Philadelphia just turned up the democracy in its budgeting process

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Highlights

1) National: It is crunch week for lawmakers to find a way to govern for the common good by passing a coronavirus relief package and keeping the federal government open. But Politico reports that “disagreements persist over aid to local governments, a must-have item for Democrats that divides Republicans, and a liability shield for businesses that McConnell has called his red line but is something Democrats loath. Failure to cut a deal would hamstring Biden during his first days in office as the health and economic calamities worsen absent relief. If Republicans and Democrats can come to an agreement, it would likely have to be included in the year-end spending bill. If the larger negotiations fail, it’s also possible a handful of expiring provisions could be tucked into the must-pass spending package, like extending unemployment funding and an eviction moratorium. But transit agencies, airlines, unemployed Americans and cash-strapped states could be left out of a small ball agreement like that. And even funding the government has become a question mark.”

State and local government are facing dire circumstances due to the lack of federal aid. Deep budget cuts are coming, which will no doubt spur public asset sales and privatization of everything. “Desperate government is our best customer,” one privatization advocate said during the 2008 recession.

Everything’s going to slow down,” one official said. Even the most optimistic assumptions about the course of the pandemic point to fiscal consequences for states and local governments that “would be the worst since the Great Depression” and take years to dig out of, Dan White, director of fiscal policy research at Moody’s Analytics, concluded. The squeeze at the state level reverberates in urban, suburban and rural counties in nearly every corner of the United States, and officials are making piercing choices.”

2) National: A federal judge has issued a scorching denunciation of the GEO Group, which operates immigration detention facilities for the federal government for profit. “From the start of the public health crisis until now, the conduct of the key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations at Mesa Verde has been appalling,” wrote United States District Judge Vince Chhabra, who ordered strict safety measures to be implemented immediately.

The particulars: “These officials knew that they needed a clear and detailed plan to minimize the risk of an outbreak (and to contain an outbreak if one occurred), but nine months later they still have not created one” Chhabria writes. “They deliberately avoided testing detainees and staff for fear that the results would require them to take expensive and logistically challenging safety measures. They failed to address the safety concerns created by Mesa Verde’s unique layout, which makes it far more dangerous from a contagion standpoint than the typical jail or prison. They opposed bail for detainees on a blanket basis—even for those who clearly posed no danger to the community and were obviously not a flight risk. They gave false testimony several times in these court proceedings, on matters of importance. And at least one ICE official with significant decision-making authority over Mesa Verde obstructed the proceedings by effectively refusing to answer, during his deposition, even the most basic questions about ICE’s response to the pandemic.”

3) National/International: In the Public Interest’s Donald Cohen, following PeriodEquity.org, says it is long past time to create laws and policies that ensure menstrual products are safe, accessible, and affordable for everyone who needs them. “Scotland’s new law demonstrates the power of democracy. We, the people, have the power to determine that some things are public goods. That some things should be available to all. That some things aren’t private goods, available only to those who can afford them. Of course, private companies make the products. But that’s beside the point. By definition, public goods, whether they’re paid for with public dollars or not, are subject to rules regarding access, affordability, and quality.” Cohen says “we can take things out of private markets—all or in part—when they meet an essential public need. And menstrual products do just that.” 

4) National: Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest joined Michelle Witte and Bob Schlehuber on the “Political Misfits” program to discuss the upcoming Biden administration’s policy direction and continued efforts to privatize public goods and services now in the name of COVID austerity measures. [Audio, at 37 minutes]

5) Pennsylvania: Philadelphia leaders are taking new steps to increase public involvement—and from a broader cross section of municipal employees—in their budget process. “When it comes to getting more input on the broader budget, Budget Director Marisa Waxman said the city would gather feedback through focus groups with community organizations, business leaders and frontline city staff. ‘Community needs are increasing while revenues are declining. As we work to make difficult budgetary decisions, we need to hear more voices and perspectives,’ she said. Mayor Jim Kenney’s office also has plans to expand and diversify the group of city staff who provide input on funding proposals, including ‘employees of different demographics and backgrounds for a more inclusive perspective on budget options.’”

6) Think TanksNew Labor Forum will be holding an event to discuss “Public Health, Private Equity, & the Pandemic: Distressed Assets in Rural America.” Max Fraser writes, “Even before the pandemic began, an epidemic of hospital closures had turned whole swathes of the country into vast “health care deserts’… Private equity firms have grabbed up a significantly expanded share of the broader healthcare market over the last few decades, with rural hospitals and healthcare providers—which were often financially distressed to begin with, and relatively cheap to buy—among some of their favored targets for acquisition. The results have often been ugly.” December 10, 12pm – 1pm  via Zoom.

Education

7) National: Writing in the New York Times, Jack Schneider and Jennifer C. Berkshire say the departure of pro-privatization education secretary Betsy DeVos opens up a great opportunity for major policy renewal in education. “To capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with education policies in the coming years, Democrats can no longer lean on maligning Ms. DeVos. As Republicans continue to work to defund and privatize school systems, both Democratic governors and the incoming Biden administration can draw a sharp policy distinction, boldly defending public education in a way that resonates with voters. And while Mr. Biden’s expansive (and expensive) education plans will confront the harsh reality of partisan division in Congress, he is guaranteed a powerful megaphone — one that he’ll share, not just with the next secretary of education, but with a former high-school teacher and current community-college professor, Jill Biden.” 

8) National: Writing in The Progressive, Rann Miller, the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, says a key priority for Biden should be “to ensure that his administration is committed to racial equity and racial justice within public education. That means going beyond adjusting policies to balance out institutional racism found in schools and instead aim towards removing institutional racism in schools altogether. Accomplishing this end requires that public schools aren’t defunded in the name of reform—particularly those schools serving students of color that are already receiving millions less than predominantly white schools. It also requires that Black residents never lose control over the governance of their local schools.”

For more on this watch Haymarket Books’ video on the launch of  Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, an essential collection of essays, interviews, poems, resolutions, and more from educators, students, and activists who have been building the Black Lives Matter at School movement across the country, including a foreword by Opal Tometi.” [Video, about an hour and a half].

9) National: Education journalist Jeff Bryant highlights the implications of the nationalization of local school board politics. “‘Indianapolis school board races have become no longer a local phenomenon, but an event caught up in a national agenda to privatize and corporatize public education,’ says John Loflin, a longtime Indianapolis public school advocate with Parent Power, the Indianapolis affiliate of Parents Across America. ‘What started out as a push for a few local charters has grown [over the last decade]. Now, Indianapolis is home of America’s second-most privatized public school system,’ he observes, citing an analysis by retired teacher and blogger Thomas Ultican, who has meticulously tracked the influence of national groups disrupting local school politics.”

10) National/Think Tanks: Shanker Institute Executive Director Leo Casey, author of the new book The Teacher Insurgency, will be sitting down with Randi Weingarten of AFT for a discussion this Wednesday at 4pm EST. “With an eye to maintaining the momentum of the insurgency, the author examines four key strategic questions that have arisen from the strikes: the relationship of mobilization to organizing; the relationship between protests and direct action; the conditions under which teacher strikes are most likely to be successful; and the importance of ‘bargaining for the common good.’ More broadly, Casey  examines how to organize teachers for collective action, focusing on four discourses of teaching: teaching as nurturance; as professionalism; as labor and craft; and as a vocation of democratic intellectual work.” 

11) National: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) says “bye-bye, Betsy DeVos. You won’t be missed.” Sanders “called Betsy DeVos ‘the worst education secretary in the history of America’ and made abundantly clear that he’s not mourning her imminent departure after the billionaire school privatization zealot lashed out at popular proposals to cancel student loan debt and make public colleges and universities tuition-free.” 

12) National: Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss shares Carol Burris of NPE’s story of how a soccer club won a $1.2 million grant to open a charter school from DeVos’s Education Department. “That award of tax dollars to an unauthorized charter school shines a light on how the federal Charter School Program is driven by an ideology with only one aim—to push taxpayer dollars into the hands of would-be private charter operators, even if the school appears doomed to fail from the start. As the Network for Public Education explained in two recent reports on the CSP program, the application reviewers, who are all connected to charter schools, assign points based on the submitted application alone. Here’s the description of the prospective school’s mission, verbatim.”

13) Florida: The leader of a closed charter school in Broward County is accused of embezzling nearly $400,000. “The indictment accuses Williams of embezzling nearly $389,000 in funds intended to go toward the school’s operating expenses. Instead, the indictment says they were used to buy a new car, pay her rent at a lavish Davie home and other expenses. According to the indictment, Williams transferred funds from the school’s bank account to a shell account she set up to “deceive” other members of the governing board, auditors, local education authorities and others.”

14) Mississippi: A legislative watchdog committee “is questioning why the board overseeing charter schools in Mississippi renewed the contract of an underperforming school in Jackson earlier this year,” Mississippi Today’s Kate Royals reports. “In its report, the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) committee cited an evaluation of Mississippi’s charter school performance measures done by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers earlier this year. “MCSAB’s (charter school) renewal policies … weaken the rigor of the renewal process. For example, an underperforming school may be renewed based solely on one year of performance without consideration of earlier years of critically low performance,” stated the report.” 

15) Missouri: The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss shares Jeff Bryant’s disturbing piece about the challenges facing the St. Louis school system. He traces the long history of racial segregation, low funding of the schools, and introduction of various models over the years, and why they did not succeed. “But the lesson from St. Louis is that the promise of a neighborhood school for every child that would uphold great education and serve as an anchor of community identity did not fail us. We failed it.” 

16) New York: Metropolitan Bank has provided a $21.5 million construction loan for the development of a charter school in Elmhurst, Queens. “The school, at 45-20 83rd Street, is pre-leased to The Renaissance Charter School and being developed by Barone Management. It will eventually house 1,053 students. Meridian Capital Group’s Adam Hakim and James Murad negotiated the debt. When completed, the school will stand five stories tall and comprise 67,286 square feet. The Renaissance Charter School is one of the oldest and highest-ranked charter schools in New York City. With a location in Jackson Heights, Queens, this development represents the school’s second iteration.” 

17) Utah: American Preparatory Academy, a charter school with campuses in West Valley City and Draper, Utah, “is responsible for repaying $2.8 million in misdirected special education funding, the Utah State Board of Education confirmed in a meeting that lasted late into Thursday night. KUTV’s Beyond the Books unit previously reported how APA failed to give the state important documents when an audit commenced earlier this year.”

18) West VirginiaSchool boards in two West Virginia counties have rejected applications for the state’s first charter schools. “The Monongalia County board says the academy’s application failed to meet seven of 10 benchmarks established by the state. That includes inadequate financial and facilities plans. The academy would have located in Morgantown while recruiting students from across Monongalia County and portions of nearby Preston and Marion counties. Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill last year that allows for the creation of charter schools.”

19) Think Tanks: The Network for Public Education 2020 Conference has been rescheduled to April 24th and 25th in Philadelphia. Register here.

Infrastructure

20) National/Maryland: Public Works Financing, the house organ of the road privatization industry, is gamely trying to sort out the myriad troubles of Maryland’s flagship so-called public-private partnerships, the light rail Purple Line and the proposed 270/I-95 toll road expansion project. Maryland is now ground zero in the national ideological, financial and political battle over the P3 model. With potentially gobs of money flowing from Capitol Hill for infrastructure next year, the debate on what procurement methodology should be used is critical.

While hailing the provisional settlement of the Purple Line crisis after the Maryland government agreed to hand over $250 million of taxpayer dollars, PWF still doesn’t consider it a done deal.  “The settlement will still need to be approved by the Maryland Board of Public Works, which consists of Governor Hogan, the state treasurer, and the state comptroller. Once the settlement is finalized, PLTP will be able to move forward to solicit a new DB partner to complete construction for the project. Thus, the Purple Line is, at this juncture, far from out of the woods. The $250 million settlement is certainly far less than the original claims, which amounted to more than $800 million, but many of those cost increases had yet to be incurred on the project. The claims that had already impacted the project stemmed from delays in right of way acquisitions and utility relocations, and costs due to a NEPA injunction which stopped the project shortly after construction began.” The BPW meeting is on December 16.

Reacting to the proposed settlement, The Bond Buyer said the project’s bondholders have been left in limbo. “While the deal is a positive for bondholders who backed the P3, since it removes potential litigation that could have derailed the project, further clarity is needed about whether existing investors will be paid off and if new debt is necessary before determining long-term benefits, according to S&P credit analyst Dhaval R. Shah. PLTP issued $323 million of private activity bonds for the Purple Line Project through the Maryland Economic Development Corp. in 2016.” [Sub required]

However all the Purple Line problems may be resolved, the battle over the proposed I-270/I-95 $9 billion P3 now begins in earnest, since the comment period closed last month. “A group of more than 50 organizations, including the Sierra Club, submitted more than 200 pages of written comments to MDOT at the beginning of the month. The Montgomery County Council and Executive also submitted comments on higher‐order issues in the DEIS, including the alternatives analysis and project Purpose and Need. The Maryland‐National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M‐NCPPC) also submitted comments in opposition to various aspects of the Managed Lanes project. The M‐NCPPC is a bi‐county agency which manages and develops the park system in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.” [Public Works Financing, November 2020; sub required]

Among the many comments submitted were questions on the financial viability of the managed lanes project. Gov. Hogan (R) has said that taxpayers will not be on the hook for its costs since the concessionaires have committed to fund the whole thing from toll revenue in a tightly written contract. Both ends of that plan seem, to say the least, questionable in light of the Purple Line fiasco (which was also supposed to be operating under a tight contract that ultimately dissolved into chaos) and the shakiness of any traffic projections going forward from the pandemic. Even before the pandemic there have been multiple cases of flawed traffic estimates in P3s that led to bankruptcies, subsidies, forced public buyouts and other jerry-rigged “solutions” across the country and indeed the world. On top of that, the environmental review process has not even been completed, and the industry and governor seem inclined to forge ahead to a deal without one, complaining that it could take forever. Negligence anyone?

21) NationalJohn Nichols of The Nation weighs in on why he thinks Rahm Emanuel shouldn’t be named Secretary of Transportation. Nichols says he “went on a privatization spree, to disastrous effect. Selling off everything from school janitorial services to trash collection, privatization left Chicago with indignities such as dirty classrooms and one of the nation’s most abysmal recycling rates. The opposition in Chicago, where people know Emanuel best, is so intense that Streetsblog Chicago, a news site that covers sustainable transportation issues, recently warned, ‘Hiring Rahm Emanuel as U.S. transportation chief is the bad idea that refuses to go away. Joe Biden, you really don’t want to kick off your administration with hundreds or thousands of justifiably angry Chicagoans marching in protest.’”

22) New York/National: Streetsblog’s Dave Colon says New York City has a lot of work to do to get ready for electric buses. “It’s not just plug-and-play. A coalition of transit and environmental advocates says the city and the MTA must do far more groundwork if the transit agency is to meet its goal of a zero emissions bus fleet by 2040—a goal that planners are way behind on figuring out, according to a new report from ElectrifyNY. The main challenges include setting up the electric grid to make charging buses cheap and efficient, figuring out the correct charging strategy to get the most of out every battery and keeping electrified bus depots in flood zones from getting ruined during flooding and storms.” 

23) Think Tanks: It seems even the libertarian Kochtopus is getting cold feet on so-called public-private partnerships. Both Cato and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation have produced material raising sharp questions about P3s, leading to angst among some road lobby libertarians.

24) Think TanksErin Brockovich joined Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper to discuss her recent book on the U.S. water crisis, Biden’s EPA transition pick, Michael McCabe, and how to effectively fight against corporations who pollute. [Audio, at 46 minutes]. Brockovich’s new book is Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It.

Criminal Justice and Immigration

25) National/New Jersey: The Hudson County Board of Freeholders got an earful from county residents opposed to its 6-3 vote to sign a ten year contract with ICE. [Video, about 4 minutes]. @protest_nyc reports that “an autonomous action in New Jersey is targeting Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano, who voted in favor of renewing a ten-year contract with ICE despite major pushback from constituents. They are protesting outside of a diner where Romano is hosting a fundraiser.”

Public Services

26) National: The New York Times reports that “reeling from the pandemic, transit agencies are grappling with drastic reductions in ridership and pleading for help from Washington.” The Times says “the profound cuts agencies are contemplating could hobble the recoveries of major cities from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where reliable transit is a lifeblood of the local economies. Trains and buses carry the office workers, shoppers and tourists who will help revive stores, restaurants, cultural attractions, hotels and other key businesses that have been battered by the outbreak. The financial collapse of transportation agencies would especially hurt minority and low-income riders who tend to be among the biggest users of subways and buses.” Last week the Washington, DC transit agency, WMATA, announced that drastic cuts to transit services are coming

27) International: Canada is now paying the price for privatizing its vaccine research and production lab, writes Linda McQuaig. “What makes our predicament today particularly galling is that Ottawa invests roughly $1 billion a year to fund medical research by scientists at Canadian universities—without any control over the results, according to Dr. Joel Lexchin, professor emeritus at York University’s School of Health Policy and Management. The scientists are permitted to take out patents on the products they develop (with our money), and then sell them to pharmaceutical manufacturers, who sell the products to the public—often at great profit.

Even though our public investment paid for the original research, Canadians have no say over the products nor the price at which they are sold to us as consumers. Canada also has no share in the profits. We’ve ventured a long way, unfortunately, from the days when we had a publicly owned and medically innovative enterprise that dazzled on the world stage and kept Canadians at the front of the line for vaccines. No longer.”

28) International: Former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn asks why is there always money for war but not public services? “At the start of the outbreak, we had insufficient equipment, staff, and infrastructure to control the spread and save lives. Each week we hear more stories — now over eight months into the pandemic — of the national crisis in social care, and of hospitals having to cancel essential operations due to underfunding. There are always massive amounts of money to be found for wars and weapons of war, but not for our essential public services, including the NHS.”

Everything Else

29) International: 250 million farmers and workers from across India staged what was possibly the largest political demonstration in human history against the privatization of agricultural prices and electricity. The government has passed laws eliminating price supports and requiring farmers to sell their produce to large corporations instead of public marketing boards. “The twelve-point charter of demands put forward by the trade unions is sincere, having captured the sentiments of the people. The demands include the reversal of the anti-worker, anti-farmer laws pushed by the government in September, the reversal of the privatisation of major government enterprises, and immediate relief for the population, which is suffering from economic hardship provoked by the coronavirus recession and years of neoliberal policies.” Tomorrow a national protest will be conducted. Telegraph India reports “thousands of farmers protesting the Centre’s new farm laws stayed put on the borders of Delhi with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh as they threatened to intensify their agitation and block more roads leading to the national capital if the government did not accept their demands.” 

30) National: Controversy has erupted over President-elect Biden’s nomination of a former BlackRock executive, Brian Deese, as director of the National Economic Council, his top economic adviser at the White House. See a must-read 2018 piece by David Dayen on BlackRock’s role in driving private finance into public infrastructure and investment and pushing so-called public-private partnerships.

31) National: Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan V. Last, executive editor of William Kristol’s neoconservative The Bulwark, has a lengthy article on the privatization and “monetization” of space, including the possibilities of colonization. “For all the self-mythologizing among New Space titans about the new, scrappy, and libertarian cast of modern space exploration, it’s still NASA—and by extension, the people’s treasury—that’s projected to supply the biggest revenue stream for much New Space activity today, and in the near future. In other words, we the people are paying for many of these rocket launches, and the huge outlays that will help bankroll the hard stuff, like future human colonies on the moon. So the public ought to have more input on how the projected settlement and exploitation of outer space actually happens. Walkowicz and Nesvold want to create a bigger sample of people informed about the stakes in the new space race, people who’d lobby Congress to help lay down the new American road rules for space—from keeping orbits clean to the question of who gets to ride on those taxpayer-funded rockets in the first place. Space, in other words, needs to be ‘decolonized.’” 

32) Revolving Door News: A debate is evolving about President-elect Biden’s nominees and whether the familiar revolving door syndrome is setting in. “Revolving-door watchdogs and liberal activists say Biden and his team have so far been more cautious about picking officials with industry ties than the Obama transition effort was in 2009. Those who have been chosen, like Deese and Adeyemo, have received praise from these same critics for their close ties to industry reformers. But there remains a worry that the sheer number of overlapping interests could affect policy decisions down the road.” 

33) Think Tanks: Government Executive Media Group, the parent company of Route Fifty, announced it has acquired The Atlas for Cities, a digital platform that provides a community for local government leaders to exchange ideas and best practices.