“25 Things” Meaningful Exercise

One of those Facebook things said to choose 25 random things and distribute to friends. It can be a meaningful exercise. Here were mine:

Snowflakes, DNA, weather. Always different. But consistent patterns. Chaos bounded by order. Free will enveloped by God’s will. The neverending wonder of purposeful creation.

Why isn’t “Never Trust a Naked Bus Driver” (Jack Douglas) still on the best seller list?

Angels…believe in them.

Bologna and Vienna sausages are yummy! Quit frowning. Best friends mayonnaise ever had.

Dad climbs a tree in Riverside Park (Jackson), unsteadily kneels on a branch, and proposes overlooking a sidewalk. Son flies to southern Italy (using Dad’s Skymiles), climbs a mountain, and proposes overlooking the scenic Mediterranean. Why is this story so pleasing?

Best days: Any day daughter smiles at her father, or son calls needing help to do something.

Worst days: when death approaches a friend or loved one.

Unforgettable day: when Pop said “I can’t take care of myself anymore, I’m in your hands now.”

Mississippi has changed so much for the better. We hate less, do more, and understand better. But it’s a long, long road.

Admire men like Robert Khayat not so much for their great accomplishments, but for their character, humble spirit, and good will.

Our Constitution and our democratic republic work only if we nurture and sustain one underlying principle – the common good. Imagine a nation where no-one cares about the common good, only about himself or herself.

Lemon icebox pie. Fried chicken. Butter beans. Fried okra. Stick cornbread. Sweet tea.

“No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from” – Jewel.

Journalism (the work, not the classes) teaches you to find reality.

Earliest childhood memory: Firetruck coming to my house. Sorry about the drapes and smoke damage Momma.

“Mhm, old friends swapping lies of life and loves,” sing it Willie.

Hardest lesson to learn: the patience to persevere with a good will. Best example: Sonny Montgomery.

Creek bottoms, back roads, forest trails, Delta sunsets, rainbows, blues, blue grass, gospel music, Grisham, Orley, Greg Iles, the Neshoba County Fair, no traffic, the great river, New’s Restaurant, Cafe Du Monde, college football, marching bands…so many good things.

Cheese straws.

We have so many who do so much, often with so little, for so many of us.

“The old moon laughed and sang a song.” Wynken, Blynken,and Nod.

“Know your enemy,” wrote legendary strategist Sun Tzu. “Love your enemies,” says the Lord. “We have met the enemy…and he is us!” declared Pogo Possum.

There is the Word. There is Creation. Oh, but there is also Music, “the language of God” (Beethoven).

Bill Cosby, George Carlin, the Smothers Brothers, Andy Griffith, Red Skelton, George Burns, Jack Benny, Steve Martin, Art Carney, Tim Conway.

The first of the Ten Commandments should give us pause in using singular personal pronouns (I, me, my). Abundant usage suggests self-love that pushes God to second place.

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Sequester Fight May Lead to Next BRAC Round

The sequester – you do remember the controversial budget sequester – has Republican deficit hawks and military hawks squabbling. If the deficit hawks win, military spending will be slashed, impacting military bases and industries throughout the nation. If military hawks win, deficit spending will grow, undermining GOP promises to balance the budget.

The likely outcome of this tussle is a compromise. Which will still mean more belt tightening for the military, just not as tight as the sequester required. Which will still mean negative impacts for military bases and industries.

The two big expenses in the Department of Defense budget are personnel and weapons systems. The DoD has made recommendations to Congress to cut both. For example, one proposal is to reduce military retirement costs. However, the DoD’s “We have to modernize and economize the system” argument tends to get crushed by the “Balancing the budget on the backs of the men and women who already sacrifice so much defending this country is shameful” argument. Likewise, DoD’s efforts to kill non-priority weapons systems get crushed by industry lobbyists and state politicians who want to keep factories producing those weapons operating at full capacity.

The challenges to cutting military spending are not new. Budget cutting efforts in the early 1990s caused Congress so many headaches it created the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (now known as BRAC). The commission was charged with making the hard cuts Congress couldn’t make for itself. The commission’s recommendations had to be voted up or down without changes. Recommendations from BRAC rounds in 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005 were all voted up.

Insiders expect this Congress will resort to the BRAC process within two years to make cuts to military spending.

No doubt concerns about a future BRAC were part of the reason Columbus Air Force Base responded publicly last week to a July 2014 article in the Air Force Times. The article rated 68 active duty Air Force bases using 12 criteria: cost of living, housing, schools, commissaries, crime, health care, transportation, exchanges, pollution, climate, unemployment and sales tax rates.

The article ranked CAFB next to last among the 68 bases, tied with McConnell AFB in Kansas. Comments by one airman were very negative.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Col. John Nichols, Commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing at CAFB, told members of the Columbus Exchange Club that nine of the criteria were unrelated to the base itself. Of the three metrics that were base-specific (commissary size, base exchange size, and size of on-base health care facilities), he said that the base was on target for its size and capacity.

However, articles like the Air Force Times piece tend to show up in BRAC presentations. And, quality of life for soldiers is a factor in BRAC ratings.

Mississippi communities with bases need to act now to head off such negative issues… just in case.

 

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Politicians Right to Question Oxford Houses

Paul Molloy was a drunk working on Capitol Hill.  He ended up in a psych ward, then a county-run halfway house. When the county closed the house, Molloy and fellow residents sought to keep it open. They agreed to share rent, require residents to be sober, and make decisions by majority vote. The model worked.

Sober and back working on Capitol Hill, Molloy got the chance to tell President Ronald Reagan his story. That led to a federal law requiring states to establish revolving loan funds to help establish “sober living homes.” Molloy’s model – now known as Oxford House – has expanded to 45 states, including Mississippi.

Things were going smoothly in Mississippi – 13 houses opened since 2013 with support from the Mississippi Department of Mental Health (MDMH) – until last month when an Oxford House opened on Northside Drive in Jackson. That’s when concerned residents contacted Republican State Sen. Will Longwitz.

Citing “serious shortcomings,” Longwitz concluded MDMH “is failing to oversee the operations of Oxford House” and called on the agency to stop its support.

Last week he gained two powerful allies. Gov. Phil Bryant called on MDMH director Diana Mikula to stop supporting Oxford Houses. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann ordered Oxford House Inc. to cease and desist soliciting charitable contributions “in and from the State of Mississippi.”

What began as a not-in-my-back-yard protest from northeast Jackson residents has become an expose’ questioning the operation of Malloy’s model.

Mikula says MDMH decided to support Oxford House in 2013 “because it was the only evidence-based sober living home model” endorsed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Recovering addicts and alcoholics must apply to become residents, have jobs, and promise to stay sober.

Longwitz points to serious behavioral problems Oxford House residents have had in other states as well as in Mississippi. He points to no supervision of any activity in the homes, recruiting tenants from jails, and no mandatory criminal background checks for sex crimes as serious issues. He says he is concerned “Oxford House is focused on opening new houses, not on quality control.”

Oxford House Inc., located in Maryland and run by Molloy, receives federal funds to support its operations. The company licenses Oxford House charters in states that set up the sober living homes as residences protected by the federal Fair Housing Act. In this masterful setup, despite federal funding, the homes operate unregulated…normally an ideal Republican setup.

But, apparently, not in this case.

Longwitz says years ago when the federal government set up seed money grants for sober living homes it recommended  that states set up “quality control” regulations to make sure the programs were operated “in a legal, viable, and effective manner.” He wants the state to establish such regulations.

Though the Oxford House concept may be good, the politicians are right that rampant expansion without effective protections should not be tolerated.

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Legislature Not at Fault for Bad Reading Scores

In schools districts that fared poorly on the 3rd grade reading tests, many school officials and parents blame lack of funding by the legislature.

For example, Superintendent Powell Rucker attributed Holmes County’s 59% passing rate to student poverty, lack of funding, and rapid teacher turnover.

“It is not a test that even needed to be administered, because the state did not fully fund it,” Jackson parent Cassandra Welchlin told WLBT-TV.

Yazoo City Schools Assistant Superintendent Lucille Lovette blamed lack of full MAEP funding after nearly half of her 3rd graders failed the reading test.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s “third grade gate,” intended to stop social promotion, simply says that no 3rd grader can move to the 4th grade unless he or she passes a test showing ability to read at grade level. It is modeled after a successful Florida program. In its first year, Florida held back 14.4% of 3rd graders. So far, 14.8% of Mississippi’s 3rd graders will be held back. But, students get two more chances to pass the test. And others will receive “good cause exemptions,” such as being an English-language learner or having a disability.

The final percentage held back should be less than Florida’s, a positive result, no doubt from extraordinary efforts made by many schools.

Indeed, results suggest school leadership, teacher preparation, and instructional methodology had more to do with pass rates than funding.

Consider West Clay Elementary School in rural Cedarbluff which had a 100% pass rate. “The students are poor kids from poor households – 99 percent are eligible for free or reduced school lunches – and 89 percent of them are black. Many are from single-parent homes, some are being raised by grandparents. They are the children of laborers and unskilled workers. Few, if any, of the parents have had the benefit of higher education,” reported the Columbus Dispatch. Principal Dr. Helen Kennard explained that her C rated school reallocated funds to hire an additional third-grade teacher, used fall and spring reading assessments to formulate one-on-one plans for struggling students, and paid close attention to lesson plans and materials.

Instructional methods were clearly a factor in positive pass rates. McWillie Elementary in Jackson uses the Montessori method. Davis Magnet in Jackson uses the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. Nora Davis Magnet School in Laurel is a model school for the Mississippi Arts Commission Whole Schools Initiative. All three serve disproportionately low-income, African-American student populations and achieved 100% pass rates.

Nettleton Primary, a D rated school with a 33% reading proficiency rate last year, had a 98% pass rate. Leadership made a difference here. Superintendent Michael Cates told the Associated Press the district provided extra tutoring to students two and three times a week.

These, other examples, and the overall pass rate of 85.2% suggest the legislature is not at fault for bad school performance on the reading test… and that Bryant’s gate is working.

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GOT ‘EM Posts on Hattiesburg Deaths Hateful

“GOT ’EM” shrieked the Facebook post by a Subway worker in Laurel. “Two police officers shot tonight in Hattiesburg.! – GOT ’EM” read the whole post. (Subway said it fired the employee.) This was Laurel, Mississippi, not Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland!

We face growing sub-cultures, linked-up and emboldened by social media and the Internet, that target law enforcement and encourage violence. In 2014, the number of law enforcement officers shot to death in the line of duty rose more than 50%.

We face emerging homegrown terrorists, inspired by ISIL over social media, like the two recently taken down in Garland, Texas. FBI Director James Comey said Mississippi “has troubled souls that might look to find meaning in this sick, misguided way.”

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said last week the fight against global terrorism has entered a “new phase…because of ISIL’s effective use of social media, the Internet, which has the ability to reach into the homeland and possibly inspire others.”

We face intensifying, calculated use of social media and the Internet by Americans to spread hate and fanaticism.

As we watch this growing abuse of social media and the Internet to subvert our nation, so far protected by our constitution, what will we do?

While not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, it is clear our founding fathers believed divine wisdom led them to establish a nation based on moral order.

Founding father John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The Great Seal of the United States adopted in 1782, as Boy Scouts are taught, includes the motto Annuit Coeptis, meaning “He (God) has favored our undertakings.” The seal also shows the American bald eagle holding a shield without any tangible support “to denote that the United States ought to rely on their own virtue.” Colors on the shield have specific meanings. “white – purity and innocence; red – hardiness and valor; blue – vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

Yet, we seem to be producing more and more Americans who do not answer to God or share the Great Seal’s virtues, including many dedicated to harming other Americans. And we have given them great tools – social media and the Internet – to sew their dissension and sedition.

So, should we let dissidents and terrorists use our freedoms to take us down, or limit some freedoms to take them down?

This is an appropriate question as the Patriot Act is up for renewal in Congress. The NSA used mass surveillance of phone records to fight terrorism, as revealed by fugitive Edward Snowden. Similar tools may be needed to fight social media and Internet exploitation.

“There can be no freedom without order, and there is no order without virtue,” cautioned Ronald Reagan.

Accordingly, we must be virtuous as we respond to GOT ‘EM hatefulness or become what we are fighting against. But respond we must.

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Legislature Undercut Fisher’s Efforts to Clean-up MDOC

Why did the Legislature make the job of new MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher so hard?

Following the indictment and resignation of the former commissioner, Gov. Phil Bryant in December appointed the formidable Fisher to head up the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “His first mission will be to detect and eliminate any criminal activity that occurs within our correctional facilities,” said Bryant.

In addition to the criminal activity of former commissioner Chris Epps and gang activity within the prisons, MDOC personnel have been accused of extortion, sexual solicitation, and theft.

Fisher told the governor’s Task Force on Contracting and Procurement in the Mississippi Department of Corrections his top priority would be to transform MDOC’s low-paid, poorly trained, correctional officers into a highly trained, professional force. He said it would take training and higher pay to remove the enticement of corruption from his workforce.

Starting pay for correctional officers at $22,005 is “well below what it should be,” he said. “We spend money getting people trained to work and then will lose them because they get higher paying jobs.” Last year 806 correctional officers had to be replaced out of a total of 1,700. “Parole officers are sworn peace officers who attend the same 10-week certification academy as Jackson police officers, yet their beginning salary ($25,718) is much lower,” he said, adding, “as investigators they should earn more than highway patrol officers ($37,000).”

To get anywhere with his transformation plan, Fisher said pay for correctional, probation and parole officers must be increased across the board. Also, because of the increased number of parolees resulting from passage of House Bill 585 last year, MDOC needs more parole officers.

Fisher took his transformation plan and salary realignment request to the Legislature, asking that his appropriation be increased by $11 million.

What did they do?  They cut his appropriation by $12 million.

Undeterred, Fisher is forging ahead the hard way. He started massive shakedowns and lockdowns at state prisons, confiscating cell phones, contraband, and shanks, sending a clear message to prisoners and prison personnel alike that he won’t tolerate criminal activity.

To make up for budget cuts, he plans to stop state-county work programs at local jails in August to save $3 million annually, upsetting sheriffs around the state. Inmates will be transferred from programs in 30 counties to fill unused capacity at MDOC’s 17 community work centers.

He is also looking to save about $4 million and eliminate vestiges of corrupt contracts by rebidding contracts for medical care, commissary services, and facility management services.

He also wants better outcomes for prisoners, but that will take even more resources.

Newspaper owner and columnist Wyatt Emmerich has the best line on this: “We need a New Testament prison system, not an Old Testament one.”  (See more at http://www.cdispatch.com/opinions/article.asp?aid=41051)

Commissioner Fisher has the experience, integrity, and drive to transform our prison system, if the Legislature will cooperate.

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McCullough Will Have Hands Full at MDA

Eminently qualified to head up the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), Glenn McCullough won’t have a cakewalk.

Gov. Phil Bryant announced McCullough’s appointment last Thursday, saying, “He can build a consensus and get things done. We have great momentum in Mississippi, and Glenn will take that success to the next level.”

First, though, McCullough must grapple with budget and staffing issues and changing priorities.

MDA will have an extra $1 million in general funds to spend next year, but $66.8 million less in special funds. And out of these special funds MDA must spend $3.671 million on election year, legislative earmarks. So, the budget will be tight.

(Yes, Republican leaders in the Mississippi Legislature allow earmarks!)

McCullough will also step into an agency changing its priorities. The new priorities come from the closely-held 2014 Blueprint Mississippi Economic Competitiveness Study contracted for by the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC).

One priority led MDA to decide to close its eight regional offices and eliminate 11 positions (10 currently filled). MDA’s Jeff Rent told the Mississippi Business Journal, “The decision to close the regional office program is based upon several factors, including the agency’s efforts to implement recommendations from the recent competitiveness study.”

So what did the study say that led to this action?  That’s confidential said MDA, ask the MEC. That’s confidential said MEC.

One source finally told me the study showed MDA spending too little on new business development and too much on existing industry. So, with the budget tight, MDA has chosen to re-direct regional office funds to new business development, including foreign job recruitment.

(Now, what about that needs to be confidential?)

While the finally revealed rationale is understandable, closing the regional offices poses a risk. For most small communities, regional office staff are the only MDA people they’ ever see. MDA risks disconnecting with these communities and, thereby, their legislators.

MDA hopes another competitiveness study recommendation can fill the gap. Last Thursday the agency launched its new web site, http://www.choosemississippi.org. “The development and launch of the new website is the result of the findings of a 2014 competitiveness study funded by Mississippi Economic Council,” said a Mississippi Business Journal blog. “The comprehensive website features essential economic and industry data for the state’s target industries and workforce development resources.”

MDA hopes communities will use the site and other modern technology to link businesses and prospects to the agency.

(Whatever the study said about a web site was kept confidential too.)

MDA will also count on Jackson-based asset development staff and project managers to reach out to communities. However, a number of project manager positions are unfilled.

Trying to recruit jobs in the midst of MDA’s changing priorities, a tight budget and unfilled positions, and the risk of small communities becoming disconnected will leave the talented McCullough with his hands full.

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