Money and Politics

One of the earliest decisions I made when I started my campaign for State Rep was that I would accept endorsements from groups whose goals aligned with mine, but that I wouldn’t be raising money from that. And, indeed, I have decided not to raise any money at all for the campaign.

This puts me at a heavy disadvantage given the current state of our politics. Money flows through it all very, very easily, especially since the Citizens United decision. I get letters and emails from PACS asking me to fill out surveys for possible endorsements and, if deemed appropriate, funding. As I’ve written about before, groups like Americans for Prosperity are spending millions of dollars to influence the elections in Michigan this year.

I happened to come across this political story, entitled “Big Money, the Koch Brothers and Me.” The article details reporter Kenneth P. Vogel‘s attempts to observe the secretive Koch brothers meetings with popular media personalities, conservative politicians, and other ultra-wealthy individuals. I found the article difficult to read because of the frank way it discusses the way in which our politics have changed over the last decade, and the ways in which money is warping the system.

Vogel concludes,

The result—the one Obama lamented on that rainy day in Washington state—is the privatization of a system that we’d always thought of as public. It amounts to the takeover—hostile or not—of American politics by the ultra-rich.

I think this is a fairly powerful indictment on the massive influx of money we’re seeing in politics. And I see the kinds of things that this sort of setup can bring when we see politicians who dole out checks on the House floor and others who kowtow to the special interests.

And who suffers? We do. The voters and the citizens who are not ultra-rich and do not have access to the halls of power like the Koch brothers. And I find it disturbing that people who operate under a moniker of “fair and balanced” are at these shindigs, giving presentations and schmoozing with those who operate out of the sunlight, and as Vogel notes, have privatized a once public system.

We’re the losers in this systems as our access and influence dwindles even as the amount of wealth the middle and lower class owns dwindles.

And this is why it’s time for a change in how our politics operates. We need to have sensible campaign finance laws, and pass laws to make political donations a matter of public record so that those who try to influence elections can be held accountable. When access to politicians is bought and policies crafted with a checkbook, we lose.

Update (12:08 AM): Bridge Magazine has an excellent article about the campaign spending by outside billionaires that is well worth a read. From the article, which can be found here:

Overwhelm them, and make them irrelevant. Local parties no longer control the dominant messaging in political campaign. Instead, a few highly motivated billionaires, often very ideological, are increasingly in a position to dominate political discourse in this country.

I don’t think this is a very good trend.

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Candidate Survey: Americans for Prosperity

Greetings!

Thank you for taking the time to visit my website and explore my stances on issues affecting the 93rd Congressional District in Michigan. This is the first of what I hope will be many posts concerning the 2014 elections in Michigan and the variety of issues that are important both locally and statewide.

This post specifically deals with a candidate survey I got from the group Americans for Prosperity and was originally posted at my other blog, “A Rushed Joke” on April 26th. I think that my responses to the survey will be illuminating and informative, and I hope will serve as a good baseline for my stances on the issues. They are a bit outdated as some of the events (such as the road repair and Detroit bankruptcy issue) have been or are being addressed even as I write this. I’ve also included a small update at the bottom.

As the election season unfolds, I’ll be updating this website with more information about the issues and I’ll probably create a series on the candidate surveys that I receive from PACS and other groups. I have to be honest: this entire experience has been eye-opening. The amount of money that is pumped into elections is staggering.

Anyway, on to the survey and my responses. Fair warning: it’s long.


 

As I have written before, I am running as the Democratic Candidate for State Representative of Michigan’s 93rd Congressional District. It’s my first foray into politics and my first time running for office, so it will be a great learning experience. Already I am getting questionnaires from groups and PACS who are looking for candidates to endorse (or, well, the other kind of thing they do).

Today, I got a letter from Americans for Prosperity of Michigan inviting me to fill out a questionnaire on several different topics. Well, in all honesty, the word “questionnaire” is a bit strong for what they’ve sent me. Enclosed was a letter explaining who they are with a statement that the questionnaire is meant to be “simple  and straightforward.” Simple and straightforward, in this case, means a total of seventeen yes/no questions using loaded words and giving no space to write an explanation of your policy stances.

They also inform me that they will reserve the right to distribute my answers in “any way [they] see fit” and that they “reserve the right to inform citizens of any candidate’s unwillingness to answer these questions.” Well, if that’s the case, then I will not be filling out their childish questionnaire and, instead, I will be writing more extensive answers on every question that they’ve asked right here on this blog. I feel that’s fair, right?

Before we get into that, I feel it is important to describe who and what Americans for Prosperity is, and I think you’ll see why it is important we address that. According to Wikipedia (a really good go-to source for these kinds of things), Americans for Prosperity is a “conservative political advocacy group” and “has been called ‘one of the most powerful conservative organizations in electoral politics’.” Americans for Prosperity also has ties to Koch Industries, lead by powerful energy magnates David Koch, who was chairman of the AFP Foundation, and Charles Koch, his brother. Americans for Prosperity has been accused of airing misleading advertisements, and has been given “pants-on-fire” ratings for the veracity of claims but independent fact-checking organizations.

They are also, of course, the group behind the nationally reported attack ads on the Personal Protection and Affordable Care Act that have featured misleading or hard to fact-check claims. There are three of them that have been fact-checked that I want to talk about briefly here. The first one, which aired here in Michigan, is about a caner patient who lost her previous health plan and had to get a new one that was in line with the ACA’s standards. While I sympathize with Boonstra, the ad was revealed as misleading. Glenn Kessler, writing for The Washington Post, reviewed the ad and wrote:

Meanwhile, Boonstra told the Detroit News that her monthly premiums were cut in half, from $1,100 a month to $571. That’s a savings of $529 a month. Over the course of a year, the premium savings amounts to $6,348—just two dollars shy of the out-of-pocket maximum.

We were unable to reach Boonstra, but on the fact of it, the premium savings appear to match whatever out-of-pocket costs she now faces.

Glenn Klesser originally wrote that he awarded the ad two “Pinocchios,” the rating system he uses to determine the level of dishonesty in a claim or ad. However, after some more investigating, he downgraded the ad to three “Pinocchios” and added:

Take a close look at the subtle difference in the language of these two ads sponsored by the limited-government group Americans for Prosperity. The first ad claimed the out-of-pocket costs were so high that “it’s unaffordable.” When that line was questioned—and Democrats demanded proof be given to television stations running the ad—the issue became much fuzzier. Suddenly, it became “a plan that doesn’t work for me.” That is much more subjective and harder to fact check.

I’d once again like to reiterate that I have nothing but sympathy for Julie Boonstra and that it is my fervent hope that things work out well for her. I am only investigating the veracity of these political advertisements. And the investigation, so far, is not looking good for AFP. They subtly changed the language of the advertisement, and as Kessler notes, some of the claims were incorrect. According to Kessler, she can keep her doctor, her premiums were cut in half, and she has a premier gold plan. Kessler writes: “In other words, her old plan cost $13,200 a year—before co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses. The new plan is $11,952—including co-pays and out of pocket expenses. That’s a savings of more than $1,200 a year.” It’s plan to see that she will be getting the same care with significant savings.

So, in the end, this is an ACA victory, and a success story. Stories like these are why I support the PPACA. I wish Julie well and I hope that she continues to get the treatment that she needs.

The second ad features a family from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Glenn Kessler also covered this one, and of this ad he wrote:

Wendt published an opinion article in which she provided additional details about her options and confirmed that she choose not to select a plan on healthcare.gov that could have saved her thousands of dollars a year. Our colleagues at FactCheck.org ran the numbers and found several options that “would provide better benefits at less cost than the plan” Wendt currently has.

For this reason, Kessler awarded the ad two “Pinocchios” and noted that the claims in the ad were hard to swallow. And I have to agree: the claims do not seem to bear under scrutiny. While I take no joy in sussing out these details, it is important that we consider where the information is coming from, and whether or not the information is true or false. In this case, it seems that both ads have had misleading claims that have ill-served the people of Michigan.

Indeed, the article by FactCheck.org that Kessler references reports that, “It turns out that Wendt found a cheaper, subsidized plan on the exchange, but declined to accept it because she did not want her children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.” She had an opportunity to pay less, but decided not to because she didn’t want her children enrolled in CHIP, which is certainly her right. The FactCheck.org article is very well-written and researched and definitely worth a full read. It further states that, “We don’t take issue with Wendt’s decision, but rather her assertion that the Affordable Care Act is ‘destroying the middle class,’ when other families faced with the same choices may have made a different decision that could save them thousands of dollars a year.” This is also what I take issue with because it obfuscates the facts of the new health care law (here’s a third article by Glenn Kessler on another misleading anti-Affordable Care Act AFP ad which he rates with two “Pinocchios”).

But these ads also highlight another issue which is vital in our democracy: money. How much money is being pumped into our elections and by whom? The Detroit News reports that:

Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, said it will spend $1.5 million for the three-week ad buy. It puts the group’s spending in Michigan at around $5 million — almost all targeted against Peters for his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

$1,500,000 for a three-week as buy, with total spending at $5,000,000. Five million dollars. And, as I wrote above, the ads are largely misleading and have been debunked from a number of sources. I don’t know about you, but five million dollars is a lot of money to me. Personally, I have spent maybe $20 on my campaign so far, not because I haven’t been campaigning, but because I am not raising funds or taking money from outside groups. I will not be in the pocket of special interests or other outside groups who want to throw money around to influence elections.

With that rather expansive background, let’s get to my answers for their survey. They ask seventeen question in five categories with two question in an “additional questions” area. Each question is yes/no and offers no room for exposition.

Healthcare:

1) Support setting up a state healthcare exchange in response to Obamacare?

First of all, it seems to me that this is a loaded question because Obamacare is a word the polls more negatively than the actual name of the legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I shall address it by writing ACA when I make my responses.

Now, to answer this question, yes, I do support setting up state healthcare exchanges as per the ACA. Personally, the ACA has worked for me as it allowed me to stay on my parents’ health insurance while I was attaining my bachelor degree at the University of Michigan and afterward, as took the science and health classes required for a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies. This was vital for me as I have a heart condition called aortic valve stenosis that requires biannual echocardiograms and other expensive tests (with costs that can reach up to $6,000). But more than that, a state-run exchange would better help me find a plan that would work for me, as well as others like me. Recent reports even indicate that Southern states don’t want the ACA repealed.

2) Support the state of Michigan’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare?

Yes, I do support the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. As this document, provided by the State of Michigan, explains:

Medicaid would be expanded to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level, meaning that those living at or near poverty (about $30,000 per year for a family of four) would receive health care. In total, 320,000 Michiganders wil be covered in the first year, 470,000 will be covered by 2021, and Michigan’s uninsured population will drop by about 46%.

If these figures are correct, we can lower the population of uninsured people in Michigan by 46% (which I would call a good thing), which means giving health coverage to people who didn’t previously have it. So you have to be thinking, now, how much does this cost us? Well, the report claims that, “There is no net cost to the state over the next 21 years, and Michigan will save $320 million in uncompensated care costs by 2022 and $206 million in General Fund costs in 2014 alone.” So it saves the state money because it decreases uncompensated care costs.

How could you possibly oppose this? It has positive outcomes for Michigan residents and positive outcomes on Michigan’s budget.

3) Vote to allow an “opt-out” of Obamacare when possible?

No, I will not vote to allow an “opt-out” of the ACA when possible. This feels like a sound-byte ready question to hammer people with. I’m not really sure how this law would work or what the consequences would be if it passed. How does one “opt-out” of a law that is designed to ensure you can’t be denied for pre-existing conditions, or allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26? Is it an opt-out of the mandate? Or an opt-out of…what? Are you going to buy a private insurance policy? Because all of them will be regulated under the ACA. This question is not clear and I can find no real credible information on what the legislation would look like, so my answer is a solid and firm no.

Energy:

1) Support a 100% competitive electric energy market? (Background: currently it’s only 10% of the market with thousands of customers on a waiting list to switch energy suppliers.)

I don’t support a 100% competitive electric energy market, but I certainly do support competitive energy markets. It’s obvious that we need to be critical of where the electric energy comes from and how much a competitive market helps consumers. I would have obvious questions: how do we regulate a 100% competitive market and how does the average consumer get informed about the choices of providers?

2) Support raising Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)?

The Renewable Portfolio Standard is a fancy term for a regulation that mandates an increase in energy from renewable sources. A full report on the status of the Michigan RPS can be found here.

In the last election cycle, Michigan voters were given the choice to raise the RPS to 25% by 2025 as a constitutional amendment, which was voted down with 60% opposing. The current RPS is 10% by 2015. Perhaps 15% over the course of 10 years is a little high, but I have to say that, generally, I support raising the RPS over time so we can transition to renewable forms of energy. That being said, I am not totally opposed to nuclear power. I do, however, prefer biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar power. And with the leaps in photovoltaic cell technology, solar power isn’t the pipe dream it used to be.

3) Vote to ban the practice of Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in energy exploration?

Honestly, I think there are too many questions about the safety of the chemicals and processes in fracking for me to give it any support. I wouldn’t support a ban, per se, but I would definitely support serious investigations into the safety of the fracking tech for consumers near the sites. Does it, for instance, cause earthquakes and poison water supplies? It certainly seems there is a lot of evidence to the positive for both of them, as Ohio has found links between fracking and earthquakes. This data and information is not something we can ignore, and it needs to be addressed before we can really start the fracking process.

I want to know: is fracking safe? The evidence points to the answering being no.

Academics:

1) Vote to remove Michigan from the list of states adhering to common core standards?

I would not vote to remove Michigan from the list. I will acknowledge that there are problems with the common core standards at the lower grade levels, such as math tests that are problematic or perhaps developmentally inappropriate (and I have addressed the questions about certain math problems here), but it seems that the standards are fairly more sensible at the high school level.

I can’t ignore very real concerns that the common core standards place too much emphases on test taking and argumentative writing, but these are all things we can address within the context of the standards.

2) Support using student performance/progress in determining teacher pay & job security?

I have questions about such things. How do we assess student performance and progress in relation to teacher’s teaching ability? Is it how well they do on standardized tests? How well they fare in grades?

How does parental responsibility factor in, as well as the responsibility of the students themselves?

In short, I don’t see how to make this work in any practical or fair way. Why put the blame on the teachers when the parents and the students are also accountable for how well they do in class? I don’t ever recall hearing from any of my parents, grandparents, or family that it was the teacher’s fault I did poorly on a test. It was always my failure to prepare, and I can’t argue with that. When does the student or parent’s responsibility end and the teacher’s begin?

3) Support expanding the number and accessibility of cyber schools in Michigan?

No. The news I see shows that they generally have abysmal records, and I am wary of any private virtual institution.

Roads:

1) Vote for higher fuel taxes? (Background: Michigan has the 5th highest taxes on gas in the country).

According to this article, MDOT states that “state fuel tax revenue, which is dedicated exclusively to road and transportation funding, has been falling since 2004 as a result of inflation and increasingly-efficient vehicles.”

It’s true that we have one of the highest taxes on gas in the country. It’s also true that we have crumbling roads and bridges in need of maintenance. If not a fuel tax to fund road repair, a use tax. We cannot avoid this problem and it will cost money to fix, and each year we ignore it, the costs only increase.

2) Vote for higher vehicle registration fees?

We might consider this for repairing the roads as vehicle registration fee increases would be a good way to direct a use tax at motorists, so people who don’t use roads aren’t being taxed. My last vehicle registration fee was $116, so I already feel the pinch. Still, if it would save my suspension and tires wear and tear and possible other, more costly damage, I think it would be worth it.

3) Work to dedicate all revenues collected from fuel taxes to transportation purposes: primarily road repairs and construction?

As the above article indicates, this seems to already be the case, so I guess I would just support the continuation of such.

Taxes:

1) Support a repeal of the Michigan Personal Property Tax (PPT)?

I wouldn’t support a full repeal, no. As this article from the Detroit Free Press mentions, “But state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said she feared the state would be the ultimate loser, with the loss of $300 million in tax revenues in the first year.”

I would like to know how local communities will cope with the loss of revenues, and how a $300,000,000 hole in the budget will be filled.

I support restructuring and modernizing the PPT, however.

2) Actively support and vote to lower the Michigan State income tax rate back to 3.9% or less? (Background: The current rate is 4.25%–in 2005 it was 3.9%)

As with all tax issues, we have to ask how we make up for the loss of revenue in the budget, and if we slash the budget, which parts we slash. A balanced approach to this question requires more than just asking to support tax cuts. Nobody likes high taxes, but at the same time we have to assess where the revenues to fund state and local services will be coming from. This website shows that Michigan has a relatively low state income tax compared to other states.

3) Vote for appropriations that grow at or less than the rate of inflation?

I can’t support appropriations that grow less than the rate of inflation. MSU notes that “If appropriations had been increased at the average national rate for five years, MSU would have an additional $140 million in state support, sufficient to reduce tuition by approximately 21 percent.”

If appropriations grew less than that rate of inflation, we’d fall even further behind in vital areas like higher education. It’s important that we keep investing so things are properly funded.

Additional Questions:

1) Support state tax revenue being used for the city of Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy?

It depends on how much state tax revenue would be used. It’s important that we revitalize the state’s economy, and doing this would probably mean helping out the communities in Michigan that are currently having issues like bankruptcy.

I can’t outright say I would support it.

2) Support placing all government workers (including teachers) into a defined contribution and retirement plan?

I need more information on what this “defined contribution and retirement plan” looks like before I can comment on it.

And that’s it. It’s a lengthy post and it took me hours to write it, but it was necessary given the brevity of the questionnaire itself and the group that sent it. All of these questions were answered sincerely and to the best of my ability in the short time I had. I will not be sending the questionnaire back to Americans for Prosperity of Michigan because I was not impressed with its quality.

I imagine that they might use some of what I have said here against me in some way during the election, and that’s okay. I’m being honest and upfront, checking my sources, and doing my best to stand up for the best interests of the Michigan residents I hope to represent, and even those that I would not. I hope that people interested in my positions will find their way here, and more than that, I hope they will engage me in a reasonable and open dialogue about these issues. That’s really what I’m after here: dialogues about how to move Michigan forward for the better.

And I would rather do that free of moneyed and special interests that, as I have shown above, aren’t entirely trustworthy.

Thank you for reading.

Josh Derke

Democratic Candidate for State Representative, 93rd Congressional District

Update: The Michigan House has voted in support of the Detroit bankruptcy plan that gives about $195 million in state aid to the city. For reasons which aren’t entirely clear, Americans for Prosperity of Michigan opposes this move and is putting pressure on Republicans in the State Senate to scuttle the eleven bills that would being Detroit out of bankruptcy.