Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Don't Hit the Snooze Button - Drilling Waste and Rule Changes

The people are awake!  They have come to realize that many of their government officials are not always working for the people's well-being and that regulators often allow undisclosed corporate interests to steer policy in favor of Wall Street and its stockholders even to the detriment of people's health. People are raising their voices throughout the region and our state legislature is starting to pay attention. 

During the 2014 legislative session, it came to light that the landfill in Berkeley County, just feet away from the Potomac River, a major tributary into the Chesapeake Bay, was readily available and permitted due to lacking regulation to receive radioactive and toxic fracking waste into its facilities. These facilities sit on a karst topography. Karst consists of underground cavernous formations that can unpredictably distribute water and other solutions through its channels into our water supplies and major waterways.

Slowly, policy is beginning to move in the direction of protecting people over maximizing corporate profit for out-of-state interests. Senators Unger and Cookman have largely led the way by introducing and advocating viable solutions for our state that would both protect our drinking water and allow for industry to continue operations in more responsible ways. During a recent interim meeting of our Legislature, a provision was introduced and passed that would protect the citizens of the Panhandle from fracking waste being dumped into the local landfill. 

While this is positive movement, it is important to understand that the provision in the rules is just an interim measure designed to protect karst regions from fracking waste until such time as more formal and permanent legislation can be introduced during the regular Legislative Session in 2015. Yet, there are those who would want you to believe that the threat of having radioactive and toxic waste dumped into the Panhandle is no longer an issue and that all is well. "Go back to sleep," they may tell you, as they continue to accept donations from major energy interests and gear up for a regular session where they seek to put the steering wheel right back into the hands of out-of-state corporate greed.

I got into this race because I was outraged by the fact that our wide open policy and lacking oversight of existing policy led to a crisis of unprecedented proportion when 300,000 people were poisoned in January of this year during the Elk River chemical spill. To this day, there are people in the nine affected counties who are unwilling (and rightfully so) to drink the water that comes from their taps. The more I get into this race, the more I learn just how far "big energy" is willing to take their agenda at the expense of your health, your children's health, and the economic health of our state long-term.

Don't hit the snooze button! Keep raising your voice. Keep writing your representatives. Keep paying attention. Together, we can continue this struggle until we have long-term permanent solutions where industry and people can co-exist in a future that is both prosperous and where your well-being means more than a New York stockholder's portfolio.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pros and Cons of Voter Identification Laws

On its face, it seems like a common sense issue.

Produce identification when you show up to vote to ensure that you are indeed the person purporting to vote on that ballot. Easy enough, right? Sound organizational systems incorporate reasonable internal controls for purposes of avoiding fraud.

Our government should, of all institutions, ensure that appropriate internal controls are in place within its operational systems. Correct? And if the voter process is one of those systems, why shouldn't it require identification to those who want to vote?

As always, the devil is in the details.

Here is a more complicated side to the discussion. Opponents of voter identification have a good point when they discuss the extent to which certain pockets of the population may be unable to produce photo identification.

Seniors, for instance, once abandoning the prospect of driving, often don’t renew their driver’s licenses. Homeless and transient poor are often unable to secure a driver’s license due to their inability to provide a permanent physical address. Those who are disenfranchised in our society should not be denied the right to vote, one of our Democracy’s most fundamental and important rights. Don’t you agree?

And what about the slippery slope at the polls?

Imagine a poll worker turning away voters due to that poll worker’s erroneous determination about whether the person’s identification looks like them. Not a good scenario, as we've all had cruddy driver’s license pictures from time to time, right? Further, lengthy processes could deter potential voters from participating, and as we all know, trying to get a driver’s license at the DMV these days can be nothing short of a prolonged and mind-numbing process.

Lastly, incurring costs or paying fees associated with securing identification for purposes of voting is analogous to a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. We need to encourage voter participation as opposed to deter it. Our democracy depends on it! So any process for voter identification would need to address these issues adequately in order to properly ensure that our citizens can exercise their right to vote.

Two basic questions about this debate might be helpful. 

First, do we really have a problem with voter fraud that would merit the time and cost of debate, deliberation, court review, implementation of processes, etc. that would be associated with enacting and enforcing such legislation? I don’t think so.

Second question, if voter fraud isn't really a problem, then what is motivating this discussion? Some would argue that the wealthy elite are pushing voter identification laws in an effort to deter voting by the very people who would likely oppose their agenda. Certainly a question deserving of an answer, don’t you think, particularly in light of our long history of the privileged class depriving entire populations from voting. Case in point, women have only for less than a century been afforded that right. 

Let's get serious!

This debate seems to me to be largely a distraction from some very serious and important issues affecting our state. We need to be talking about repairing our education system, addressing our heroin problem, creating an infrastructure for job creation and economic development, identifying a transition plan for a dwindling coal economy, and restoring and protecting our natural resources, which includes drinking water. These are the important issues facing us today. Let’s get serious about them, rather than getting distracted by a red herring issue.

I support voter identification, generally.

I indicated so in my response to the survey for the candidate forum last night. However, as I also mentioned last night, any process that seeks, even slightly, to infringe upon the constitutional rights of our citizens should be narrowly construed so as only to address a significant societal interest. In the instance of voter identification, the significant societal interest is securing against the possibility of fraud. 

Therefore, a narrowly construed statute might only require that voter registration offices include a photo on the voter registration card. For those who register online, securing the photo the first time they report to the polls might be possible. Lastly, poll workers should not be given broad discretion to turn away voters due to perceptions about the photo on the id, so another process would have to be developed to address any questions that arise and that would still give the participant the opportunity to vote upon reporting to the poll.  

But investing too much on this issue is a disservice to West Virginians.

While a properly drafted voter identification law would be something I support, proper drafting would require the narrow construction necessary to avoid fraud and could not place unreasonable burdens on citizens or seek to disenfranchise legitimate voters. All in all, this is not an issue of priority in which I intend to spend a great deal of time as a legislator, but I do hope this discussion is helpful to you in forming your own opinions.