Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- June 15-21, 2003

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This page includes posts from June 15-21, 2003 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

June 21, 2003
Sometimes you're fine about all the hype

Last night we stayed up later than usual for a Friday night. We went downtown with younger daughter to Browseabout Books for its midnight opening sale of the newest Harry Potter book.

She's a big fan of the series, and signed up last Sunday to reserve her copy. By early last evening, well over 300 aspiring book buyers were on the list, and the folks at Browseabout had a big celebration planned.

They began with a party at 11 p.m., including face painting and Harry Potter trivia contests.

When we arrived about 12:15, there were three long lines, with cashiers working quickly:

The stack of Potter Books behind the clerks was a mere shadow of its former self, only fifteen minutes into the sale.
The clerk in the middle has a painted Harry Potter bolt on her forehead. Do not be alarmed.

Some of the kids were dressed up as apprentice wizards:

Would-be wizards posing for pictures with the owner of Browseabout Books.

Other kids made sure they received their own painted reminders of their favorite hero before they left the store:

Face painting at the midnight opening at Browseabout for the newest Harry Potter book.

Of course, the whole notion of an only-after-midnight sales embargo is a well-used bit of marketing hype in the publishing industry.

On the other hand, if it helps put a good book into the hands of hundreds of thousands of willing young readers, then I'm perfectly fine with that.

June 21, 2003
Pretty good mood elevator

It rained again Friday. It’s rained about every other day for the last 50 days.

If you ask me, we’re making up for last year’s drought with a vengeance--and it’s becoming a bit depressing. 

If I see a local TV weather report saying “partly cloudy,” I’m thinking that’s about a quarter-inch more coming down. 

The weather folks just didn’t want to tell it to us straight, for the sake of their own self-preservation next time they went grocery shopping. 

Fortunately, we found a nice little mood elevator at our local video store:  The Blue Collar Comedy Tour.

This documentary of a stand-up comedy show, filmed during a Phoenix performance last year, stars Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy, and Ron White. David Alan Grier and Victoria’s Secret model Heidi Klum are in cameo roles.

The movie is structured much like other concert films we’ve seen such as Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy, with Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.

As with Kings, Blue Collar is almost two hours of very funny stuff, occasionally pushing the edge of its PG-13 rating. 

We’d seen Engvall and Foxworthy before, but White and The Cable Guy were new to us.

We liked them all, and watching them really did lift the mood around here.

I don't even care that they're predicting thunderstorms today.

June 20, 2003
Struck a community’s nerve

A long time ago someone I represented told me a basic truth about human nature: “You can’t make an a**hole feel like one.”

He was right, of course. If someone is bound and determined to be a complete jerk, there’s not much you can do to change their nature.

On the other hand, you can still do something about what an a**hole does.

Recently one of these creatures did something really pointless, incredibly stupid, and, by the way, highly criminal, on a private piece of forest land about 15 miles southwest of here.

This fool cut down a big loblolly pine on which a bald eagle nest sat, high among the branches, in a wooded area near Millsboro. Thus far there’s no sign of what happened to the eagles or the eaglets that were in the nest.

Considering the status of bald eagles, both from an environmental and patriotic perspective, this easily fits the definition of what an a**hole will do. Both Federal and state laws prohibit this attack on bald eagles, with individual fines potentially running up to $100,000, in addition to jail time.

Fortunately, whoever did this struck a real nerve in the community. The governor said she was outraged, and many others joined her in condemning this crime. As noted in a story today in The Cape Gazette, the depth of feeling is shown by the increasing amount of reward money for information leading to this a**hole’s capture and conviction:

An outpouring of concern from private businesses and local citizens regarding the destruction of an eagle nest has raised the reward, to more than $16,000, for information leading to the conviction of the person or people responsible. Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) initiated a reward offering $1,000. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added $2,500, with the remaining amount coming from the public sector. Delaware’s chapter of the Sierra Club is handling the private pledges, which include a $5,000 donation from a local developer.

There are some things you just don’t do around here, at least if you don’t want to have a whole bunch of people really, really angry at you. Knocking down an eagle’s nest is one of those things. In fact, it's the kind of crime that tends to unify folks who don't agree on other environmental issues. With any luck that shared shock and fury will help find the culprit.

Hughes’ comment is right on point:

Although there are no concrete leads, Hughes is convinced the perpetrator will be caught. “This is a capital crime in our world,” he said. “The profile is so arrogant, it really brings out lots of resolve.”

Go get ‘em.

June 19, 2003
Putting your money where your mouth is

The Seventh Circuit issued an opinion today that reminds its readers not only to be careful what you wish for (because you might receive it), but also reiterates the common folk warning to "Put your money where your mouth is," or face the consequences.

The City of Goshen, Indiana wants to widen its Third Street, but some folks don’t share the municipality’s enthusiasm for the idea.

According to the District Court, the City, the Indiana DOT, and the Federal Highway Administration discussed the possibility of a scheme to have the City widen the street with its own money, and then formally convert the newly reconstructed street into U.S. Route 33 and State Route 15, thus avoiding compliance with three Federal statutes relating to transportation.

First, for those who don’t represent transportation departments, a short primer on these three laws:

  • The National Historic Preservation Act limits options for using Federal funds for projects that impact buildings with historic or architectural significance.
  • Section 4(f) of the Transportation Act limits options for using Federal transportation dollars on parklands or historic sites.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act can require the preparation of environmental impact statements or similar studies if Federal funds are used for transportation projects. Compliance with NEPA can limit options for using Federal transportation dollars on some projects, or greatly increase project costs.
  • Historic preservation activists sued the city, the state, and the Federal Highway Administrator to block the project.

    After hearing the evidence, the District Court took a pretty dim view of these intergovernmental discussions:

    The defendants discussed such a scheme, never definitively rejected it, and have acted in a way that is consistent with the scheme. In addition, the scheme makes a great deal of sense, at least from the standpoint of managing traffic through the city. It also offers the apparent advantage of sparing defendants from having to go through formal review of environmental and historic impacts of their desired course of action.

    The trial court then ordered all three governments to stop all work on the Third Street Project unless and until they all complied with these Federal laws.

    This decision did not go without notice in the community, including other Indiana cities.

    Alone among the defendants in the case, the City appealed. It argued vehemently that this was to be solely a local project, using only local money, and that under these facts there was absolutely no requirement to follow Federal laws tied to using Federal money.

    The Circuit Court noted that since no Federal funds had yet been used or allocated, and no Federal recommendations had been issued, the plaintiffs’ claims were fatally flawed:

    Entities that proceed on their own dime need not meet conditions for federal assistance or approval.

    On the other hand, there remained the risk that segmenting the decision-making process as the plaintiffs alleged would create a gaping hole in complying with Federal laws that express important social policies. Therefore, the Circuit Court devised its own plan to deal with the problem caused by the lower court’s injunction, as it vacated the order and remanded for further action:

    [T]he district court afforded plaintiffs the wrong relief. Instead of enjoining all construction work on Third Street until the federal government has jumped through the hoops needed to fund a federal project, the district court should have enjoined Goshen from seeking or accepting federal reimbursement….If Goshen files with the court a formal undertaking that will be embodied in an injunction (and thus enforceable through the contempt power) never to seek or accept any federal reimbursement, direct or indirect, for the cost of widening Third Street, the City should be allowed to proceed with the work…. [U]nless the state or federal government finds in the City’s undertaking a transgression of some other federal law, regulation, or undertaking, the City is entitled to opt out of federal reimbursement and the conditions attached to federal money. If the City balks at making an ironclad commitment, however, and if as a result federal reimbursement remains in prospect, then the City must keep the work on hold until the conditions of federal support have been satisfied.

    That’s a fairly elegant solution.

    It forces the City to back up its claims of innocence by funding the road widening with its own money, with no chance for reimbursement. It also reminds the preservationists who brought the suit that there really are limits on the Federal laws they rely upon to block projects that serve public policy choices other than the ones they seek to promote.

    Works for me.

    I plan to follow up on this decision and see what happens next.

    June 18, 2003
    Guessed right about this bit of found money

    In yesterday’s post about Delaware’s debate over the $50 million in new Federal money coming to the state as part of the deal for the new tax cut legislation, I made an educated guess about one newspaper’s report that this money was not going to be subject to review by the folks who do the official revenue estimates.

    Looks like I guessed right.

    I usually read all of the state’s legislative proposals as they’re introduced. One piece was rushed through last week, however, and I didn’t see it until today.

    House Bill No. 238 was introduced on June 10, zipped past committee review the next day, and passed the House and the Senate under suspended rules on June 12, when the Governor signed it.

    Sometimes it’s just amazing how fast these folks can act when they think they need to.

    The legislative findings in the new law express almost exactly what I suggested yesterday they would do with the new Federal money:

    WHEREAS, the General Assembly recognizes that this fiscal relief is temporary and that the funds allocated to Delaware should be considered as one-time funds; and

    WHEREAS, the General Assembly recognizes that one-time funds should not be built into the base budget of the State; and

    WHEREAS, in past years the General Assembly enacted legislation dedicating revenues of limited duration to the Twenty-First Century Fund and to the Delaware Health Fund; and

    WHEREAS, the General Assembly recognizes the importance of improving the quality of life for Delaware’s residents by making prudent, long-term investments….

    The law then creates a new special account line for the receipt of the $50 million. The money will be invested until they can decide how it will be spent on the following broad areas:

    a. to provide essential government services;

    b. to cover the costs to the State of complying with any federal intergovernmental mandate to the extent that the mandate applies to the State and the federal government has not provided funds to cover the costs; and

    c. to make investments in those areas of highest priority of the General Assembly to the benefit of all Delawareans.

    To make even more obvious that they are preserving all options for how to spend it, the law says that the new money can only be spent under an appropriation from the annual capital improvements act, the annual budget act, or “otherwise enacted by the General Assembly."

    Considering that the above list describes the entire means by which state funds can be spent, this alleged limitation is pretty well meaningless, except insofar as it tells the voters, “We’ll figure out how to spend this money when we need to, and now is not the time.”

    The two precedents mentioned in the new law’s findings are similar with respect to their one-time characteristics, but the eventual amount Delaware will receive from them is not as easy to determine as the new Federal money. The Twenty-First Century Fund money comes from a lawsuit settlement with New York State over escheat moneys, and the Delaware Health Fund is where the tobacco suit settlement money goes. In both cases DEFAC has a legitimate estimating role, given that neither source is as definitive as the straightforward “here’s your money” arrangement the new Federal money represents.

    Under these conditions, DEFAC’s revenue estimating role is a bit superfluous when it comes to this $50 million Federal infusion. After all, the amount isn’t subject to change between now and when it’s received, so what’s there for the council to review?

    Based on the new law’s provisions, I expect the State budget folks will soon work up new estimates of the cost of all of the unfunded Federal mandates Delaware must pay for in the next few years, especially on the capital side. These passed-on expenses from our Federal friends could easily use up a lot of the $50 million, if not all of it.

    It might be one-time money, but it’ll still spend.

    June 17, 2003
    A difference in emphasis

    This morning’s newspaper coverage of Delaware’s budget shortfalls and revenue estimates is a good example of how achieving a common journalistic goal can color the readers’ perceptions at the possible expense of a fuller understanding of the issues.

    In this case, it’s the emphasis on reporting potential conflict rather than describing a fundamental policy choice.

    The News-Journal’s Patrick Jackson wrote about the June 16 meeting of the Delaware Economic Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC). That body provides the official revenue estimates used by the General Assembly and the Governor in determining the state’s operating budget, and it also helps determine the available funds for capital expenditures.

    Legislators hoped this week’s meeting would provide better news, because this is the last such event before the lawmakers must finalize the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The Governor used prior DEFAC estimates to predict a shortfall and ask for some targeted tax increases on cigarettes and certain corporate franchise fees.

    As Jackson reported, DEFAC concluded that the continued slow economy won’t make up the difference. In addition, recent federal tax cuts will also reduce state tax revenues by about $12 million. Governor Minner’s proposal to uncouple Delaware’s estate tax from the Federal inheritance tax didn’t go anywhere with the Republican-dominated House.

    Jackson’s story also highlighted an unusual dissent from the council’s decision:

    One council member, however, challenged the projection because it does not take into account $50 million in federal aid Bush included in the tax-cut package to make up for revenue losses.

    Jeffrey Bullock, who served as chief of staff under former Gov. Tom Carper, cast a rare dissenting vote on the 2004 revenue projection, saying he was worried about a move by Minner and lawmakers to move the $50 million into a special account not subject to the council's review.

    The funds mean Delaware will actually see a net increase of $38 million in federal aid in fiscal year 2004.

    "I think setting up the special fund is a good idea," Bullock said. "But I am concerned about the process. We are subtracting $12 million because of the tax cut and we aren't doing anything with the money on the other side of the equation. I think we need to be very mindful of the way we arrive at the numbers."

    In contrast, none of this particular bit of DEFAC news made it into the report of the same meeting by Joe Rogalsky for the Delaware State News.

    His story noted the same glum news about reduced revenues, while also noting the bipartisan consensus about the distinction between one-time sources of revenue and money that can be reliably depended upon year after year:

    DEFAC … increased its revenue prediction for fiscal 2003 by $17.6 million, mostly because of a large increase in abandoned-property collections.

    For fiscal year 2004, which starts July 1, the panel dropped its estimate by $1.8 million, largely because of revenue lost in the tax-cut package Congress passed last month….

    Gov. Minner, [State Budget Director Jennifer] Davis and most lawmakers say revenue coming from unreliable sources, such as abandoned property, should not be built into the operating budget. Instead, they say, the money needs to go into the state's Bond Bill, which pays for building projects.

    "There is still an underlying structural problem for fiscal year 2004," Mrs. Davis said. "The money in '03 is one-time in nature, and we would recommend it be used for a lot of pent-up construction projects."

    Unfortunately, neither Rogalsky nor Jackson explained this odd notion of moving the $50 million in one-time Federal aid to an account not under DEFAC review. As best I can tell, the money is being counted, but not as an ongoing source; in other words, in the same fashion as abandoned property revenue.

    What’s probably not yet been determined is exactly how to use it. If past experience is any guide, however, there won’t be any real conflict about the eventual decision.

    The truly partisan fights in Delaware are rarely about really important stuff, like money.

    June 17, 2003
    About two weeks late and 7,300 dollars short

    Sandralee Rodgers fell a little behind on some property taxes she owed on a single-family residence in Monroe County, New York—about $7,300 behind.

    The county then began foreclosure proceedings to sell the house and collect its money. It followed the normal procedures, including the holding of an auction on October 25, 2001. A man bought the property for the amount of the past due taxes, and then flipped the parcel to another investor for a nice premium.

    Under New York law, Rodgers had until noon the day before the auction to redeem the tax bill and block the sale.

    But that didn’t happen.

    Instead, on November 6, 2001 she filed in Bankruptcy Court under Chapter 13. Rodgers claimed that the sale should be voided under the automatic stay provision of the federal law, and that the County should have been held in contempt of court for going ahead with the rest of the foreclosure sale transaction. 

    But that didn’t happen.

    The bankruptcy court noted that tax foreclosures are governed by state law, and that under these facts the bankruptcy law’s automatic stay provision didn’t apply, even though the deed confirming the sale hadn’t yet been delivered when Rodgers filed her petition.

    The Second Circuit agreed:

    [U]nder New York law, the foreclosure sale “effectively cut off [Rodgers’s] legal title” in the foreclosed premises…. The purchaser at a public auction is entitled to a deed. …

    Although Rodgers may have retained some “incidents of ownership,” … between the time of the sale and the delivery of the deed – for example, a limited right of possession – the delivery of the deed was a ministerial act that did not impair any property interest retained by Rodgers and, thus, was not subject to the automatic stay. [citations omitted].

    In other words, Rodgers was about two weeks late and 7,300 dollars short. If she had filed her bankruptcy petition on the morning of October 24, 2001, she could have blocked the foreclosure sale. It would have had the same effect as paying the property taxes in the first place.

    But that didn’t happen.

    June 16, 2003
    Fun with headlines

    Sometimes the first reading of a newspaper headline brings a quick smile to one's lips, no matter how serious the actual topic may be.

    Here's today's example, placed over a story noting an inspector general's report that the Homeland Security Department used about 40 minutes of phone time responding to a questionable request for assistance in a Texas redistricting controversy:

    Report Clears Agency in Hunt for Texas Democrats

    At first I wasn't thinking about the real story behind this headline.

    Instead, I was wondering if the Democrats were in season.

    June 16, 2003
    Summer sign

    Our house faces just about due southeast, if not a little more south than that. The computer on which this stuff is written sits in the northwest corner of the right front room.

    This space serves as our family/computer/TV/work room, and is about 11 x 13 or so. Two large windows take up much of the wall space running along the front of the house. In addition, there is a small side window at the corner of the room and the house.

    Sunlight never directly enters this room from that side window--except for this week and the next few.

    It’s one of the signs of summer here.

    This morning the dog and I began our ritual a little earlier than usual. There were only slight whisps of clouds, and the sky was a gorgeous blue we haven’t seen much of during this very wet spring.

    I put him outside in the backyard, and went inside to start up the computer. As I finished checking Instapundit and began reading James Lileks, intense dawn sunlight began to refract against the Coke®-bottle lenses I use when my contact lenses are still in their vial.

    It was almost a religious experience:

    Oh blinding light
    Oh light that blinds
    I cannot see
    Look out for me!

    The sunlight comes through this window for only about a half-hour, before the sunrise takes away the angle for the rest of the day.

    Nonetheless, for reasons I can't explain I’m always glad to notice it.

    June 15, 2003
    Called this one correctly about The Two Cultures

    Senate Bill No. 29 will not be leaving the Senate Agriculture Committee anytime soon.

    As I wrote about this bill earlier this year, there are two cultures that predominate in Delaware. The upstate one is predominantly urban/suburban, and the downstate one is predominantly rural/small town. Both were well-represented in this little tempest, a debate over a classic rural cultural symbol and occasional legitimate safety concern—keeping a dog in the back of a pickup truck.

    J.L. Miller, Dover Bureau reporter for the News-Journal, wrote about the bill’s demise in today’s paper.

    It was a classic.

    The head of the Sussex County Coon Hunters Association went right to his local state representative as soon as he heard about the bill:

    "You can't put a dog in the bed of a pickup? I can't believe someone came up with this idea," [Ed] Lavelle said, pledging to call Seaford Republican Rep. Tina Fallon to enlist her help in fighting the bill. …

    Lavelle said those who hunt raccoons in the summer often tether their dogs to a cable in the back of the truck so the dogs can keep cool during the ride, rather than sweltering in a kennel box.

    A good coonhound can range from $1,000 to $12,000, said Lavelle, who owns about 20 dogs. Hunters who pay that sort of money are not about to endanger their dogs by letting them ride untethered in the back of a truck, he said.

    Steven Amick is an attorney, and the upstate Republican Senator told Miller he introduced the bill on behalf of a constituent:

    But he said he also is troubled by the sight of a dog in the back of a pickup, not only out of concern for the dog but because the animal could cause a collision if it leapt or were thrown into traffic.

    The best line in Miller's piece came from Senator George Bunting Jr., a Vietnam Vet and insurance salesman whose district lies just south of where I live:

    Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., D-Bethany Beach, said he was not about to support banning dogs from the back of trucks when he cannot even get a bill passed to ban people from the back of trucks.

    When I last wrote about this bill, I said it wouldn’t be released from the Agriculture Committee, dominated by downstate legislators. Not only wasn’t it released, the committee voted unanimously to keep it there.

    Miller noted that Amick knew he might be barking up the wrong tree with Bill No. 29:

    Amick said the upstate-downstate cultural dichotomy was at the root of his bill's lack of a future.

    "If it were only upstate legislators here, I strongly suspect it would have gained support," he said.

    On the other hand, it’s also hard to convince an upstate Senator from a wall-to-wall suburban district to volunteer for the Agriculture Committee.

    I fully expect the culture clash will continue.


    Contact Information:

    Fritz Schranck
    P.O. Box 88
    Nassau, DE  19969


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    © Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2003