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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“I Am Running for President”

Gotcha … for those in our community who support me, you are either thinking “great” how can I help, or has he lost his mind. For the others, who for whatever reason are not my biggest fans, you are already strategizing the many and sundry ways you can oppose / defeat my candidacy. In full disclosure, the campaign for the President of the United States is certainly hitting up with a number of likely suspects announcing their exploratory committees.

But isn’t it amazing that the campaign really began shortly after President Obama was elected in November of 2008. The Republican candidates who sought the nomination eventually won by Senator McCain wasted little time launching their own talk shows or writing their books that afforded them the opportunities to pretty much campaign full time. Our country is so celebrity focused; merely running for President provides instant fame for even those without the necessary credentials to be elected and certainly not to lead our country.

Sometimes the phrase stating that “elections matter” is over-used, bordering on cliché. Of course they are important. But I will argue some are more important than others. Or put another way, certain times call for different strengths in those we elect. And although we cannot predict the issues that might occur during an elected officials term in office, we certainly know the issues of the day that the newly elected will face as they assume their office.

Consider the 2008 presidential campaign. Our country had been dealing with the issue of fanatical terrorism since September 2001. We were and had been fighting two wars for many years. The Republicans while in Power prior to 2006 offered very little in offering solutions that would return America to greatness. They talked about it, but mostly in the context of sticking our chest out while we showed our military might. As I wrote a few weeks ago, in 2000 President Bush took office with annual surpluses and proceeded to grow our national debt from $4.6 trillion to over $9 trillion.

And as we all know, in the final years of the Bush Presidency, the economy collapsed. Candidate Obama comes along and tells us he will bring about change. He told us that he would raise taxes on the wealthy, institute new government programs, grow entitlement spending, and basically enact the same approach many progressive and democratic predecessors have taken – grow the size of government and the rest will follow.

After two years of spending like a drunken sailor or shore leave (I can that my Dad was in the Navy) by the Democratic President and Congress, we scratched our heads in bewilderment of what was happening. Why? President Obama and his partners in crime told us exactly what they were going to do. He appointed key cabinet members and other “czars” who were known not to represent mainstream thinking but very liberal policies by most standards.

Fast forward to the fall of 2010. The Republicans roar back from almost extinction to win the House of Representatives, almost win the Senate, and thoroughly sweet most races for governor and legislatures even in many states that historically vote for the Democratic party.

Why? I propose that these two dramatic shifts politically are due to the power of the independent voter. Those that occupy the middle of the policital spectrum have tremendous power. Elections are won or lost depending on who wins the independent voters. Those in the middle in 2006 did not feel that President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress were leading in a way for American to prosper. They gave the Democrats a chance. And again in 2008, they supported President Obama in solidifying the control of the federal government by the Democrats.

A short 22 months later the independents are horrified by the runaway national debt, the growth of the federal government and the minimal progress made in turning our national economy around. Neither party delivered the solutions needed by our country, so the independent voters have chosen gridlock in electing a divided government.

What now? As mentioned earlier, the usual suspects are in full campaign mode: Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney are being jonied by the Tim Pawlentys of the world and all could take on President Obama in 2012.

I would argue that neither the president nor most of the likely Republican candidates can truly lead our nation in a way that puts our country back on a path to greatness. The Democrats will continue to preach more spending aka (investing) as the answer. And the Republicans will talk about cutting the spending but only in those easy areas: non-defense and non-entitlement discretionary spending.

Neither party has a plan for reforming taxes, improving and reforming education, reforming entitlement programs or improving our relationships globally. We need leadership.

If I had the ability, instead of running for president I would establish the national nonpartisan party. Our new party would seek those to serve who ask hard questions, seek common sense answers and, after using their God-given ability to think, propose solutions. If an elected official responds to questions armed with only his or her party's talking points, they are not fit to serve.

I hope and pray that someone is out there who can effectively lead this great nation!

Spring is in the Air!

Although it is normal to see the first signs of spring in late February in our region, I am not sure anyone could be any more excited by the blooms of the first yellow flowers popping out of the ground all around our beautiful community. To me one of the best attributes of our area is the weather. By the time we are tired of a season, the next one begins. And after another cold winter complete with one of the biggest snow storms in a number of years, we are on the verge of another amazing spring season.

Around this time last year, I wrote a column with a similar theme proclaiming that spring was close. I further wrote that economically speaking, we were close to turning the corner of benefitting from new growth in our economy. Our 2010 economic development scorecard illustrates the following successes:
- 340 direct new jobs were created in 2010 or 17.9% of our Grow Greater Dalton four year goal for new job creation
- An additional 161 indirect jobs were created or 12.2% of our four year goal
- A total of 501 jobs were created in 2010
- $28.2 million in new capital investment was invested in our community or 14.8% of our four year goal for capital investment

Our 2010 Economic Development achievements occurred as a result of attracting new investment from new companies locating in our community and simultaneously working with existing industry partners who made investments in expanding their operations. Communities that thrive typically do so through these complimentary strategies.

Although the achievements realized in 2010 were exciting, it is not yet time to celebrate or relax. The US economy, our state’s economy, and even our local economy are all far from being ideal. To use an automobile analogy, our economies are definitely not hitting on all cylinders.

Just as our weather senses the pending arrival of spring, I still believe our community is on the verge of real economic revival. Last year I reported that 2010 would be a success. And in many cases, that prediction was accurate. But it was still not a year for celebration given minimal improvement in many economic indicators.

One such indicator, unemployment in Georgia not only remains above the national unemployment rate but the difference between the two is growing. Locally, the Dalton MSA unemployment rate is higher than Georgia’s and the US. Budgets continue to be anemic for everyone ranging from individual families, local governments, school systems, non-profit agencies, small and large businesses, state governments, etc. The largest budget in the world (America’s) is also in peril and threatens an improving national economy and even our national security.

Just as a spring garden requires ideal conditions and preparation to be beautiful, economic success also requires ideal conditions and preparation. Businesses perform optimally when the unknown is minimized. Businesses, small or large, can make better business decisions when they can predict favorable outcomes. If they know the financial landscape, the regulatory environment, and what the marketplace needs, they can reasonably run their businesses by employing people, making their products, marketing their products, and realizing a reasonable return on their investment.

In today’s environment, the unknowns are paramount. For instance, many companies have tremendous cash on their books even after a number of years of terrible business results. And in many cases, these companies are seeing their sales increase and growing demand for their products. These positive conditions would normally mean that they would begin hiring again to meet the production demand for their products.

But due to many shaky economic statistics and lingering uncertainty in the marketplace, these companies are taking a wait and see attitude as it relates to increased hiring and expansion plans. Government policy at many levels is exacerbating this uncertainty in the marketplace.

At the federal level, maintaining reasonable tax rates for the long-term became politicized and these reduced tax rates were only maintained for two additional years. I deliberately say maintained and not extended for a purpose. The corporate tax rates that were reduced by the Bush Administration were appropriate. Given we have the largest corporate tax rates of any country except Japan; we need to remain as competitive as possible to keep business and industry here in the US.

In Georgia, we are also uncompetitive in today’s economic climate. Although property tax rates and sales tax rates are average, we also have an income tax that is higher than average. Add these all together, and we are not as competitive as some of our neighbors. The recent Tax Reform Council has proposed a reasonably thought out set of reforms, but our state government leaders do not seem inclined to pass the reforms or make any changes that will improve our competitiveness.

Although the news media spews doom and gloom, I remain encouraged that the American spirit will prevail. Just as Cherry Blossoms bloom against a cloudy and cold early March day; our spirit, our fortitude, and our belief in a better future for those who follow us will enable us to overcome the challenges of today. Our Nation, the State of Georgia, and Greater Dalton will once again bloom as beautifully as the most impeccably prepared and maintained garden.

Dereliction of Duty

Elected officials and public servants choose to go AWOL (absent without leave) in Wisconsin and Indiana. What a travesty? How many other Americans of all income levels can choose to go home without penalty when they do not like the cards that life deals them? How is it that elected officials go run and hide just because they are in the minority on an issue? How can the democratic process survive if rogue members of either party can simply flee their community or state holding the legislative process hostage?
Although the two current groups who are AWOL are members of the Democratic Party from both Wisconsin and Indiana, the first groups to do so were members of the Republican caucus in Texas. Regardless of party, it is simply wrong to abandon your job or to run and hide and debilitating the process by their actions.
And are we really supposed to believe those who are in hiding are really concerned about the middle class? If so, I submit they are primarily concerned by only those select few who are unionized. Did you know?
• In 2010, the union membership rate--the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union--was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier.
• The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
• The union membership rate for public sector workers (36.2 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private sector workers (6.9 percent).
• Workers in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rate at 37.1 percent.

If you listen to those who so vehemently argue on behalf of the unions, you would assume that all workers who are middle-class are also union members. The numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor say otherwise. Those who choose to belong to unions are the minority. And when you consider the ages of union members, interestingly the highest percentage of members are the oldest. By age, the union membership rate was highest among 55- to 64-year-old workers (15.7 percent). The lowest union membership rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (4.3 percent).
It is not coincidence that those who argue so passionately for keeping the collective bargaining privileges do so because it is financially and politically prudent to do so. The unions are the largest political contributors to those who have abandoned their office. Consider one of the key changes that the Wisconsin Governor is proposing – if you do not want to be in the Union and have your union dues automatically paid by the state to the union, you can choose to keep that money. Heresy I say. What about free choice?
The reason that the Democratic officials and the unions have chosen to fight these proposals so robustly at this time is because they know this is a watershed moment for their preservation. Although unions have brought about positive and needed improvements in the workplace historically (reasonable workweek, vacation pay, sick pay, safety rules and regulations, etc.), today they simply drive up the cost of doing business beyond what the marketplace can support.
And in the case of public workers who are unionized, the union contract provisions increase the cost of services to the taxpayers exponentially beyond the true cost of providing those services. And as a very appropriate cartoon in yesterdays Daily Citizen pointed out – at the negotiating table the taxpayer is left out of the negotiations.
Some in our community will take issue with my position in this column. And that is okay – it is even American for us to disagree. We are supposed to debate the issues of the day and propose laws that satisfy at least a democratically elected majority at all levels of government.
It is un-American to get mad and abandon one’s office just because one finds themselves in the minority position on an issue. The voter’s had their say when they elected the governors of Wisconsin and Indiana and in electing the Republican majorities. And in the end, the voters will ultimately have their say again when the next elections occur. Public service is an honorable endeavor and deserves that those elected to serve do so honorably.

What is truly important these days?

How do you answer that? Of course most of us would answer that our family, our faith, our jobs, our hobbies are just some of the things important to us. But collectively, what do we as communities, states, and even a nation truly hold dear?
I would argue that the Great Recession that we are still trying to climb out of has affected how most of us answer the question. Sure our families, our friends, and definitely our faith are all very important to us. But given the lasting effects of this prolonged and deep recession, I think most of us have and will continue to reevaluate our priorities.
Amazingly in the political arena, the voting electorate seems to have done a complete turn-around when it comes to government spending. Just two years ago, President Obama and the Democratic Party controlled the entire federal government. Fast-forward two years and the Republicans win the US House of Representatives, a large number of Governorships, and a majority of state legislators. Interestingly the same independent voters who sided with the Democrats in 2008 over economic concerns, flipped over to the Republicans in 2010.
The battle cry has largely been over rampant government spending. This backlash has been aimed at both legitimate spending like education and national defense and the frivolous pork projects sought by insensitive and self-serving politicians. This clouding of the issues or broad-brush indictment of all government activity and spending could be detrimental in the long-term.
Consider the battle occurring in Wisconsin. Who is right? The Governor and the elected majority argue they are simply doing what the voters told them to do when they elected them – reduce the size of state government and the associated spending. The public employees argue that the Governor and the elected majority are more interested in eliminating or severely negatively impacting the unions.
This same tug of war has occurred and continues to occur in many other parts of the country. The State of Georgia has every bit as big a fiscal problem as Wisconsin. Fortunately the union impact is not as large as in Wisconsin, but nonetheless all employees working for the State and most local governments have endured pay cuts, furloughs, benefit reductions, etc. Interestingly in Wisconsin and in New Jersey, the Unions would prefer the state governments lay people off than pursue other alternative cost-saving options.
But the bigger picture here is the potentially lasting effect these issues could have on future public policy. Because most of us have been adversely affected by this recession to some degree or other, we have become even more concerned regarding fiscal affairs than we were prior to the recession. Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOSTs) are a good example of a typically preferred revenue generating instrument that is now under attack. And new ones will certainly be harder to pass than they were in better economic times.
Unfortunately many of our elected officials have created the environment we now find ourselves in. Given a fourteen trillion dollar debt at the national level, huge deficits in a majority of the state governments around the country, and challenging budget issues at the local level, I think most of us are in fiscal shock. While worrying daily about our own fiscal assuredness, we are bombarded with negative news concerning the budget gaps, the deficits, and the shaky financial position of government at all levels.
Where do we go from here? All of us must come to the conclusion that our country and our standard of living have been reset. Our home values have decreased and will appreciate in value much more slowly going forward. Pensions and other employer provided retirement plans are a thing of the past. Benefits like health insurance will continue to become more and more expensive and absorb a larger share of our discretionary income.
Our governments must become leaner. Our Federal government must be reduced in size and scope (and only do what it is constitutionally allowed to do). Entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have to be reformed in order that they remain viable. Our National Defense budget has to be on the table for discussion and reductions must be made. Foreign aid also must be trimmed. It is unfathomable to me that we provide any country foreign aid when we are borrowing money from others to do so.
It seems to me that the world we know has changed forever. We have come through another of those cataclysmic periods that truly changed the trajectory of life as we know it. The big question facing us now is – what will we do with what we know? Will we become more conservative in our lifestyle choices (homes, cars, etc.)? Will we hold our elected officials to a higher standard? Will we work harder in collaborating for the collective good?
Although it is too early to tell, I am optimistic that in the end the greatness of our nation will once again rise to the occasion. We will once again prosper and remain the envy of the world.

The Importance of a Vision

According to Dr. Stephen Covey, in order to be effective one must “begin with the end in mind”. He further states that effectiveness requires that “mental creation precede physical creation.” Last week, members of the Varnell community were introduced to the Varnell 2020 Vision. The presentation of the Vision by Mayor Dan Peeples was wonderfully refreshing. His energy and passion was indicative of a Mayor and Council who are not just talking, but a group of leaders who are committed to action.
Since being elected by the citizens of Varnell, Mayor Peeples and the current Council have worked tirelessly to imagine a new Varnell. And with a blank slate in which to draw on, they have a unique opportunity to truly improve a growing community. They have spent months talking to citizens and talking among themselves about what Varnell could be. And in a time when most governments are solely focused on cutting budgets and eliminating services , the Varnell leadership presented a beautiful picture of what their community can be given hard work, resources, and a little luck.
The Mayor and Council propose three areas of focus: the Cleveland Highway commercial corridor, a new Downtown, and recreation / leisure amenities. In recent years new development has grown along the existing commercial corridor and has plenty of available land to support continued growth. The expansion of public sewer will fuel additional quality growth. The vision outlined plans to recruit businesses that are not currently available in Varnell such as a dry-cleaning business, a law office, a hair and beauty business, and additional restaurants.
Mayor Peeples jokingly remarked during his presentation that a recent forum caller inquired as to where Downtown Varnell is located. The Mayor aptly responded that the forum caller precisely made the point that the community needs a downtown. Creating a “downtown” business district is not new. All downtowns were built new at some point. The Mayor and Council plan to design such a business district, gain approval from the Varnell citizens, and then build the district as resources are available.
The focus area of recreation and leisure already has assets that add value to the Varnell community. The Varnell Springs has been enhanced recently with walkways and paths that will protect the spring while also allowing continued use. The recreational complex located adjacent to Varnell Elementary is already in great demand. But the vision calls for enhancements to the walking trail such like new park benches and new decorative lighting.
Varnell was recently awarded a community block grant to build a community center. Using skilled inmate labor from the Georgia Department of Corrections, the initial price tag will be reduced significantly allowing the City leaders to build an open-air picnic shelter behind the community center.
The City of Dalton has also benefitted from a vision from its elected leaders. Mayor Pennington and the Dalton City Council knew that the tax rate in the City had reached a level that threatened it from being competitive, especially given the economic climate of recent years. They set out to not only reduce the size of the city government through reducing taxes, but to also maintain current services at a level that citizens would not notice. The City of Dalton employees, department leaders, and the elected leaders epitomize doing more with less.
The current members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners also have a vision. Given our community’s high unemployment rate, they are extremely focused on economic development. They are so focused some have criticized some of their decisions like the recruitment of IVC to build their North American cooperate office and manufacturing facility here and their decision to purchase 180 acres of land off the Carbondale exit on I-75 to build the Carbondale Commerce Park.
For those that will become employed again or those who improve their employment through a better job, the decisions of the County’s leaders will be praised. And for the rest of us who will one day have less of a tax burden because more businesses invested here and grew the tax digest, we are grateful for the vision of our County Leaders. And for those still unemployed, these decisions will pay off sooner rather than later in providing more employment opportunities for our neighbors.
As a taxpayer, a citizen, and a community stakeholder, I am grateful for our community leaders who choose to serve as elected officials. And those that lead our communities proactively with the benefit of a Community Vision, I applaud you! On behalf of a grateful community – Thank You!