming do not pay severance tax on the amount they pay in mineral royalties.

What the Market Will Bear
Thirdly -- One good way to determine what royalties the market will bear is to see what the market is bearing right now for owners of similar mineral rights in Wyoming and elsewhere. Will the trust lose out with a royalty rate higher than the current 16.66 percent? Other mineral owners are getting 18.75 percent or higher. What are the school trust leases worth? Let’s find out.

Also, this new lease includes many “show cause” provisions so producers can come to the state to ask for exceptions to rules, based on their particular difficulties.

Yes, our state seems to have enough money to cover the school funding formula. That is not relevant to the discussion of a trust obligation, and it completely ignores the reality that royalties will go into the permanent school fund to produce income that will finance our public schools when the minerals are gone.

Hinchey is confused. The commissioners must stay clear-headed, their eyes firmly on their fiduciary duty to current and future school children who will be educated with income from the permanent land fund.  

Now We’re Ready to Talk about Royalties, Pugh Clause
The original lease revisions proposed by the Land Board’s staff at the Office State Lands and Investments (OSLI) a year ago included the higher royalty rate and the Pugh Clause. In response to the outcry from producers, the Land Board took those off the table in order to settle the valuation questions. Now they should go back on the table.

The OSLI staff is a solid, professional crew, and the Board of Land Commissioners can rely on their analyses and recommendations. We are reminded by oil and gas producers that their operations are complicated, but I am confident OSLI has the expertise to sort out the variables and ensure everyone is treated fairly.

I look forward to the discussion, made robust by the land commissioners’ concern that the public recognize their undivided loyalty to the trust beneficiaries, the school children.

And when the oil and gas lease form is finalized, I look forward to a discussion of the outdated lease forms for rare earth minerals and uranium.

*This concept is very fuzzy for legislators and other policy makers. These are trust lands, not state lands. The act of Congress that created the State of Wyoming in 1890 set aside two sections per township for the support of public schools, and Wyoming accepted the role of trustee. The surface and subsurface minerals produce revenue for the trust, not for the state. The trustee has a duty to beneficiaries to make as much money as it can, while preserving the trust assets for current and future generations. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ignorance Is Not Bliss: Lament for HB120 & HB121

It is sad that the Wyoming Senate killed two bills intended to assure public access to the documents and meeting  that carry out the public’s business. .

Sadder still are attitudes expressed by senators during debate on the two measures:
House Bill 120 – Public Meetings would have required a 12-hour notice for non-emergency meetings and would have required that minutes of executive sessions be kept not just in writing, but by audio recording. HB121 – Public Documents would have required officials to produce requested documents – or explain when they would be produced – in seven business days. People could not be charged to view existing documents. They could be charged for newly compiled documents.

Open meetings statutes list 11 reasons to close meetings to the public, generally relating to personnel, litigation, legally confidential information and real estate negotiations. (Find the complete list in Wyoming Statutes 16-4-405.)

According to some legislators:

·         The convenience and comfort of elected officials carry more weight than public access.
·         When we elect officials, we should trust them to give us information when they think we should know something. If we want to challenge their actions or judgment (challenges based, presumably, on a hunch), we can wait four years for the next election .  
·         Members of boards and commissions with small jurisdictions (e.g., Weed and Pest Districts) cannot be asked to understand and comply with laws governing open records and open meetings.
·         Nor can we ask boards and commissions of any jurisdiction to manage public documents so they are easy to retrieve for public view – for instance, keeping confidential messages in a separate file. This constitutes an “unfunded mandate.”
·         Elected officials cannot trust a judge to determine what parts of executive committee minutes – if any – should be disclosed.
·         Even less can board and commission members trust each other.  It was suggested that, given the opportunity, officials would mine public documents and meeting minutes for sensational, embarrassing ammunition to use against each other.
·         The beauty of current law is that elected officials can decide how complete or sketchy their written executive session minutes will be. If you record something, inevitably it will be leaked or stolen. Elected officials themselves may leak information from executive sessions, but that unofficial and unreliable version is okay. (Tip to the folks who keep executive session minutes: do not write or store your documents electronically. Dust off your Smith-Corona, folks.) 
·         Some senators attributed support for these measures from newspapers across Wyoming to a self-serving attempt to write sensational headlines and embarrass and harass public officials. What else?