I Yap Therefore I Yam

Christmas-New Year’s maelstrom. And I would wager every one of you is sporting a similar bite mark on your own behind as well. How’d it get there? Remember the federal spending bill passed by the Senate with a one-vote margin of victory during the Christmas vacation? That’s the one for which Vice President Dick Cheney had to cut short his visit to Iraq to cast the tie-breaking vote. That’s the one we’re supposed to feel good about because a sneaky back-door provision that would have opened the Alaskan Wilderness to oil drilling was defeated. And that’s the one that cut about $40 billion from a host of federal programs that would otherwise have helped the poor, the sick, and those seeking to pick themselves up from the pavement or perhaps keep from landing there in the first place. The Bush White House is now talking about controlling runaway costs. There’s the war in Iraq. There are Katrina relief efforts. And most importantly, there’s the next wave of tax cuts — $27 billion worth just kicking in and another $95 billion that has been provisionally approved — we all need to pay for so people making more than $200,000 a year don’t feel pinched, constrained, or otherwise annoyed. Given the weakened state of the Bush White House these days, you can imagine Karl Rove — whom Bush loves so much he nicknamed him Turd Blossom — had to use every trick in the book to get these cuts approved. You would be correct. Lost in the holiday cheer is how Karl discovered that a spoonful of sugar beets was all it took to get some very bad medicine to go down. Until the very last minute, it appeared the White House and the Republican majority lacked the votes needed to pass the budget cuts in the Senate. Not only were all the Democrats opposed to it, but a small handful of Republicans felt squeamish about cutting services to the poor to subsidize tax cuts for the rich and the richer. (In the next five years, the federal treasury will lose an estimated $27 million, due to new tax-deduction rules that will overwhelmingly benefit those now making $200,000 a year or more. And of the $94 billion in proposed new tax cuts, 54 percent will go to households with incomes of more than $1 million, 43 percent to households making between $200,000 and $1 million, and 3 percent to households between $100,000 and $200,000.) To achieve the 50-50 deadlock necessary to allow Cheney, under Senate rules, to cast the tie-breaking ballot, the White House needed to change just one Republican vote. According to news reports buried in the L.A. Times Christmas Eve edition, Rove identified two possible defectors: Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Smith very clearly explained how he could not vote for the measure so long as the bill stuck it to Medicare and Medicaid recipients — which provide healthcare for the poor and middle-class — while protecting the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. But if there was some equality of sacrifice in the form of lower drug prices for the poor, Smith said, he could go along with the administration. Obviously, the man was unstable, so Rove moved on. He got Coleman on the phone and asked him what he would want. Not nearly so squeamish as Smith, Coleman knew exactly what he wanted. The proposed Senate bill would trim $30 million off the sugar beet industry’s $350 million annual federal subsidy. Coleman wanted that subsidy kept intact. After all, he thundered, the budget should not be balanced on the backs of poor sugar beet farmers. Without such subsidies, who knows what candy manufacturers might have to charge? And if America’s children can’t have affordable medical care, at least they can still have affordable candy bars. Some populist-minded policy wonks noted that only 40,000 Minnesotans derive their livelihood from the sugar beet industry, while nearly 600,000 depend on Medicaid. Despite this obvious imbalance of interests, it’s possible the $107,000 Coleman received in campaign contributions from drug companies over the past three years may have tipped the scales. Right here in Santa Barbara, Coleman’s cynical antics come far too late to do any good. That’s because we no longer have any sugar beet processors. We did, though, until about 15 years ago: Holly Sugar in Santa Maria. Holly’s decision to abandon Santa Barbara has had profound effects. With the company’s departure, a young and restless Andy Caldwell found himself suddenly unemployed. Caldwell has since become the mouth that roars — and roars and roars — for COLAB, a coalition of hard-line, conservative-minded business and agricultural interests, mostly from North County. As tireless as he is opinionated, Caldwell seems to be paid by the word. He has something urgent and salty to say about almost every agenda item that comes before the Board of Supervisors. When Caldwell’s at the top of his rhetorical game, he can single-handedly extend the length of a supervisors’ meeting by 20 to 30 percent. Supervisors Brooks Firestone and Joni Gray, chafing at the torment inflicted by such long meetings, sought to change the way meetings were run. Their proposed reforms, however, put activists of all stripes in an uproar. In the face of accusations that Firestone and Gray were trying to exclude the public from the political process, the two supervisors beat a discreet retreat. The moral of this story is that when it comes to sugar beets, ignorance is decidedly not bliss and what you don’t know will hurt you. If you’re one of the millions forced to make do with a lot less thanks to the recent budget cuts, I’d suggest you save your receipts and send them to Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Or better yet call him at (202) 224-5641 and wish him a Happy New Year. And while you’re at it, tell him the Poodle sent you.

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