Friday, April 9, 2010

Feed-Your-Head Friday

What do you know about Neptune?

Gov. Brewer urges voters to support Prop. 100

Paula plays dutiful steno for the Governor as she stumps for the sales-tax initiative. The enormous pushback from the right, as seen in in the comments, would be amusing if it weren't so blockheaded and ill-informed. The fur is flying as everyone throws their favorite myths into the fray.

Myth 1: The tax won't really be temporary, they'll just keep it going. I've seen the legislation and its ironclad sunset provision, and in order to extend it the Legislature would have to write a new bill and either vote for it themselves, which they are obviously too frightened to even attempt, or get us to vote for it again.

Myth 2: The Republicans want more taxes to support unnecessary programs -- they can cut a lot more. The cognitive disconnect that allows people to maintain this idea without heads exploding amazes me. Our entire state government has been underfunded for decades as Republicans exploited every chance to reduce taxes and ignored every opportunity to restructure the revenue system on a more reliable and sustainable basis. Beyond programmatic efficiencies like reducing education paperwork, there really isn't anything significant left in the budget to cut that won't severely hurt vital programs or cause significant cost increases elsewhere.

Myth 3: Money is being spent on "government" that should be spent on education. Take a look at any pie chart of the Arizona budget: education and health care are already the vast majority of it, and administration is a sliver.

Myth 4: The schools are already well funded, they're just incompetent. There's no public school in America with sufficient resources to provide sufficient education to prepare students for real life and citizenship in the 21st century, and Arizona is consistently near the bottom of the rankings on both the funding and result scales. Yes, we could be spending what we spend more efficiently by demanding less of our education professionals in terms of paperwork and such, but we'd still be way behind the curve in giving kids the educational opportunities they need and we need them to have.

Myth 5: A temporary sales tax is the best way to bridge this temporary problem in the economy. No, more sales tax is probably the least smart way to fix a problem caused in greatest part by overreliance on sales taxes for revenue. It's just the easiest to get through the Legislature. Sales taxes are regressive in that they fall most heavily on those less able to pay, and they tend to dry up at exactly the point where recessive economic cycles increase the need for state services, as we have just experienced so famously.

The Republicans have taken our state economy for a long joyride, trashed it and left it in the farmer's field. They're culpable, but we're the adults who have to deal with the mess. Further, if we don't pass Prop 100 and tax ourselves more, the hammer falls harder on our kids and teachers -- that's built into the budget already. There is no alternative mechanism ready to fix that barring a magic and completely unforeseen infusion from the federal level through the Governor's office. We really don't have much choice about the sales tax -- we have to call the tow truck, pick the heap up and get it fixed. But as voters we do have the opportunity to fire the people who have been making the wrong decisions that led us here, and install those who understand the problem and will apply a better vision for our future.

Editorial: Trees, power lines always conflict

The unnamed Courier editor agrees that APS needs to slow down and that power lines don't necessarily warrant unchallenged right-of-way on Prescott streets. He even risked the 'p' word in urging utilities to "adopt more progressive policies about neighbors' coexistence with trees," at which point I about fell off my chair. But again I reached the end of the column disappointed that the editor can't seem to get beyond the surface of the issue.

The problem is far larger than one poorly planned power line vs one old Ponderosa pine. It's far larger than the widely reported gratuitous and radical destruction of trees by APS as well.

The situation that made the news came about because the rules changed a couple of times on how far lines must be spaced away from trees, and rather than provide a longer-term solution and move the lines, APS (with the City's blessing) has chosen instead to mow down trees that have been perfectly OK for many decades. The editor seems to have missed that dynamic entirely.

But that's still not the whole picture. Look around. We normally see right past it, but if you open your eyes a little wider you may notice that the view in most Prescott neighborhoods is dominated by electrical lines and raw poles. We've come to accept it as normal, but it's nasty to look at and, given weather and all sorts of moving hazards, unsafe and unreliable. Its only virtue is that it's relatively cheap. Should that be the primary value in this transaction?

APS is a monopoly provider sanctioned by the state for our area. We have no choice about that. In return for this captive market, it's both legally and ethically right to demand that the company serve our community values as well as it does its shareholders.

The hundred-year legacy of overhead power and communication lines is not a cherished tradition, it's always been an eyesore and safety hazard. A forward-thinking community that cares about quality of life will find ways to gradually move that creaky old infrastructure underground as roads, sidewalks and alleyways are repaired and replaced. Conserving our trees is an important part of a bigger picture, the sort of vision for our community that our elected leaders and City staff should bear in the front of their minds at all times.

A plea for typography

My introduction to the word biz included extensive training in typography, the arcane and underappreciated art that makes printed text both beautiful and easier to read. Despite what you see increasingly on the web, that art is even more important online, where readers are often reluctant to read from the screen.

So it's with some frustration that I've seen the style change on from paragraph separations to no separations and no indents. It's been bad enough that the Courier editors generally insist on splitting what should be paragraphs up into individual sentences. By removing any indication of the head of the line, they've made a mess of the page, and as a result I'm sure many readers tire and give up. That's bad for public information and it's bad in terms of eyes on pages and the revenues they bring into the paper.

This change happened a little while ago, and I've been holding off commenting on it in hopes that it was a transitory glitch someone was working to fix.

I expect it came about porting stories to the site from the paper edition, where the typography software automatically indents body text, and no one has bothered to set up a short conversion routine to simply double the end-of-line character. That's just one of many ways to skin this cat, it's easy and will cost nothing. Since the editors apparently don't care, can someone in IT just handle it? Your readers won't necessarily understand well enough to thank you, but they will get to the end of the story a lot more often and the Courier may then be able to afford to keep paying you.

Update, April 27: Perhaps this did the trick.