Mojo - February 2011

Wisconsin Assembly Rams Through Walker's Budget Bill

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 8:59 AM EST

It was an ugly end to 61 hours of debate and deliberation. After days of Democrats attacking Republicans and Republicans attacking Democrats, hundreds of amendments being offered, and Democrats using every move in the book to delay a vote, the Wisconsin state Assembly finally voted on Republican Governor Scott Walker's controversial "budget repair bill," which would gut collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, among other things. In the end, the final vote was 51 to 17, with 28 members—25 Democrats, two GOPers, and one independent—not even voting.

Why? Here's how it went down. A shade after 1 a.m. on Friday morning, the Assembly speaker pro tempore suddenly cut off the debate and demanded a vote. Then the voting window was opened for just a few seconds, long enough for a GOP majority to cast its votes and approve the bill. The moment the vote ended, the Republicans picked up and headed for the door. The move stunned the Democrats in the Assembly, leaving them livid. Some Democrats yelled "Shame!" and "Cowards!" at their Republican counterparts; others hurled papers into the air; one even threw a drink.

The whole thing caught Assembly Democrats by surprise. For one, they still had 15 speakers on deck to debate the bill. Republicans also failed to invoke the traditional motion and roll call used when signaling that the debate is over and it's time to vote.

The post-vote comments by Democrats hid none of their anger. "What a sad day for this state when we are willing to ignore the traditions that people died for in this state, that people fought bitterly for," said Rep. Peter Barca, a Democrat. "We ignore our forefathers who made this a great state." Said Democratic Rep. Kelda Helen Roys: "We never imagined they would do it as they did, not even properly using the nuclear option."

Mike Tate, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement, "Under cover of darkness, in a practice that Scott Walker denounced while he was campaigning for governor, the Republicans of the Wisconsin Assembly sold their soul. Upending seven decades of labor peace and putting Wisconsin up for sale to the likes of their Koch Brothers masters, they voted to sanction the most divisive piece of legislation in our state's history."

Republicans saw nothing wrong with the move, which they say brought an end to days' worth of delay. "In the end, we're going to head the state in the right direction," said Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, the speaker of the Assembly.

Of course, the fight is only half over. The state Senate now takes up the bill. But with that chamber's 14 Democrats still in hiding—their "filibuster on feet," as one senator called it—it's unclear if or when the senate will take up the bill. Democrats say they have no plans to return anytime soon, not until Gov. Walker relents and throws out his ban on collective bargaining. "I'm not paid to be their rubber stamp," Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat, told me last night. "I'm not elected to be their rubber stamp."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2011

Fri Feb. 25, 2011 5:29 AM EST

U.S. Army Ranger students make the final push in a rubber boat across a lake during the swamp training phase at Camp Rudder on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Feb. 15, 2011. U.S. Army photo by John D. Helms

Huckabee Blasts DOMA

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 5:04 PM EST

In his failed 2008 bid for president, Mike Huckabee cast himself as the Family Values candidate, and he seems to be rehashing the same gambit for 2012. Appearing at the National Press Club on Thursday to promote his new book, "A Simple Government," the former Arkansas governor unloaded about the economic cost of broken families, attempting to wed social and fiscal concerns. At times, Huckabee—a former pastor—struck the moralizing tone of a church youth group leader. "Families that do not have frequent dinners together around their own table are twice likely to use tobacco, marijuana," he told the crowd. He lamented single-parent families for passing on costs to the taxpayer—though he didn't go so far as to utter the word "welfare queen."

Huckabee's comments seemed to regurgitate old debates over the welfare state. But while fiscal concerns continue to eclipse social ones on the national level, there are a few issues that could fit into Huckabee's wheelhouse. On Wednesday, President Obama indicated that he would no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act. When asked about the president's decision, Huckabee laid into Obama for changing his stance after having supported "traditional marriage" during his 2008 campaign:

The president has made an incredibly, amazing inexplicable political error. He is out of touch with the voters in every state in which this is on the ballot...Had he taken this position in the campaign, he might not have been elected. He supported traditional marriage with a man and woman [in 2008]. Either not being honest then or he's not being honest now. Or he changed his mind, and he needs to explain when and how that happened, and why.

Despite his political attack on Obama, Huckabee laid off from moralizing against homosexuality or gay marriage, both of which he adamantly opposes. And he may choose to avoid that tack during the Republican primary in an attempt to reach out to more libertarian-minded tea party types. 

But he could conceivably use a fiscal argument to inveigh against "non-traditional marriage." In an interview with Slate, Huckabee said he didn't know Obama's reasons for flip-flopping on DOMA, but added: "I do know there is a definite economic impact of the breakup of families in this country." When pressed by Mother Jones as to whether gay marriage truly imposed an economic burden on the country at the Press Club, Huckabee declined to answer.

But Huckabee did make time to crack a gay joke during his Thursday appearance. As Huckabee wrapped up his speech, he received a signal from the event host, Bob Webb, that it was time to move on to the question-and-answer session with reporters. "I think I'm getting the question signal—either that or you were making a pass at me, I'm not sure," he told Webb, as the audience chuckled.

All Quiet in Benghazi...for Now

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:54 PM EST

I just spoke to a friend's husband who is in Benghazi. He's Libyan, works there and in Europe, and his family is in this city, the second largest in the Libya. He asks that I don't use his name—because Muammar Qaddafi is not gone yet (and though he'll eventually return to Europe, his relatives won't). He reports:

* Benghazi is quiet and safe. Shops and banks—though not schools—were open today. He had no trouble driving throughout the city. "Everybody's fine," he says. I'ts very safe... Unbelievably. Nobody is afraid of Qaddafi like before."

* The Internet is not functioning in the city. International phone service is sketchy. Many residents are receiving and watching Al Jazeera.

* The city is being governed by an ad hoc assortment of military people, police, past government officials, and groups of citizens.

* There is a major fear shared by the residents of Benghazi: that Qaddafi will launch an air assault on the city. My friend's husband notes that the military guarding the city does not possess anti-aircraft guns. He says that because Qaddafi was distrustful of this region, he did not supply the military based there with large amounts of weaponry. "We cannot fight back against an air attack," he says.

* The residents of Benghazi have been trying to follow what's happening in Tripoli. "I was able to talk to a friend in Tripoli," he notes. "He told me, 'It's hell in Tripoli. There's shooting everywhere. Qaddafi's mafia is shooting people everywhere in the city.'"

He's hopeful that the violence in Libya—a friend of his was shot and killed in Benghazi—will soon be over and Qaddafi gone. "In a couple of days," he says, "everything will be finished."

Virginia's Abortion Crackdown

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 3:49 PM EST

The Virginia legislature on Thursday approved a bill that will regulate abortion clinics as hospitals—a move that abortion-rights advocates say make state's rules among the most restrictive in the country and could signficantly limit access to first-trimester procedures.

Currently, clinics that provide first trimester abortions are regulated like other physicians' offices that provide out-patient services, such as vasectomies or breast augmentations. Under this new law, clinics would be subject to the much more stringent rules applied to hospitals.

Via the Washington Post:

The bill's passage came as the Democratic-led state Senate voted 20 to 20 Thursday to approve the measure after a lengthy and emotional debate. The tie was broken by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who cast his vote in favor of the bill. All 18 of the chamber's Republicans backed the bill, as did two conservative Democrats.
Antiabortion activists hailed the vote as the most significant victory they've achieved in Virginia in years. Abortion rights groups said they think the regulations will place an unconstitutional burden on a woman's ability to get an abortion in Virginia, and pledged to sue.

As the reproductive health news site RH Reality Check wrote yesterday, the law would subject clinics to rules like requiring the number of parking spots to equal the number of beds (which doesn't really apply, since first-trimester abortions don't require an overnight stay). And clinics would have to make structural changes like widening their hallways so that two gurneys can pass at the same time—not insignificant burdens for these clinics, as the site reports:

The architectural costs of having to make such changes would dramatically raise the costs for clinics operating out of buildings they own and would likely be impossible for those that rent space. "Even if [those that rent] could afford to do this," said Joseph Richards, NARAL Virginia's Program and Communications Manager, "it essentially shuts them down. Seventeen of the 21 first-trimester abortion providers in Virginia would likely be forced to close due to an inability to comply with medically-unnecessary, cost-prohibitive cosmetic regulations."

Anti-abortion activists and legislators have been trying to pass a bill like this for decades, but succeeded this week by slipping it into legislation dealing with hospital policies for controlling infections.

This is the latest in an onslaught of anti-abortion bills in state legislatures around the country offered in the last month, and it's the most restrictive one to pass so far this year. Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, and Texas have also offered bills that would dramatically limit access to abortions.

Texas Gambles for Textbooks

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:40 PM EST

Will Texas school kids get new texbooks? It could depend on a roll of the dice.

Staring down the barrel of a two-year, $15 billion budget gap, state lawmakers offered up a no frills funding proposal this week. How no frills? Well, it offers no funding for new textbooks—this, in a school system where before 2009 students were using 12 year-old science textbooks. The budget situation has grown so desperate that state Democrats are floating the idea of legalizing casino gambling to address the shortfall.

Funding education has decidedly not been a high priority for Republican Governor Rick Perry, who appears increasingly distracted by the lure of a prominent place on the GOP's national stage. Perry's budget-mantra prescribes deep, potentially crippling cuts in education, health, and social services. What are Perry's priorities? Last month, Tim Murphy broke down some of the three-term Republican's goals for this legislative session: mandatory ultrasounds for abortion seekers, abolishing sanctuary cities, and an amendment calling for the federal government to balance its budget. In other words, nothing that's going to improve IQs of Texas' kids. As Texas Tribune's Ross Ramsey points out, These issues are "conservative candy" that will "get Republican lawmakers accustomed to party-line votes right away. And bringing the list in early [in the legislative session] gives conservative lawmakers a chance to work before opponents can use late-session parliamentary tricks to plug the pipeline."

Meanwhile, analysts say his merciless slash and gouge approach to fixing the budget is unlikely to solve Texas' long-term problems—though it could make Texas school kids dumber. "We believe that a balanced approach that includes both revenue enhancements and expenditure cuts has a higher potential of success in preserving the state’s long-term structural budget balance than a strategy that relies solely on expenditure cutbacks," wrote Standard & Poor's credit analyst Horacio Aldrete-Sanchez last week. The S&P also says that Perry's cuts are particularly high for a state with such a low level of per capita spending.

There's at least one bill floating around Austin to legalize casino gambling. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue acknowledge that gambling could rack up at least $1 billion in revenue annually through gambling taxes, helping chip away at the budget gap. The plan's details haven’t been released yet, but it's possible it could be pushed as a ballot initiative. "The people deserve the right to choose whether they want draconian cuts to children's education, health care for the elderly, and aid to veterans, or they want to move forward with an option to bring back the jobs and money to Texas we are giving away to other states," said Democratic Senator Rodney Ellis, who plans introduce a legalization bill. But with the GOP—which tends to oppose legalization—increasing its majority in both the House and Senate last November, supporters and opponents alike know that legalization is unlikely: gambling legislation requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers. Social conservatives also argue that the state treasury only stands to take in 2 cents per every $1 bet at a slot machine, making gambling's potential for solving the budget crisis a losing bet.

While Ellis may have trouble getting his proposal onto the ballot, a majority of Texans seem to be on board. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows that 56 percent of Texans say they support full casino gambling (currently, it's legal in some limited capacities), suggesting that legalization is politically viable in the state. Historically, though, Perry has opposed any expansion, including legalization. But by backing himself into a corrner with his budget cutting-orthodoxy, he may very well have to consider such a strategy.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Fla. Mayoral Candidate Jokes About Bombing Abortion Clinic

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:30 PM EST

Facebook/ Mike Hogan for Mayor Jacksonville FLFacebook/ Mike Hogan for MayorFebruary's been a busy month in the war on reproductive rights. Last week, MoJo's Kate Sheppard broke the story about an effort in South Dakota to classify the murder of abortion doctors as a "justifiable homicide" (the bill was scrapped); this morning we told you about a similar effort in Nebraska, which the Omaha Police Department says could incite violence; and in Georgia, lawmakers are considering a bill that would conceivably permit the state to execute women who have miscarriages.

The legislators behind these efforts have generally deflected criticism by arguing that their bills are being misinterpreted. But Jacksonville, Florida mayoral candidate Mike Hogan doesn't really have that option. Participating at a candidate forum at a Catholic church on Monday, Hogan emphasized his long-standing opposition to Roe v. Wade, which is to be expected from a conservative Republican. But then he went one step further:

Hogan added that the only thing he wouldn't do was bomb an abortion clinic, then the law-and-order advocate added, with a laugh, "but it may cross my mind."

The Mandarin crowd applauded.

In a follow-up interview with the Florida Times-Union, Hogan emphasized that his comments shouldn't be taken seriously, because he was only pandering. "I mean, I'm not going to be politically correct," he told the paper. "That was a joke. This was an audience for this. This is a Catholic Church. I guarantee you they are 110 percent pro-life." 

Iowa Bills Could Also Allow for "Justifiable Homicide" Defense Against Abortion Docs

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:00 PM EST

The Midwest is seeing a wave of new measures intended to give additional protections to fetuses—including a growing number of bills that could make it legal to kill an abortion doctor in the name of protecting an "unborn child."

A South Dakota bill that could have allowed the "justifiable homicide" defense to be used for individuals who murder abortion providers was shelved last week after public outcry. And as my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Nick Baumann reported Thursday morning, a Nebraska lawmaker introduced a very similar bill there. Now legislators in Iowa are have also introduced a pair of bills that would recognize a fetus as a separate person and would permit "deadly force" in the protection of that fetus, as the Iowa Independent's Lynda Waddington reported Thursday:

Currently, abortion is also settled law in Iowa. But House File 153, sponsored by 28 Republicans, challenges it. Under that bill, the state would be mandated to recognize and protect “life” from the moment of conception until “natural death” with the full force of the law and state and federal constitutions. Essentially, the bill declares that from the moment a male sperm and a female ovum join to create a fertilized egg that a person exists.
House File 7, which has been sponsored by 29 GOP House members, seeks to expand state law regarding use of reasonable force, including deadly force. Current state laws provide that citizens are not required to retreat from their dwelling or place of business if they or a third party are threatened. The proposal would significantly expand this to state that citizens are not required to retreat from “any place at which the person has a right to be present,” and that in such instances, the citizen has the right to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect himself or a third party from serious injury or death or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

The first bill is the sort of "fetal personhood" legislation that anti-abortion groups have tried to pass in order to establish a fetus as deserving of the same rights and protections as a woman. But legal experts in the state say that the two bills together create the kind of situation where an anti-abortion extremist could make the argument in court that killing a doctor is a justifiable act to protect an unborn child:

Todd Miler, a criminal defense attorney in Des Moines, agrees that these two bills, when combined, create a situation that could lead to someone claiming the killing of an abortion provider or a family planning worker was reasonable use of deadly force.
"My first thought when I looked at House File 153 was that it was a first step — something that had been put out there as a first step toward a larger political goal. But, when you place it next to House File 7 the potential ramifications are startling," Miler said.

As we pointed out in our initial piece on the South Dakota bill, this is not an abstract concern; anti-abortion activists who have killed doctors have attempted to use this defense in court. So far they have not been successful, but the proposed bills in the Midwest could open that door in the future.

Watchdog Wants Probe of Gov. Walker's State Patrol Visit

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 12:20 PM EST
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Flickr/theaudi0slave

[UPDATE: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent another letter to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board on Thursday morning, demanding an investigation into Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's use of state troopers. After state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald ordered troopers to the houses of all 14 Senate Democrats currently hiding in Illinois, CREW called on the accountability board for the second time in two days to probe Walker and Fitzgerald's use of troopers. "Governor Walker is doubling down on a bad bet," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "Wisconsin law is clear: state troopers cannot take part in any dispute between an employer and employee over wages, hours, labor, or working conditions."]

Another government watchdog group is demanding an investigation into whether Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker abused his power in the fight to pass his controversial "budget repair bill." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington, DC, outfit, asked Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board in a letter sent Wednesday to probe whether Walker broke state law when he sent State Patrollers to locate state Senate Democratic leader Matt Miller. CREW's demand comes on the same day as the Public Campaign Action Fund announced it was looking into whether Walker engaged in illegal political coordination with who he thought was right-wing billionaire David Koch, but in reality was Ian Murphy, the editor of a alternative magazine in Buffalo, New York.

The 14 Democrats in Wisconsin's state Senate fled to Illinois on February 17 to prevent a vote on Walker's bill, which would eliminate collective bargaining rights for many public-sector unions and allow for no-bid auctions of state-owned power plants, among other provisions. (By leaving, the Democrats left Senate Republicans without the 20-vote quorum needed to vote on the budget bill.) A day later, two state troopers were sent by Walker to Miller's home in suburban Madison at the request of state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald. Here's video of the troopers showing up at Miller's house:

That's where Walker violated the law, CREW alleges. "Nothing in the agency's mission indicates WSP officers may be sent on political errands by the governor or members of the state legislature," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan writes. In particular, CREW points to Wisconsin law that says state troopers "may not be used in or take part in any dispute or controversy between an employer and employee concerning wages, hours, labor, or working conditions." CREW's Sloan concludes, "By abusing his position as governor to ask the WSP to send a message to Sen. Miller, Governor Walker obtained an unlawful benefit—the use of the troopers—in an effort to gain an advantage in his wage dispute with the state's public employees."

It's also worth noting that the head of the Wisconsin State Patrol is Stephen Fitzgerald, father of state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and state Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. The elder Fitzgerald was tapped for the position by Walker's administration.

Read CREW's letter in full:

02_23_11 Letter to Wisconsin Government Accountability Board

Tired of Right-Wing Extremism? Some Arizonans Want to Secede

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 10:22 AM EST

Arizona is charging ahead with legislation to crack down on illegal immigrants in the state. As I reported last month, legal mastermind Kris Kobach—who helped author the state's sweeping 2010 immigration law—has spearheaded a new push to repeal birthright citizenship at the state level. This week, the Arizona Senate appropriations committee approved a bill doing just that, becoming the country's first state legislative panel to support overturning birthright citizenship. The committee also passed a bill that would prohibit "undocumented children from attending public or private schools and colleges and universities, bar illegal immigrants from buying or driving a car and forbid them from getting a marriage certificate in the state," Politico reports

It's unclear whether such extreme measures will become law in Arizona—and even if they do, they could end up in the same legal limbo as Arizona's anti-immigration law. But as Arizona legislators continue their push rightward on immigration, health care, and a host of other issues, some residents are beginning to chafe under their leadership—and consider their own radical alternatives. 

In Arizona's Pima County along the southern border, a group of attorneys—including the former chair of the county's Democratic Party as well as a self-described Libertarian—has created a political committee aimed to help southern Arizona secede from the rest of the state. According to the Facebook page for "Save Our State," the group's goal is "to establish a new state in Southern Arizona free of the un-American, unconstitutional machinations of the Arizona legislature and to restore our region's credibility as a place welcoming to others, open to commerce, and friendly to its neighbors." The group's members say their effort is no joke, reports the Arizona Daily Star:

But Paul Eckerstrom, co-chair of Save Our State…said the state Legislature has gone too far to the right. In particular, a round of legislative measures challenging federal supremacy "really does border on them saying they don't want to be part of the Union any longer," he said…

The group's treasurer, Libertarian and public defender David Euchner…said Republicans were swept into office nationwide on a promise of helping to fix the economic and spending problems. "Meanwhile, every bill we've heard about here is either anti-abortion laws or anti-Mexican laws. These are not laws that are geared toward solving the real problems that we have."

The odds of their effort succeeding, of course, are dim indeed. The group is having trouble even getting the county board of supervisors to put their proposal on the ballot—much less winning the approval from the state legislature, Congress, and the president. But it's certainly an attention-grabbing proposal.