Friday, June 29, 2012

Will Ohio reject half of health care reform? Or will voters reject all of it?

Well, that was a wild ride.  For politics junkies, yesterday was a huge fix -- the most anticipated, most important, most surprising Supreme Court decision since Bush vs. Gore, complete with a no-wait-yes reveal.

I was sitting in my doctor's office at 10:09 when misfired and posted, "The Supreme Court has struck down the individual mandate for health care." I pulled it up on my phone. My doctor was mostly rooting for the health care law (he's from Canada), but even he got the breaking-news junkie gleam on his face when I told him.

I left and walked into the least boring waiting room experience ever, 20 Cleveland Clinic patients looking expectantly at a TV, reading the CNN captions.  Wait, CNN was saying by 10:16... some reporter was finally reading past page 2... not under the commerce clause, but under the power to tax... 

Thanks to Walter Dellinger, who should've earned thousands on InTrade for his prediction, I knew what that meant.

"Dewey Defeats Truman -- LIVE!" the Atlantic's Megan Garber called CNN's flub. 

The network flipped at 10:19. "Supreme Court upholds entirety of health care law," it announced.

That was pretty close.  But still not right.

The Court snipped one line out of the Affordable Care Act, but it's a big one.  It ruled the states can choose not to go along with the law's expansion of Medicaid. That could lead to a weird split in the country -- liberal states going along with all of health care reform, conservative states going along with half of it.

When I say half, I mean half.  You've heard that the new law will give 30 million people health insurance, right?  Well, today the New York Times ran a chart, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, that says 22 million people will get health care coverage through new insurance exchanges, while 17 million will get it from the Medicaid expansion.  Now, that means 17 million would get it if their state goes along.

The Medicaid expansion will be 100 percent funded by the federal government -- for a few years.  Then 95 percent. Then 90 percent.  Even though it's a generous subsidy, conservative states that feel extra-cautious about their financial future (or, not as concerned about the uninsured as others) might decide to turn it down.  See this Washington Post story for more.

Gov. John Kasich and Lt. Gov Mary Taylor have strongly resisted the health care law. Yesterday they issued a statement saying they're "very concerned" about "a sudden, dramatic increase in Medicaid spending."

They're hinting that they might decide to turn down the federal money and not expand Medicaid to cover everyone in or near poverty in Ohio.  That could become a huge issue in state politics by next year.

But I'm a step ahead.  For now, the real question isn't, will Ohio's government say no to half of health care reform?  It's, will Ohio voters say no to all of it?

What I mean is, everyone says this election is about the economy and jobs.  But what if it's really about health care? 

The economy may decide the election, but the election will decide whether the health-care law stays or goes. Romney promises to repeal it.

Republicans in Congress think they only need 51 senators, not 60, to repeal parts of it. They need to pick up four Senate seats, and they have a shot.

Ohio's looking a lot like the ultimate swing state again.  It could clinch the presidency for Obama, or put Romney very close to winning.  So the future of the health care law may have passed from the Supreme Court's hands to Ohio voters'.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Multimedia me: on Twitter & on WCPN

Politics is my part-time beat. I'm juggling a lot at Cleveland Magazine, writing profiles and crime stories, covering arts & culture, editing essays & commentary, digging into Cleveland history 200 or 5,000 words at a time.

So I've started a Twitter feed that'll reflect everything I do as a journalist and all the facets of Cleveland I cover.

Please follow me at @ErickTrickey as I work to master the art of the tweet, that instant burst of 21st-century haiku. (You can see my prediction about the Supreme Court's health care case, which will either look prescient or naive less than two hours from now.)

Also, I'm hosting WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable at 9 am tomorrow. We'll be leading off with the Supreme Court's health care decision and the latest on the presidential race. I'll be filling in for regular host Rick Jackson on the occasional Friday. Please tune in to 90.3 FM or tomorrow and call in.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Jackson gets school reforms; can he pass a levy?

So far, in his quest to turn around the Cleveland schools, Frank Jackson has pulled off two huge political feats.

The mayor got the teacher’s union to support his reform plan this spring, and on Wednesday his plan made it through the state legislature. A lot of people are in the mood to congratulate him.

But his third political challenge lies ahead, and it's the toughest of all. This fall, he’ll try to convince city voters to approve a new levy to shore up the district’s dwindling finances.

Jackson has shown great political skills this year, steering his plan past obstacles on the left and the right. He got tough with the teacher’s union, warning them they could either negotiate or see reforms pass without their input. That’s how he got the historic agreement to lay off teachers based on performance, not seniority, starting in summer 2013.

Then Jackson negotiated with Republican lawmakers over his plan to hold charter schools accountable. The mayor had to compromise, since the legislature, awash in donations from charter-school operators, was not going to give him a veto over new independent schools coming to town. But the bill creates additional oversight for charters operating in the city, which is important, since the state’s oversight is so weak.

Now Cleveland taxpayers will be asked to sacrifice. Jackson’s next step is to go for a new school levy this November. He and school officials haven’t said how much money they’ll ask for, but it’ll probably be a lot. The district faces yet another deficit this year. There’s even talk about asking for two levies, one for repairing schools, one for operating them day-to-day.

The district’s finances are being squeezed from all sides. Cleveland’s population keeps declining. Students who leave the district for charter schools take state money with them. The state is eliminating a business tax that used to be a source of school revenue. The cries to reform Ohio’s unconstitutional school-funding method go unheeded. Clevelanders who argue the district needs extra financial help run into arguments that Cleveland already gets more than its share.

Clevelanders haven’t approved a school levy since 2001, the year the East High gym’s roof collapsed and the need to replace and renovate schools became self-evident. The city hasn’t passed a levy for regular operations since 1996. Voters rejected a 2005 attempt by a two-to-one margin.

Passing a levy will be harder than ever. Cleveland is still very poor, and residents are still suffering from the downturn. Many Clevelanders don’t have a connection to the schools anymore. Even many public-school parents may be reluctant to give more money to schools that fail so many kids.

That’s why Jackson insisted he needed the school reforms in hand before he asked for more tax money. He felt he had to show voters a plan for improving them. Soon, the reforms will give the district broader powers to take strong action with failing schools. If the district keeps shrinking, it’ll shed the poorest-performing teachers, rather than most of its young talent.

Jackson’s reforms also include sharing levy money with the highest-performing charter schools. The high-minded idea is to embrace school choice, partner with successful charters and share strategies with them. But practically, it should help convince charter-school parents to support the levy.

Can Jackson pull it off? He will need all the help he can get. That means a lot of levy-campaign contributions from the corporate and foundation leaders who helped create the reform plan. It means an engaged, organized union ready to overcome its mixed feelings about the coming changes. It means getting the public, especially parents, to put faith in reforms that won’t be implemented until 2013.

Above all, it means the mayor will have to appeal for continued trust from the voters who reelected him by more than 2-to-1 in 2009.

Passing a school levy will make dealing with the teacher’s union and the Republican legislature look easy. So it’s way too early to congratulate Jackson. He’ll be tested like never before this fall.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

FBI, IRS investigated Dimora, Kelley, payment to Staubach Co. over Ameritrust Tower purchase

The FBI and IRS investigated whether Cuyahoga County officials received bribes for their decisions on the ill-fated Ameritrust Tower project, a prosecutors' filing revealed today.

Among the details alleged in the filing: Anthony O. Calabrese III -- an attorney for The Staubach Co., the county's real estate consultant -- asked county employee J. Kevin Kelley to lobby Jimmy Dimora to buy the Ameritrust complex.  Calabrese, who represented Staubach in contract negotiations with the county, promised to reward Kelley if the county purchased the complex.

And in October 2005, soon after the county bought the Ameritrust Tower and paid Staubach $2.6 million for its consulting work, Kelley and a company with a tie to Calabrese both received five-figure payments as part of an unidentified series of financial transactions.  The FBI and IRS investigated whether any money from Staubach was "funneled through others for the ultimate benefit of public officials," the prosecutor's filing said.

The new information is part of a superceding indictment of Calabrese, who's scheduled for a September trial on corruption charges.

However, the filing is also significant for what it does not say.  It doesn't assert that Kelley actually lobbied Dimora, or that Dimora received anything of value for his Ameritrust decisions, or that any of the Staubach money actually went indirectly to public officials, or that the Staubach Co. was aware of what Calabrese was allegedly doing.

Staubach isn't named in the Calabrese indictment, but the company is easily identifiable from details. (Only one "global real estate advisory firm" got paid $2.6 million "related to the Ameritrust project" in fall 2005.) The company had recommended that the county lease, not buy, the Ameritrust Tower as a headquarters site. Its contract called for it to be paid more than $4 million if a deal on a property it recommended was completed.  That $4 million-plus was later negotiated down to a $2.6 million.

Rob Roe, who was managing partner of Staubach (now part of Jones Lang LaSalle), told me in April that nothing about Calabrese’s conduct while representing him appeared improper or gave him pause, and that Calabrese never talked about using any connections in county government to help with the contract.

Calabrese faces only one charge related to the Ameritrust Tower investigation: tampering with a witness or informant.

The indictment alleges that, a week or two after the July 2008 FBI corruption investigation raids, Calabrese met Kelley in downtown Cleveland. They went from a hotel lobby to the 21st floor of the Justice Center, the filing charges, where they talked in a place overseen by someone they could trust: then-judge Bridget McCafferty's jury deliberation room.  The charge alleges that Calabrese talked about the county corruption investigation and a Business 57, which had given Kelley $70,000 three years earlier.  Calabrese made false statements to Kelley, the charge says.

The new charge, Count 20 in today's indictment, explains a lot of the buzz around the Ameritrust Tower lately.  It reveals some of what the FBI was investigating in 2007 and 2008 (previous clues appeared in Judge Sara Lioi's late December opinion).

It also shows that county executive Ed FitzGerald's decision to investigate the Ameritrust Tower purchase, the Staubach contract, and Calabrese's relationship to it isn't just based on idle suspicion.  Judging by what he and top aides told me earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney has been communicating with him and county inspector general Nailah Byrd about the Ameritrust Tower's place in the corruption investigation.

The Calabrese indictment also contains a cameo appearance by Tim Hagan, aka Public Official 10, but it's one Hagan might find flattering: "PO10 [Hagan] questioned the County contracting with Business 55 [Staubach]. Despite PO10's concerns, the County awarded Business 55 an approximately $3 million contract related to the Ameritrust purchase and transition." (Mostly true, except the contract was signed before Hagan took office.)

Here are some links to my previous reporting about the Staubach contract and FitzGerald's Ameritrust investigations:

"How the county spent $3 million on Staubach’s Ameritrust contract," April 30

"How Hagan and Co. cut Staubach loose from Ameritrust deal," May 1

"Two county investigations of Ameritrust Tower underway since December; feds cooperating," March 16

"Can FitzGerald sue Staubach over Ameritrust Tower?" March 23

"FBI investigated failed Ameritrust Tower sale, asbestos contract," Dec. 29

(photo from