Monday, July 25, 2011

Voinovich on debt talks: House Republicans 'would rather lose than win'

When the debt ceiling talks in Washington collapsed this weekend, I thought of George Voinovich. I interviewed the former senator June 2 for the current issue of Inside Business, and I asked him about the fiscal future of the country.

"Bleak," he said. "They'll fiddle-faddle around."

Voinovich sketched out a mostly prescient preview of the debt ceiling talks. House Speaker John Boehner "has a problem, because he has a bunch of newer members who really are not dry behind the ears, and many of them, because of their positions, would rather lose than win," Voinovich said. "He’s got to try to keep that group together.

"So I think that the House will increase the debt limit temporarily." (Even that hasn't happened so far. Democrats reject a temporary fix.) "They will then say they’re going to have a 'conversation' about dealing with the debt. The conversation will go nowhere because they will not agree to new taxes.

"The fact is you cannot get the job done without increasing taxes."

That quote there highlights the difference between Voinovich and most Republicans in Washington today. Many House conservatives have refused to raise the debt ceiling without severe spending cuts, but they refuse to raise any taxes to deal with the debt. Voinovich is a different kind of conservative. He's a deficit hawk. Confronting the debt is his top priority, and he'd be willing to raise taxes as well as cut spending to do it.

Freed from life in Washington, Voinovich sounds as frustrated with his fellow Republicans in the nation’s capital as he is with the Democrats. In my interview with him, he explains why he often calls President Obama a socialist. But he also blasts fellow Republicans in Washington for not listening to regular people and putting partisan battles ahead of the good of the country.

To read Voinovich's thoughts in the July-August Inside Business, click here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Chalk protest aims to save Columbia Building from casino

The Columbia Building may face a death sentence, but several artistic activists brought new life to it last night. They covered the sidewalk on Prospect Avenue with chalk designs and messages protesting Dan Gilbert's plan to demolish the 103-year-old building to make way for casino parking.

The protest was billed as an "art attack," but it was as peaceful as can be, filling the concrete with color.

"Downtown Cleveland belongs to all of us," read a flyer from the group Save Lower Prospect Avenue. "Its skyline is our calling card to the world and is central to our identity." It urged Clevelanders to call to write Mayor Frank Jackson and Councilman Joe Cimperman, and tweet casino owner Dan Gilbert's @cavsdan Twitter feed with the message "DowntownIsOurTown."

A reprieve for the Columbia is unlikely. City council and the mayor support Gilbert's casino parking plan, and the city's Landmarks Commission voted 4-3 last month to allow the Columbia to be torn down. Still, the art event reminded Clevelanders of the value of downtown's historic character. "If we can't save this one, maybe we can save the next one," a chalk-protester said.

See the Plain Dealer's coverage here.

Update, 7/22: Demolition started this week. This guy captured the scene in a video on YouTube.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Legislature nixes Cleveland's trans-fat ban

Ohio lawmakers crammed a bunch of stuff into the new state budget, including this: They've overturned Cleveland's ban on trans fats in restaurant food.

City council passed the trans-fat ban in April, arguing that the industrially produced fats are especially bad for people's health. (Here's my blog post about chatting with Matt Zone about the law the night it passed.) It was supposed to go into effect in 2013.

But the Ohio Restaurant Association immediately asked the legislature to step in. They don't like the city law's documentation and reporting requirements. They want one set of restaurant regulations for the whole state, not a bunch of local laws. So the new law gives all power to regulate nutrition in Ohio restaurants to the state Department of Agriculture.

Rick Cassara, owner of John Q's Steakhouse on Public Square, told the Columbus Dispatch he's against cumbersome regulations of restaurants. "I do have a problem when it gets too much into telling us what we should and shouldn't serve or telling the consumer what they should and shouldn't eat," he said.

Joe Cimperman, who sponsored the ban, is furious. "This is an absolute affront," he told the Dispatch. He says Cleveland will sue to defend the ban. He thinks protecting citizens' health is part of a city's home rule powers.

But lawsuits to defend home rule in Ohio have been failing lately. The state has overturned Cleveland's predatory lending law and its residency requirement for city employees, just to name two. What are the odds a food law will survive?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thoughtful stance on school reforms gets a little less lonely

"Lesson Plan," Dan Moulthrop's essay in June's Cleveland Magazine, tries to find a middle ground in the polarized debate about Senate Bill 5. Moulthrop, a journalist and former teacher, asks how we can reform education to reward good teaching without waging an all-out war on unions.

It was a lonely place to be, but it's less lonely now. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who opposes SB5, recently asked state legislators to include merit pay for teachers and new layoff rules in the state's budget. This week, they gave him most of what he asked for. (See below for update.)

The conversation Moulthrop wants to have about teaching is becoming more important. It's starting to look like Republicans overreached with SB5. Ohioans will probably reject the law on the ballot in November. The question is, what happens after that?

Nothing, most teachers seem to hope. WCPN's Ida Lieszkovszky got an earful from some of them about Jackson's stance. So did I, on WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable last week, when our talk about Jackson's move brought a string of anxious calls from teachers. One union official quickly dismissed judging teachers by test scores, then said supervisors' evaluations are too subjective. So is there really no fair way to evaluate teachers?

The question is becoming more urgent. Layoffs by seniority are dismantling the staffs of Cleveland's innovation schools, dismissing teachers carefully chosen for their expertise. Reforms of teacher tenure and layoff rules just passed in Michigan. Ohio voters like the merit pay portion of SB5. Change is coming.

That's Moulthrop's message in his essay for us:

Teachers, administrators, school boards and anyone who cares about their community's schools ... should start conversations about what great teaching really looks like, about classrooms where every student is engaged and focused, seeking the next challenge because they know how satisfying it is to learn something new.

Blogging at the Civic Commons this week, Moulthrop amplifies his point. As carefully and patiently as he did in his essay, he nudges teachers to get ready for reform rather than fight it:

Even if SB5 is repealed, it's unlikely that ten years from now teachers will still be paid and retained based on longevity. If teachers don't involve themselves in crafting a compensation system they can get behind, they may wind up having to deal with something imposed on them. That wouldn't be good for the profession and probably wouldn't be good for students.
Update, 7/8: Actually, Jackson was disappointed with what the General Assembly gave him. He's talking about converting some innovation schools to charter schools in order to preserve their staffs against future layoffs by seniority. The staffs would be de-unionized too. See the Plain Dealer story here.