They’re Not Making Jeff Smiths Like They Used To

Movie poster

For generations of Americans, “Jefferson Smith” was the archetype of the honest, hard-working man of the people who gets into politics to serve the public interest and stands up to powerful interests. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential movie about a corrupt system that can be toppled by a single man of integrity. So maybe it’s no surprise that there seem to be a lot of Jeff Smiths getting into politics. What better name to inspire confidence?

Unfortunately, Sen. Jeff Smith of some unnamed Western state would be mighty embarrassed by some of the Jeff Smiths who have come along in his wake.

Today in Washington, D.C., former city council candidate Jeff Smith was sentenced to 60 days in jail for accepting illegal campaign funds and making false reports to the city’s campaign finance office. Like D.C. mayor Vincent Gray, Smith was essentially accused of benefiting from an illegal shadow campaign run by a major donor who makes his money from city contracts.

Today’s Jeff Smith story reminded me of one from a few years ago. As Jason Zengerle reported in the New Republic, Missouri state senator Jeff Smith “was the brightest young star in the Missouri Democratic Party. Thanks to an award-winning documentary about him, he was also a national political figure—a crusading reformer whose combination of charisma, idealism, and intelligence prompted comparisons to Howard Dean, Paul Wellstone, and even Barack Obama. Although he was only in his first term, no one (least of all of Smith himself) doubted he was destined for greatness.”

Jefferson Smith was the leader of the Boy Rangers. Jeff Smith of Missouri taught political science at Washington University and had equally devoted young supporters. Indeed, that Jeff Smith was so Capra-esque – at least to liberal eyes – that filmmaker Frank Popper made a film about him. Zengerle writes that the film, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, is a minor masterpiece of the political documentary genre. After its release in 2006, it broadcast nationally on PBS’s prestigious ‘Independent Lens’ series and earned Popper, a first-time feature director, numerous festival accolades.”

But then it all went wrong. Right from the beginning, actually. In his first campaign, afraid of losing, Smith turned to some sketchy operatives who put together – whattaya know? – an illegal shadow campaign to attack his opponent. Eventually the FEC came calling, and then the FBI. Things spiraled out of control. One of the operatives ratted him out. His campaign manager committed suicide. Smith was sentenced to a year in jail.

I remember hearing back in Kentucky about a woman who refused to vote for a friend for public office because “if a man’s not ruint when he gets in there, he’s ruint when he comes out. And there’s no sense in ruining a good time.” Frank Capra’s fictional Jeff Smith could resist the temptations of power, but it seems that a lot of regular folks named Jeff Smith – or anything else – can’t.

 

 

Another “Winn” for Educational Freedom in New Hampshire

In ACSTO v. Winn (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program on the grounds that plaintiffs did not have standing to sue in the first place, because they could not show any specific injury to themselves caused by the voluntary program. Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in a case involving that state’s new scholarship program. Importantly, this preserves the perfect legal record of modern education tax credit school choice programs.

Under these programs, individuals or businesses can donate money to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization that then uses the money to make private education affordable to lower income families. The donor’s taxes are cut in proportion to the size of the donation they make (100% in AZ, 85% in NH). No one is compelled to make a donation, and those who do not donate have their taxes collected as they always were. Those who choose to make donations can pick the organization that receives their money, just as they would pick any other charitable organization.

To have standing to sue over the constitutionality of a law, it is generally required to show that the law has personally and concretely harmed you in some way. Though this may seem arbitrary, it has a very important purpose, which the NH ruling explains in detail: without the harm requirement, courts would have sweeping power to override the will of voters and their elected representatives. If anyone could sue to overturn any law for any reason, innumerable cases would be filed and courts could simply agree to hear the ones pertaining to whatever laws they happened not to like.

But there is another reason why it is important that both the U.S. and NH Supreme Courts rejected challenges to education tax credits due to lack of standing: freedom of conscience. The plaintiffs lacked standing in these cases because the programs are voluntary. No one has to donate to a scholarship organization. Those who do not donate see their taxes collected as they’d always been. As a result, no one is compelled to pay for religious instruction, which would violate many state constitutions.

In fact, education tax credits offer a meaningful improvement for freedom of conscience over the public schooling status quo. Under the current system, everyone is forced to pay for a single official system of education that cannot possibly reflect the values of such a diverse nation. The result, as my colleague Neal McCluskey has shown, is an endless battle over the content of public schooling. Education tax credits avoid that compulsion, allowing people to choose the organization that receives their education donations. In a mature program like the one in Pennsylvania, there are over a hundred different scholarship organizations to choose from. It is thus possible to ensure funding to a diverse range of educational choices without forcing any taxpayer to support a particular sort of instruction that might violate his or her most deeply held convictions.

As I wrote three years ago, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, education tax credits are A “Winn” for Education and Freedom of Conscience.

Live Free and Learn: NH Supreme Court Upholds School Choice

Low- and middle-income children in New Hampshire will now be able to use tax-credit scholarships at any school they choose, whether secular or religious.

This morning, the New Hampshire Supreme Court (NHSC) followed the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court in unanimously ruling that the petitioners challenging the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit law lack standing because they could not demonstrate any harm. The law grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low- and middle-income parents send their children to the schools of their choice.

When two anti-school choice organizations challenged the law, the Institute for Justice intervened, representing several low-income families who had applied for the scholarships. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief defending the law’s constitutionality.

The NHSC overturned a lower court’s flawed and unprecedented decision, which had forbidden scholarship recipients from using the funds at religiously-affiliated private schools. The lower court held that the scholarship funds constituted “money raised by taxation” and therefore violated the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states:

[No] money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination. (New Hampshire Constitution, Part II, Article 83)

The NHSC did not address the merits of the lower court’s decision because it held the petitioners were unable to demonstrate that “their personal rights have been impaired or prejudiced.” Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court, in rejecting the petitioners’ standing in ACSTO v. Winn, held that the tax-credit funds did not constitute public money because they had not “come into the tax collector’s hands.”

This is great news for the tens of thousands of students who qualify for tax-credit scholarships—parents like Melissa Cogan, who used the program to cover homeschooling expenses for her two children, Hope and Hunter.

“Without the scholarship from (the Network for Educational Opportunity), homeschool would not have been an option for us,” Melissa said. “We are a large family with very limited resources for supplies, books, workbooks, and electronic technology. The generosity of the Network for Educational Opportunity has made it possible for us to purchase everything we needed to become a successful homeschooling family.”

Such stories should make it unsurprising then that, last year, nearly 97 percent of scholarship families reported being satisfied with the learning environments they chose for their children.

NH tax-credit scholarship, parental satisfaction.

The decision’s import reaches far beyond New Hampshire’s borders. The NHSC’s ruling today takes some wind out of the sails of the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA), which is inexplicably suing the Sunshine State over its more-than-decade-old scholarship tax credit law, in a complaint that mirrors the legal reasoning of the NH petitioners.  It is likely that the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning will mirror that of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court.

Certainly there are families in Florida, and elsewhere nationwide, similar to the Cogans who are craving an educational environment that works best for them. Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court handed them a much-needed victory and, thus, the ability to live free and learn.

Gov. Quinn Vetoes Rideshare Bill

Earlier this week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) vetoed HB 4075, a ridesharing bill backed by Illinois’ taxi industry that was overwhelmingly passed by the state House and Senate earlier this year. If the bill had been signed into law, Illinois drivers using ridesharing services for more than 18 hours a week would have had to adhere to burdensome regulations such as a requirement for a chauffeur’s license. The bill would also have created a new legal category (“commercial ridesharing agreements”) and required rideshare companies to provide its drivers with the commercial liability insurance used for taxis. Quinn should be praised for vetoing the bill. However, given the bill’s popularity among state legislators, there is a chance of an override of the veto.

The Illinois House passed HB 4075 in April by 80 votes to 26. In May, the Illinois Senate passed the bill by 46 to 8. In order to override a veto, 36 votes are needed in the Senate and 71 are needed in the House.

A few weeks after the Illinois Senate passed HB 4075, the Chicago City Council approved a rideshare ordinance, which goes into effect next week. The ordinance is far from perfect. For instance, it requires that all drivers using a rideshare company’s technology to have a chauffeur’s license if the driver workforce of that company averages more than 20 hours per week per driver. The ordinance also requires that rideshare companies whose drivers operate fewer than 20 hours per week on average have their vehicle inspections and background checks approved by the city. However, the ordinance is less restrictive than HB 4075 and its trailer bill HB 5331, which Quinn also vetoed. 

In his veto letter, Quinn rightly points out that it would be “premature—and perhaps counterproductive” to impose a statewide ridesharing regulatory structure on Illinois when the Chicago ordinance has yet to come into effect and that there is not enough evidence to judge the effectiveness of ridesharing ordinances.

However, it should be remembered that the ordinance in Chicago increases the number of regulations. While free marketers may be tempted to welcome legislation that allows ridesharing companies to operate, it is worth keeping in mind that as local lawmakers across the country try to regulate rideshare companies, there is a risk of regulatory capture and, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Marc Scribner has warned, a risk of ridesharing companies eventually using legislation to their advantage to stifle competition as technology continues to advance.  

 

The Unintended Consequences of Environmental Policy: For the Birds

So, here is a story to make your blood boil. According to National Review, “the federal government acted with a bias, giving renewable-energy companies a pass on unlawful bird deaths while rigorously prosecuting traditional energy companies for the same infractions.” The NR article follows a string of recent stories complaining about tens of thousands of birds cut up to pieces or fried in the sky by windmills and solar plants.

Speaking of birds…

Five decades ago, Rachel Carson, of Silent Spring infamy, helped to ban a pesticide called DDT. Back then, DDT was widely used not only in agriculture, but also in malaria control. Carson argued, among other things, that the use of DDT endangered bird populations. The political left jumped on Carson’s arguments. After a massive campaign, DDT was withdrawn from agriculture and its use in malaria control was greatly restricted. Most countries followed the American example and banned DDT for use in agriculture.

Although developing countries could technically use DDT for disease control, no donor agencies (dominated by western leftists) would support its use. This amounted to a de facto ban of DDT in malaria control. Nobody knows for sure, but thousands of Africans, perhaps millions, have died of malaria since the use of DDT was prematurely discontinued, all because of a hysterical drive to save the birds in the West.

Today, tens of thousands of birds are dying to satisfy the newest progressive fetish: the drive for renewable energy. At least they are dying in an environmentally friendly way.

As the left likes to say, you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs!

Mandatory Spending Continues to Drive the Budget

This morning, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its updated Budget and Economic Outlook report, known in Washington, D.C. parlance as the “baseline.” This report details CBO’s projections on federal spending and revenue for this year and into the future.

Below are a few key points from the new report.

  • The deficit for 2014, the difference between federal spending and revenue, will be $506 billion, up from the $492 billion forecasted in April. This is driven by lower-than-expected corporate income tax revenue.
  • According to CBO, Medicaid spending jumped 15 percent year-over-year. Adding millions of new individuals under ObamaCare to Medicaid comes at a steep price.  Social Security spending jumped 4.6 percent.
  • The entitlement programs continue to drive spending projections and put enormous weight on the budget. CBO estimates that Social Security, the major health care programs, and interest account for 85 percent of projected spending increases over next ten years.
  • Mandatory spending–which includes the big entitlement programs–will increase 5.5 percent annually over next ten years. ObamaCare leads the way. The newly created subsidies for health insurance will cost taxpayers $1 trillion over ten years, growing from $17 billion in 2014 to $450 billion in 2024.
  • The one bright spot continues to the Budget Control Act of 2011 which is controlling the growth of discretionary spending. Fiscal Year 2015 spending will be $1.016 trillion compared to $1.014 trillion in FY14.

New Front Opening in Core War

Reports are out this morning that Louisiana will be challenging in court federal coercion behind the Common Core standards. If so, it will open a new front in the war against the Core, a standardization effort that has been listing badly in public opinion, but nonetheless survives in the vast majority of states. That could very well change should the force of Race to the Top funding or, more importantly today, waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, be eliminated by the courts, as Core supporters likely knew when they asked for federal pressure.

Does this suit have a chance of success? I’m not a lawyer – though I’ll be consulting a few! – so this is not the best-informed legal analysis. From what I do know, though, the chances of prevailing are middling, at best. The courts in the past have been pretty lenient in cases in which Washington gets states to do its bidding in exchange for funding when the feds don’t have authority in the Constitution to do something. And the Louisiana suit hinges largely on federal action that seems very intentionally to push the Core – standards “common to a majority of states” under RTTT, and only one other standards option to get a waiver – but that doesn’t state outright that the Core must be adopted. That way the feds can say they aren’t prescribing a specific “program of instruction,” which would clearly violate the letter of several education laws, while in reality very much requiring such a program.

Sadly, one major diversion likely to be employed by Core opponents to battle this suit is impugning Governor Bobby Jindal’s motives. Since Jindal first reversed course on the Core, supporters of the standards have said his stance is all about presidential aspirations and not about what’s best for kids. Those may well be his motives, I don’t know. But as with all aspects of the Core debate, we should focus on the merits of the arguments being employed, not the motives for offering them. (This goes for opponents who attack people like Bill Gates, too.) We should look at the merits of the lawsuit, which requires an honest assessment of both the Constitution and federal education statutes, just as we should look at the research on national standards, the content of the Core, and the reality of how so many states adopted standards that are now heavily disliked.

Do those things, and I think the Core loses hands down. Ignore them completely, and everyone loses.