Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Mitt Romney's New Mansion Will Have a Secret Room

| Wed Oct. 23, 2013 4:31 PM EDT
The $12 million California beach house Mitt Romney plans to raze to build one four times larger.

After six years of running for president, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is back to doing the many things he did when he was just a private citizen: pumping his own gas, shopping at Costcoriding roller coasters at Disneyland, and buying mansions.

Lately, Romney has been bolstering his property holdings in Utah, where he went to college and where his family has long, Mormon roots. Last year, he bought an acre of land in Holliday, near Salt Lake City. His son Josh bought the lot next door. The land is zoned for equestrian use and comes with a barn, which will presumably accommodate Ann Romney's dressage horses. The Romneys are tearing down a rambler that's currently on the site to build a 5,900 square-foot farmhouse in its place. The Salt Lake Tribune got a peek at the architectural plans recently approved for the new house. Among the massive rooms, closets the size of a Burger King, personal spa, and other luxury features, the manse has at least one more whimsical addition. Channeling his inner Bruce Wayne, Romney has arranged for his new study to have a hidden ante room that will be accessed through a secret bookcase door.

The paper notes that Mitt isn't the only Romney to add some clever design features to his expensive property. His son Craig is famous for building a house that includes a swing in the middle of the living room, a secret passageway, and a circular staircase that converts into a slide.

It's unclear how much time Mitt will be spending in the new farmhouse. He also recently purchased a new, 8,700-square foot home in the swank Utah ski resort of Deer Valley, 28 miles from the Holliday house, that was last listed for $8.9 million. Romney owned a house in Deer Valley when he was in charge of the 2002 winter Olympics, but sold it before running for president. 

The Romneys apparently need a lot of space. Even as they are acquiring big chunks of the state of Utah, Mitt and Ann have finally received the greenlight to tear down a $12 million, 3,000-square foot beach house in La Jolla, California so they can build a 11,000-square foot mansion on the plot, replete with the car elevator that was subject of so many jokes during the presidential campaign. In addition to their Utah and California properties, the Romneys still own a condo in Belmont, Massachusetts, which allows Mitt to vote in the state he once governed without facing charges of voter fraud. And they own a 6,700-square foot lakeside vacation "cottage" and surrounding estate worth $10 million in New Hampshire. Not counting the condo or the guest quarters at the New Hampshire estate, that works out to about 32,300 square feet of living space for Mitt and Ann, or enough to provide a two-bedroom apartment for every single member of the immediate Romney clan, including each of the 23 grandchildren. Romney's real estate acquisitions seem like an attempt to compensate for his inability to buy the one house he really wanted: the White House.

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CHART: Welfare Reform Is Leaving More In Deep Poverty

| Wed Oct. 23, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The economy is picking up in some parts of the country, but that hasn't translated into any new serious efforts to help those suffering the most hardship. In fact, for those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, life may be getting even harder. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) looks at cash benefits provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as "welfare." It finds that the value of monthly cash benefits that make up the fragile safety net for the poorest families with children has continued to decline steadily since the program was "reformed" in 1996.

Back then, benefits weren't exactly generous, but they did manage to keep a whole lot of kids out of really deep poverty. Today, those benefits are almost nonexistent. The lucky few who are able to get cash assistance aren't getting enough to pay rent or keep the lights on in most states, and the value of the benefits has declined precipitously since 1996—even more so since the recession started. According to CBPP, there is not a state in the country whose welfare benefits are enough to lift a poor single mother with two kids above 50 percent of the poverty line, or about $9700 a year. In many southern states, TANF doesn't provide enough money to get a poor family much above 10 percent of the poverty line. What's especially troubling about these figures is that, as CBPP reports, TANF benefits are often the only form of cash assistance poor families receive. They may be getting food stamps, which definitely help their situations, but you can't buy diapers or pay the rent with food stamps.

People like President Bill Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claimed they'd be doing welfare recipients a favor in the 1990s when they reformed the welfare program to impose work requirements and make it more difficult for people to get benefits. The idea was that welfare recipients were just lazy and that their government checks were keeping them from working, making them dependent on the government. When the reform legislation passed, with Clinton's signature, some people in the administration quit in protest, arguing that cutting off cash assistance for poor families would push millions of children into poverty. That didn't happen, at least not right away. But funding for the TANF block grant hasn't increased since 1996, meaning that in real terms, what the country spends to help poor families in the program has fallen 30 percent overall since welfare was "reformed," and benefit levels have fallen even more in some states that cut benefits after the financial crisis started in 2007. Not surprisingly, since 1996, the number of families with children living in extreme poverty—that is, on $2 a day or less—has gone up nearly 130 percent

The US Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans suffering significant hardships, such as having utilities cut off, getting evicted, or suffering food shortages, has escalated sharply during the recession. Between 2005 and 2011, nearly 7 million additional people were unable to make a mortgage or rent payment, suggesting that as the nation's last-ditch safety net for people in really dire straits, TANF, is not working. Given that science is now showing just how damaging the stress of poverty is to children and their health and intellectual development, maybe it's finally time for welfare reform to be reformed in a way that gives poor kids a fair shot at a decent future.

IRS Complaint Filed Against Jeb Bush's Ed Reform Foundation

| Tue Oct. 15, 2013 6:05 PM EDT
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaking at CPAC 2013

Jeb Bush has long been on the short-list of potential Republican presidential candidates. He was a popular Spanish-speaking governor of a big swing state, Florida, and since leaving office he has focused on education reform through his Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). The foundation has provided a platform for working on a bipartisan public policy front—and access to potential donors among big companies (including those owned by Fox News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch) trying to privatize public schools and tap into billions of tax dollars. (See this Mother Jones story for a closer look at the way Bush has used his foundation to break down barriers to the growth of troubled online charter schools.)

This week, as Bush is back in the limelight in Boston kicking off his foundation's annual education reform summit, a New Mexico advocacy group, ProgressNowNM, has filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that Bush's foundation has failed to publicly disclose on its 990 tax forms thousands of dollars it paid to bring public school superintendents, education officials and lawmakers to foundation events where they had private "VIP" meetings with the foundation's for-profit sponsors. Nonprofits are required to disclose payments for public officials' travel and entertainment if it exceeds $1,000. Public records unearthed by the New Mexico group show payments for travel exceeding that amount for several state education officials whose travel wasn't reported on FEE's 990 form.

The complaint alleges that Bush's foundation disguised travel payments for officials as "scholarships" to hide the fact that the nonprofit was basically facilitating lobbying between big corporations and public officials who control local tax dollars. The complaint notes:

The unorthodox manner of these scholarships—and the fact that they are used as a vehicle to meet with for-profit education corporations—further raises suspicions around the Foundation's failure to properly disclose payment of travel expenses in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, it is possible these unreported payments to the government officials may be deemed to provide a private inurement in violation of IRS regulations.

In its complaint, ProgressNowNM notes that New Mexico’s education secretary Hanna Skandera received foundation funds to travel to Washington, DC, to testify before a US House committee on the expansion of "virtual" education in her state. Skandera asked House members to consider providing more flexibility in federal funding to pay for virtual schools. Some of the for-profit providers of those virtual schools—among them the troubled K-12 Inc.—in New Mexico are also donors to FEE. Using tax-exempt funds to subsidize congressional testimony, ProgressNowNM says, is an "apparent violation" of IRS regulations. 

“This tax-exempt organization is serving as a dating service for corporations selling educational products—including virtual schools—to school chiefs responsible for making policies and cutting the checks,” ProgressNowNM's Patrick Davis says in a statement. “Just like [the American Legislative Exchange Council] brought together gun manufacturers with legislators to pass ‘stand your ground’ laws, FEE is using it’s tax-exempt status to hide thousands of dollars it’s using to connect big private education businesses to government policy makers."

FEE did not respond to a request for comment.

*UPDATE: Jaryn Emhof, communications director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, released a statement Tuesday night responding to the IRS complaint. She said, "It’s not surprising that Progress Now New Mexico, a partisan organization that has a history of opposing education reforms that put students first, would attack efforts to improve the quality of education for children across America...We fully comply with IRS rules when providing policy research and expertise and will continue to do so. This is nothing more than a politically motivated complaint by opponents of education reform."

Why It Doesn't Matter If People Aren't Signing Up for Obamacare Yet

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Republicans have been insisting for a week now that Obamacare is a failure because immediately following its official debut on October 1, few people actually signed up for subsidized insurance plans through its new health exchanges. "Error message after error message. Failed security standards and 60 hours on website hold for just this one Kansan. It is clear, Obamacare is failing — an embarrassment, particularly for the former Kansas governor who is now in charge of Obamacare," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) complained on the House floor last week.

But it doesn't really matter whether many people enrolled in Obamacare last week. Healthcare.gov saw 8 million unique visitors in the first four days the exchanges were open. It isn't especially surprising that not all those people managed to get covered on Day 1. The coverage people are seeking isn't even available until January 1. Uninsured Americans have until December 15 to sign up for coverage that starts the first of the year, and another three months to sign up during the open enrollment period that ends March 31. (People can still sign up after March 31 if they have a change in status, such as losing employer-based coverage.) If people weren't able to sign up October 1 or even October 5, that's not the end of the world. It's just the beginning.

Experience shows that getting lots of uninsured people into private health plans and new Medicaid plans is maddeningly difficult and time-consuming. Massachusetts has already done this, after all. In 2006, Gov. Mitt Romney signed into law a health care reform bill that is essentially the model for the Affordable Care Act. Like the ACA, Romneycare expanded the state's Medicaid program and then opened the Massachusetts Health Connector, the prototype of Healthcare.gov, to provide a marketplace where state residents could purchase subsidized individual health insurance plans.

What happened in Massachusetts is pretty much exactly what's happening right now with Obamacare. After the law went into effect in Massachusetts, state offices were totally overwhelmed by the number of people clamoring to sign up for insurance, or what the state's Medicaid director dubbed the "stress of success." Lost paperwork, computer glitches, confusion over who was eligible for what, and not enough staff to handle the workload meant that in those early days, consumers could wait several months after submitting an application to finally get coverage. So many people were trying to enroll in the expanded Medicaid program that the Medicaid agency ended up with a months-long backlog of applications. In the first two months, only 18,000 of more than 200,000 potentially eligible people had successfully signed up through the connector, according to Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who helped design the Massachusetts system and served on the Connector board. And all of that happened in a state with only 300,000 or so eligible applicants and without a well-funded opposition trying to derail the law at every turn. 

But guess what? Eventually the kinks got worked out and people got covered. Enrollment opened in October 2006, and by the deadline for getting mandatory coverage, July 1, 2007, the Boston Globe reported, 20,000 more people had signed up for insurance on the exchange than the state had expected—12,000 of them in just the two weeks before the deadline. Total enrollment went from 18,000 in December 2006 to 158,000 a year later, says Gruber. Today, Massachusetts has the lowest rate of uninsured residents in the entire country—less than 4 percent—and polls show that people are generally happy with how everything worked out. The conservative Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has called the state's health care reform law “a well thought-out piece of legislation.”

The federal exchange is fielding vastly more work than the Massachusetts Health Connector, and if it's having trouble with the workload, that's largely thanks to Republican opponents. The drafters of the ACA never envisioned the federal government running health care marketplaces for most of the country. The ACA was specifically designed to respect the state's rights that Republicans claim to care so much about. It empowered states, which already regulate the sale of insurance, to run the exchanges. Healthcare.gov was supposed to be a backstop for states either too small to run their own or that dropped the ball on setting up their own exchanges. Instead, Republican governors across the country, and mostly in the South, abdicated the job completely. So instead of running a marketplace for a couple of states as planned, Healthcare.gov is having to do the work of 70 percent of them, including big states like Florida, Texas and Virginia (and also, ahem, Kansas). Of course the site was going to have some problems!

The first real measure of how well the system works is still a few months away. Given the human propensity to procrastinate, the surge of actual enrollments will probably come, as it did in Massachusetts, in the week or two before the first coverage deadline on December 15. That's when people will realize that coverage starts within days—not months or years—and start making decisions in earnest. Bronze plan or silver? Blue Cross or Aetna?

If only a handful of people have successfully enrolled by then, it won't be just conservatives who are freaking out.

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