Monthly Archives: February 2008

Friday Mailbag — Creative Readers

An envelope arrived on my desk this morning from Kathy Hendricksmeyer of Cedar Rapids. Inside was a clever, funny song she wrote about our never-ending winter:

Lament for the Winter of 2007-2008
(Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”)

Winter snow, winter snow, time you went away!
We loved you in December but don’t need you here in May. Hey!
Wintertime, wintertime, give us all a break!
I don’t know how much more of winter’s bounty we can take

Verse 1
I struggle to my car, in snow up to my knees.
But roads are little better — I’d be better off on skis.
I’m shoveling overtime, to keep my sidewalks clear,
But at the rate it’s going, I won’t finish ’til next year!

Verse 2
In driving through downtown, you’re taking quite a risk.
There’s lots of hidden traffic looming right behind snowdrifts.
The plows do all they can, but it’s never quite enough.
With ruts and potholes everywhere, the roads are washboard rough.

Verse 3
The pack ice on my drive, gets thicker every day.
The stores are out of salt so nothing left to do but pray.
I’m doing all I can, but it seems it’s here to stay.
I knew I was in trouble when Rough Riders came to play!

Verse 4
I dream of summer sun, I long to see green grass.
I’m tired of being inside tucked away from winter’s blast!
So where’s a spring time breeze, to thaw my frozen soul?
In body, mind and spirit this year’s taken quite a toll!

Good stuff. Thanks, Kathy, for sending that in. I also received an e-mail from Mary Klotzbach, who sent in five ways to know we’ve had too much snow:

l. You shout, “Up periscope!” when approaching the white mountains at street intersections.

2. Your neighbors are building a geothermal igloo.

3. The vaguely familiar faces that show up three times a day for meals are your children.

4. RAGBRAI has been postponed until August for extra melt time.

5. Senator Grassley is outstanding in his field because his tractor is under a ten foot drift.

I also received several messages agreeing with my skepticism about making the temporary local option sales tax for school buildings into a statwide, permanent penny sales tax. I noted that lawmakers approved the local tax in 1998 by promising it would never be permanent.

John Faurote, who loves punctuation,  says it’s not the first broken promise:

“What about the last two “Temporary” increases in our sales tax rates??? I can remember over the years when the sales tax was 3%… Then there was a budget shortfall so we needed to “temporarily” put in just another 1%…. A few years later… repeat…. now this one… When are the last two “temporary” increases going to expire??? It seems that when our legislature went from meeting every two years to meeting every year we now seem to need twice as much government???

Thanks for the notes and keep them coming.


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Yesterday’s Column — The SILO Bunch

A bunch of state lawmakers wants to curtail your control over your pennies. Don’t fret. They mean well.

They want to take the 10-year local-option sales tax for school buildings — the one some of you around here voted for just last year — and make it a permanent statewide tax. All 99 counties have the local tax, so surely no one’s going to mind.

The kids will get shiny new schools. And pennies not spent on those shiny new schools will be used to cut property taxes, the well-meaning bunch promises. Rural schools will get more dough. Urban schools will get more dough. Even the roads will get more dough through a higher use tax.

Can you imagine a rosier scenario? This is Frank Capra stuff.

Never mind that 10 years ago, the first year I covered our grand General Assembly, backers of a local-option school tax shoved it through by promising that local voters would always have the final say. It would never be a permanent tax, they pledged. They had to make those promises, or else there would be no penny tax for shiny new schools.

Things have changed. Local control is out. A new crowd is in.

So what’s changed?

You might think local voters aren’t stepping up to build shiny new schools, except that all 99 counties approved a penny tax for school buildings. Twenty-five counties approved it twice. And according to the State Department of Education’s last report, 20 of 25 bond issue referendums held in 2005-2006 passed. Three of the plans that failed still got more than 50 percent of the vote. You need 60 percent for passage, thanks to another great legislative idea.

But if the well-meaning bunch gets its way, all those voters who thought they were approving a temporary local tax will get a news flash. It’s no longer local and it’s no longer temporary. And you no longer have the power to turn off the spigot. Surprised?

Now hold on, the well-meaning bunch insists. Citizens could still call for a vote if they don’t like the way their local school board is spending pennies. They can demand changes.

Voters are still in control, they argue.

Sure they are, as long as the Legislature doesn’t change its mind down the line and decide to spend your pennies on something else really, really important. The well-meaning bunch insists it would take an insurmountable two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to switch uses or scoop pennies. No chance.

But they forget that powerful phrase “not withstanding.” Put those words in a bill, and magic happens.
Things get surmountable in a hurry. Solid promises get slushy. Surprise again.

You’d think smart folks at the Statehouse could figure out a way to help rural schools and cut property taxes without taking power from voters. Surely there are other solutions.

Maybe, instead of voters, they’re thinking of their special-interest allies or builders who see a permanent penny as good for business. If Democrats are going to pass a statewide smoking ban to help casinos and hand tax breaks to Microsoft, why not?

That’s cynical and unfair, the bunch insists. But, hey, I mean well.

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Clinton Spends $95,000 at Hy-Vee

And there wasn’t even a snowstorm in the forecast. From the New York Post:

“AUSTIN, Texas – Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s free-spending campaign blew a whopping $95,000 at a low-end supermarket-deli chain last month in Iowa – a telling sign of why she can no longer cut the mustard financially against Barack Obama in critical states.

“Clinton’s latest campaign filings reveal how a sprawling, top-heavy campaign organization splurged on posh hotels and pricey consultants but still struggles to define its message against Obama, a charismatic opponent whom Clinton’s camp now calls the front-runner.

“The $95,000 charge came at the Hy-Vee store in West Des Moines, a grocery and deli chain that is a fixture in the state, on Jan. 1, just two days before Obama stunned Clinton by beating her in the Iowa caucuses.

“The campaign didn’t confirm what the charges were for, but it bragged just a few days before the new year about a plan to provide deli sandwich platters at caucus sites across the state in order to get Clinton’s supporters to come early.”

Low-end? What about all the helpful smiles in every aisle?


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Duffers Declining

This morning’s New York Times says “More Americans are Giving Up Golf.”


“The total number of people who play has declined or remained flat each year since 2000, dropping to about 26 million from 30 million, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

“More troubling to golf boosters, the number of people who play 25 times a year or more fell to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000, a loss of about a third.

The industry now counts its core players as those who golf eight or more times a year. That number, too, has fallen, but more slowly: to 15 million in 2006 from 17.7 million in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation.”

These trends are something to think about as Cedar Rapids wrestles with how to pay for golf course improvements. Any plan that asks taxpayers to pay for upgrades could end up in a deep bunker as our thirst for golf fades. 

And it’s a Catch-22. Without more dollars, courses won’t be able to offer the kind of amenities that would attract new golfers. The Times story argues its about time, or the lack of it for American men.

“Years ago, men thought nothing of spending the whole day playing golf — maybe Saturday and Sunday both,” said Mr. Rocchio, the public relations consultant, who is also the New York regional director of the National Golf Course Owners Association. “Today, he is driving his kids to their soccer games. Maybe he’s playing a round early in the morning. But he has to get back home in time for lunch.”

Mr. Hurney, the real estate developer, chimed in, “Which is why if we don’t repackage our facilities to a more family orientation, we’re dead.”

Troubling, to be sure. Much is at stake here, gentlemen.

This country was made great by men who could get away from their families for a few hours of guy time. Would Edison have invented the light bulb under these conditions? He would have been chasing kids around Chuck E. Cheese’s, and we would all be sitting in the dark, eating really bad pizza.

Imagine our history.

“Honey, Lewis and Clark asked me if I can help them explore the Louisiana Purchase and expand human knowledge, is that OK?”

“No way, I’ve got a spa weekend planned, buster.”

Its high time we grab our clubs and declare independence. As soon as the snow melts.


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Big Lug Tells the Truth, Hurts SILO

From Radio Iowa yesterday:

“A key legislator says the governor’s willingness to consider using local option sales taxes for teacher salaries may have killed an important bill. The bill would establish a statewide penny sales tax for school infrastructure projects, an extension of the 99 county local option sales taxes that exist today.

“Governor Culver met this morning with members of the state teachers union and he was asked if that local option sales tax money could be used for teacher pay. Culver said he was “open” to the idea. Representative Roger Wendt, a Democrat from Sioux City, is chairman of the House Education Committee.

“I’m not going to fight with the governor here, but they asked me the same thing and I replied: ‘No,'” Wendt says. According to Wendt, the sales tax money in question should be used on school infrastructure and none of it should go to teacher salaries.”

That’s one big reason the idea of a statewide tax will fail — you can’t trust Statehouse types to leave the money alone. They can’t resist scooping and grabbing. The building fund will turn into an salary fund in the blink of an eye.

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Lunar Eclipse, But No Shoot Down


Cool lunar eclipse tonight, and our skies may cooperate. Here’s info from the Quad-Cities National Weather Service office.

…Total Lunar Eclipse Wednesday Night…

“A total lunar eclipse will take place Wednesday evening. In a lunar eclipse…the Sun, Earth and Moon are directly aligned and the Moon passes into the cone of shadow cast by the Earth. The Moon does not all of a sudden become invisible in the night sky, as there is still residual light that is deflected towards it buy the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of this refracted light is in the red part of the color spectrum and as a result, the Moon turns a coppery red, orange or brownish hue. The Moon will begin to be partially eclipsed at 7:43 pm CST Wednesday evening…with the total eclipse beginning at 9:01 pm CST. The Total eclipse will last until 9:51 pm CST…when the Moon starts to exit the Earth’s shadow.  The next total lunar eclipse viewable in the United States will not take place until December 21st, 2010.

“Viewing conditions should be good Wednesday evening with clear to mostly clear skies…if you are willing to brave the frigid temperatures. Much of the area will be below zero by the time the total eclipse takes place.”

Here’s a cool story in the Arizona Republic about lunar lore.

“Lunar eclipses have coincided or been consequential in several historic events, from the death of Roman kings to the journey of Christopher Columbus, from the fall of ancient civilizations to the Boston Red Sox winning their first World Series in 86 years.”

Maybe you’ve heard the Columbus story:

“The explorer was making his fourth voyage to the New World in 1503 when he and his men were stranded on the coast of Jamaica. After six months and the murder of some natives by some of Columbus’ men, the locals decided to stop providing food to Columbus.

“According to an oft-repeated story, Columbus studied astronomical tables to figure out when the next lunar eclipse was and, a few days before it was scheduled, told the natives that his God was angry and would make the moon disappear.

“The trick worked, and the frightened Jamaicans supplied Columbus and his men with food until Spanish ships arrived to rescue them.”

In other intergalactic news, the US Navy won’t be taking a shot today at that ailing spy satellite falling from orbit. There’s always tomorrow.

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Today’s Column — Staying Positive

Last Tuesday, I used this space to chronicle some of the stuff that’s making me uneasy. So in the interest of equal time, and to please the people who say I’m too negative, here are some things making our frozen life bearable.

Recent headlines tell us it’s dangerous to be a good Samaritan, especially on slick highways. Yet, thankfully, the do-gooders persist. They’re picking up buried motorists, helping dig out elderly neighbors and doing countless other good deeds big and small.

I was on my way to work Monday morning when a kind gentleman rolled down his window to inform me I had a flat tire. Ah, Monday. Mercifully, I was just a few blocks from a tire joint, which, in turn, is just five blocks from work.

What an invigorating walk. I’ll get feeling back in my ears any minute now. But thanks to that attentive guy.

Did you see stories about Kosovo declaring its independence over the weekend? It was a stirring moment that Americans had a big hand in creating. It’s also oddly comforting to be back at odds with Russia. If they can wheel out Sylvester Stallone to do another “Rambo,” maybe we also can set up a “Rocky” rematch with Ivan Drago, or maybe his grandson.

It’s handy to get school closings beamed to my BlackBerry at 5:15 a.m., although it will never replace huddling around a staticky radio in dawn’s early light waiting to hear those magic words, “no school.” My fancy phone also is an invaluable time-waster as I wait in a long line to buy bread, milk and beer at Hy-Vee every other day.

On the bright side, the more snow we get, the longer I can delay cleaning the dog dookie out of my backyard.

And there’s nothing like walking into a warm, dim and crowded bar in the winter. My wife and I ducked into the Irish Democrat Friday night after a movie and it was the perfect place to be.

Old constants are comforting, like the gambling lobby getting its way at the Statehouse. This smoking ban bill with the casino loophole will be the biggest financial boon to the industry since, well, every other time the Legislature has voted on casino-related bills in the past 20 years. Jackpot.

The Pentagon’s plan to shoot down an ailing spy satellite gets a thumbsup from the 10-year-old Atari 2600 player still trapped in my body. And it was heartening to see my 6-year-old daughter come home with a foil box jammed with little Valentine’s Day cards, just like the old days. One difference: I noticed Dora the Explorer’s Valentines are bilingual. No word on whether U.S. Rep. Steve King will try to make her Dora the Deported for violating official English.

It’s good news that the Cedar Rapids Public Library won’t be cut to the bone and that the Linn County Board of Supervisors will have to make a tough call on salaries themselves. It’s also nice Karl Rove’s Iowa City speech was postponed so that we can hear a few more weeks of vitriol from folks who think he ruined American politics with vitriol.
I’m glad my alma mater, Drake U, won the Missouri Valley Conference.

I’m glad my snowblower still works.

And I’m glad the tire joint takes plastic.

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