Connecting state and local government leaders
Also: An Oregon legislative tax-break mystery, Texas’ quest for rural psychiatrists and Montana is a tinderbox.
Here are some news and notes you may have missed this weekend …
JACKSONVILLE, Florida: On his first day in office, new Mayor Lenny Curry made a little gesture to send an important message. He unlocked the City Hall door that separates his office from the City Council’s office. “[Council members] suggested to me that they thought that the door sent the wrong message, so it’s pretty simple, we’re just going to unlock it,” Curry told WJCT News. Curry in May defeated incumbent Alvin Brown in the most expensive election in the history of Florida’s largest city. His winning campaign promised he would bring unity to city governance. Will the unlocked door translate to better communications? It’s probably a more effective approach than installing a foosball table or a beer fridge. [WJCT-TV]
TOPEKA, Kansas: In this conservative state, where Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislative allies are conducting an admitted tax-slashing budget experiment that has racked up historic deficits and squeezed public-sector finances, municipal court judge Vic Miller made collecting court fines a top priority. In January 2012, he hired a new hardcore collections agency and directed the court to take on collections work itself. Miller reported to the City Council last week that his approach is paying off big time.
Monthly collections have risen from $10,000 per month in 2012 to $50,000 per month this year. Miller explained, as an example, that he recently had taken up the case of a long-overdue fine owed by a disabled inmate who had been ruled incompetent to handle his own finances. The prisoner had been issued a $1,200 fine in 1987. Judge Miller tacked on a late-fee last week, raising the total owed to $6,400. Then Miller personally contacted the inmate’s “professional payee” and got every penny of the fine paid to the court.
“That’s the kind of information that we like to hear, that things are improving and we’re garnering more revenue that should be paid to the city,” said Councilwoman Elaine Schwartz, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal, which also noted that inmates earn a maximum $1.05 per hour at their prison jobs. [Topeka Capital-Journal]
SALEM, Oregon: State lawmakers for years have been wrestling with the question of whether business tax breaks are good public policy. It’s an ideologically fraught topic and real information on the costs and benefits seems largely absent from the debate. Indeed, sometimes debate is absent from “the debate.” The Oregonian reports on a decade-long arrangement Daimler Trucks North America has enjoyed with state agencies through which it has pulled down $5 million in tax breaks for a design program aimed at making its big-rig trucks more fuel efficient. The legislature quietly acted to make that tax break permanent this week by tacking it onto a larger bill this week. There was no floor debate. Reporters don’t know who sponsored the amendment. The state economist who made estimates on what the tax break would cost the state admitted to never receiving key figures from the agencies involved.
"This may be a good thing to do. I don’t know,” said Chuck Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. [The Oregonian]
AUSTIN, Texas: The Lone Star State is experiencing what watchdogs are calling a “public health emergency” posed by the shortage of mental health care workers employed in the vast rural country that stretches between its borders. Rural clinics have tried creative ad campaigns. They don’t work. In 200 of the state’s 254 counties there are more than 30,000 people per psychiatrist. Lawmakers acknowledging the problem this year created a $3 million program that will soon begin to help pay off student loans taken by any social worker, psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist willing to work the underserved areas. As the Texas Tribune reports, the loan-payment program was more attractive to conservative lawmakers than, say, expanding Medicaid so more rural health professionals could pull down more take-home pay. [Texas Tribune]
BILLINGS, Montana: It’s going to get even hotter and smokier and dangerous this wildfire season in the West—and Montana is in the thick of it. This year’s wet months have passed for the state. Drought conditions persist. Grass is dry everywhere and storms produce lightning but not rain. Montana has already seen thousands of acres burn. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines this week is touring the state’s tinderbox western forests and is telling locals he and fellow senators are trying to make more of the federal wildfire budget available to states to spend on prevention. One way to do that, he said, is to add wildfires to the nation’s list of declared natural disasters. Wait, wildfires aren’t natural disasters? Smokey the Bear says that is crazy! [Independent-Record; High Country News]