Archive for category Opinion

Eye of the Storm


By Lowman S. Henry

As August melts into September the halls of the state capitol building are relatively quiet. This is a marked contrast to a year ago when state government was in what turned out to be the early phases of the longest budget stalemate in state history.  This year the budget, or at least the spending part of it, was done reasonably close to the constitutionally-mandated June 30th deadline, the revenue component followed several weeks later.

But is this just the eye of the storm?

In capitulating to too many of Governor Tom Wolf’s spending demands the state legislature larded up the budget with nearly $1.4 billion in new expenditures.  This despite claims of a $1.5 billion dollar “structural deficit” the governor claimed needed to be addressed.  Even those using Common Core math can calculate that left the state nearly $3 billion in the hole.

To pay for this spending orgy some $650 million in new taxes were cobbled together, and accounting gimmicks employed, to produce a “balanced” budget.  But the budget isn’t really balanced and even that $650 million contains projected revenue that will never actually materialize.  For example, lawmakers planned to charge the state’s casinos $1 million each to purchase 24-hour liquor licenses.  Apparently nobody thought to ask if the casinos wanted such licenses, as there now appears to be no takers.

The budget also includes revenue from on-line gambling.  The problem is legislation has yet to be passed authorizing on-line gambling.  After adopting the budget, the General Assembly adjourned for a two month recess delaying any possible revenue from that source deep into the fiscal year.

And, predictably, the taxes that were hiked on existing businesses are having a dramatic negative impact.  A 40% tax imposed on vaping supplies is driving many vaping stores – almost all of which are small businesses – out of business.  That means not only will projected revenue from the tax fall short, but the state will also lose out on sales tax revenue as the stores shutter their doors.

That Republicans in the legislature caved into $1.4 billion in new spending defied logic.  The GOP had fought an epic budget battle with the governor the previous fiscal year and won. Not only did they win, but not a single lawmaker seeking re-election was denied by voters due to the budget fight.  After posting a historic win, Republicans essentially forfeited the next game.

All of these elements are coming together to produce the perfect fiscal storm as budget talks begin for next year.  Don’t forget that “structural deficit” of $1.4 billion hasn’t been addressed.  A significant portion of the new taxes enacted this year will fail to materialize.  And, Governor Wolf continues to demand a lengthy menu of spending hikes – and the taxes to pay for them.

Making matters worse the governor and the legislature have not been able to agree on how to deal with cost drivers, particularly the skyrocketing cost of public employee pensions.  Pension costs are gobbling up the lion’s share of any new revenue produced by a still slow-growing state economy.  Republicans have passed pension reform only to see it vetoed by Governor Wolf. There are new legislative proposals on the drawing board, but they fall woefully short of resolving the problem.  Even if some reform is enacted it will likely have minimal impact on the upcoming 2017-18 state budget.

Given all of this, will Republicans stick to their pledge that without addressing cost drivers they will not enact broad-based tax hikes – such as raising the personal income tax, expanding and/or raising sales taxes – or  will they again cave into the governor’s tax and spending demands?  Much rides on the outcome of this looming budget fight, primarily the fiscal health of the commonwealth.

But, 2018 is a gubernatorial election year and this budget will be enacted as the campaign heats up.  Governor Wolf, if he seeks re-election, will want to show his base voters that he delivered the goods of higher spending.  Republican voters will judge the GOP-controlled legislature by their ability to resist higher spending and more taxes.  Add these competing political imperatives to the state’s perilous fiscal circumstances and we should brace ourselves for the second wave of the hurricane.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitue.org.)

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Fixing America


Once again America is grieving.  The deaths of five Dallas police officers and two young men who died elsewhere having been shot by police have rocked the nation.  Set aside for a moment the politics and circumstances of these events and reflect on the fact that as a result today there are children without fathers, mothers without sons, wives without husbands, sisters without brothers.

The shootings, and the protests than inevitably follow, are becoming ever more common.  What has become abundantly clear is there are inequities in our criminal justice system. The growing violence stemming from those inequities has made the already difficult job of law enforcement even tougher, which in turn has yielded more violence.

This being a presidential election year the powder keg upon which we sit will become even more volatile.  President Obama is calling for more federal control over local police departments.  Donald Trump struck a traditional tough on crime posture.

The solution is none of the above. More federal regulation only hamstrings local police and social services agencies, and filling our prisons even further does nothing to address the root cause of the problem.  It is time to admit that, while government has a role, government alone cannot fix what is wrong.

What can government do?

Criminal justice reform is in fact one of the few areas of public policy where the Left and the Right have found some common ground.  Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, speaking to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference (http://www.paleadershipconference.org/2015-videos/205-ken-cuccinelli-2015) last year explained it well:  “Ninety-five percent of the people in our jails are coming back out.  So we can ignore that, or we can make the criminal justice system be what it was supposed to be and that is an opportunity for rehabilitation, for correction and for improvement.”

Some conservatives might recoil at that suggestion, but Cuccinelli explains: “I believe nobody is beyond redemption.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve punishment for doing wrong. But when you talk about literally or figuratively throwing away the key are you abandoning perhaps more important beliefs in your life?”

Those “more important beliefs” get to the heart of the ultimate solution, for our goal must be to prevent people from ending up in the criminal justice system in the first place.  The root cause of the current crisis is as much societal than it is governmental.

I served for four years as a Dauphin County Commissioner with oversight of human services.  During that time I watched many dedicated folks dealing with the result of what was a breakdown of family and community.  Simply put, government does not and cannot have the resources necessary to supplant the many individual support networks that family, church, and community provide.

While we must work with law enforcement and improve our criminal justice system, the ultimate solution comes down to three things: faith, family and education.  Until and unless we strengthen those institutions we cannot expect the situation to improve.

The removal of religion from the public square is not just some right wing talking point.  Religion – Christian or other – has throughout history provided the moral underpinning of our society.  It is through religion we learn not only rules of conduct, but find the most important of human yearnings including unconditional love, forgiveness and hope.  In the absence of these vital intangibles people, particularly the young, fill the void with drugs and crime.

There has never been born that person who did not need the guidance and discipline of strong family ties.  Define family in whatever way you will, but at the end of the day children and youth need someone who cares about them, provides for them, and nurtures them.  In particular, the absence of fathers has contributed to a breakdown of the family unit.  All of our institutions – government, school, church – must place an emphasis on responsible parenting.

The third fundamental building block of society is education.  Rather than endless debates over the minimum wage we should be focused on educating people for jobs that pay a living wage. And that includes preparing students for the hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs in manufacturing that go unfilled. Our education system must bring everyone up to the starting gate of their work life fully equipped.

Rather than looking at government, or the police, or around the room at others, repairing what is wrong with America begins with each of us.  We must strengthen our churches, our families and our communities.  Then, and only then will what we have witnessed in recent weeks become the exception rather than the rule.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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When in the Course of Human Events


This is the time of year when Americans celebrate the anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain.  It is ironic that the United Kingdom itself a few days ago found it necessary “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”  By leaving the European Union the British people have reconfirmed that the longing for liberty is an eternal emotion.

Meanwhile, here in the colonies, the very document that ensured our rights as a free people has been under relentless attack.  The Constitution of the United States has withstood the test of time. After the Articles of Confederation failed to provide the framework for an effective federal government delegates from the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia and in September of 1787 put their signatures to the document which, at least theoretically, remains our nation’s ultimate authority.

On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify theConstitution which then took effect on March 4, 1789.  The document was, however, viewed as incomplete and several states insisted on the inclusion of ten amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights.  Those amendments were ratified and became effective on December 15, 1791.

That the Bill of Rights was necessary is evidenced by periodic efforts throughout our nation’s history to disregard, water down, or remove them entirely.  Perhaps no amendment has been so violated as the tenth which limits the power of the federal government.  Congress and the president, frequently with complicity by the Supreme Court, have consistently throughout the ages infringed on this right.  Today the assault continues, especially upon the second amendment governing our right to keep and bear arms.  The non-existent “right” of freedom from religion has replaced the “free exercise of religion” guaranteed in the first amendment.

It is safe to assume that the founding fathers would place in the first amendment those rights that they viewed as most vital to a free people.  It is here that the Constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and of the press.  Now obviously there was no electronic media or internet back in 1787, but freedom of speech and of the press clearly applies to all means of communication.

A free press was instrumental in our nation’s founding.  The only method of mass communication was through the printing press producing formal newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides.  From Thomas Paine during the revolution to the Federalist Papers, the expression of opinion via the printed word was a vital means of exercising free speech.  Throughout our history we have depended on a free press to keep government in check, such as it did during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.  So vital is a free press that it is often referred to as the “fourth estate,” or fourth branch of government.

It is therefore disturbing to see candidates and elected officials from the national to the local level trampling this vital right.  In just the last few weeks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has banned the Washington Post from covering his campaign events.  Here in Penn’s Woods, the Democratic mayor of Harrisburg, Eric Papenfuse, has revoked the credentials of the capitol city’s newspaper the Patriot News/Penn Live. Papenfuse’s actions are especially curious in that he is the owner of a prominent bookstore, so you would think he might have some loyalty to the unfettered circulation of the printed word.

My goal here is not to defend the content of these publications – whose left-wing ideology frequently taints their reporting of the news – but to stand up for their right to do so.  If elected officials, from mayors to presidents can decide who can cover the news they can also then control the news.  This is not only a violation of the media’s constitutional rights, but an existential threat to our democracy and ultimately our individual liberty.

As we celebrate our freedom with fireworks and back yard barbecues let us always remember that the trampling of one right is the trampling of all rights.  The loss of any one right puts us on a very slippery slope which will ultimately lead to the loss of all rights.  From freedom of the press, to freedom of religion, to our right to keep and bear arms, we must fight to protect our God-given rights against those who would take them away.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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Veepstakes: Trump & Clinton Weigh Options


Now that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have effectively secured their respective party’s presidential nominations, attention has turned to whom they might select as vice presidential running mates.  This is an important decision in that eight times in American history a president has died in office elevating the vice president to the presidency.  Another six times a vice president ran for and was elected president.

The U.S. Constitution proscribes few official duties to the vice president, with being president of the U.S. Senate – and thus able to cast tie-breaking votes – the most important.  The impact of vice presidents has varied greatly.  John Nance Gardner, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s vice presidents, famously said the office was “not worth a bucket of warm . . . ,” well he made his point.  Conversely, Vice President Dick Cheney was a political heavyweight in the administration of George W. Bush.  In short, the office is what the president and vice president make of it.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so there has to be something about which to speculate.  Over the next four weeks that speculation will focus on the selection of vice presidential running mates.  As their first major decision, who the nominees pick will say a lot about how they intend to run their prospective administrations.  The choice, of course, also depends on the immediate political situation.

For example, as one who has never held elective office Donald Trump might want to pick someone with government experience.  His statements to date tend to point in that direction.  As a result, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Ohio Governor John Kasich make the list.  However, Trump is possessed of an out-sized personality and might want to pick a bland running mate who will fade into the background, placing U.S. Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Sessions of Alabama on the list.

If Trump believes it necessary for his vice presidential pick to help him politically, he could follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who picked primary opponent George H.W. Bush to help him unify the party.  Senators Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio would fit that bill.  With Democrats running a woman at the top of the ticket Mr. Trump could seek to add diversity by picking a prominent GOP woman.  That is why former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears on many lists. Sarah Palin, who was tapped by John McCain as his running mate in 2008, also figures prominently in speculation.  Palin would also help solidify the party’s conservative base, as would former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has fewer options.  Republicans have decimated Democrats at the congressional and state levels over the past eight years yielding a shallow bench from which to select national candidates.  Here again, the first question Mrs. Clinton must answer is will her pick be a governing partner, or one who shores up her political standing.

The Democratic presidential primary proved to be more hotly contested and divisive than expected at the outset.  Senator Bernie Sanders tapped into a large vein of discontent within the party and Secretary Clinton’s first goal must be party unity.  Her recent meeting with ultra-liberal Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren resulted in rampant speculation there could be an all-female Democratic ticket.

Or, Democrats may wish to try and cement their standing in the rapidly growing Hispanic community.  Julian Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio and current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is a rising star within the party and would fit the bill.  She too could go the route of choosing a governing partner, perhaps tapping former rival Martin O’Mally, or Virginia Senator Mark Warner.

Warner would have the added benefit of bringing a strong base of support in a battleground state, which is another route either candidate could go in making their selection.  There was a time when the vice presidential candidate was expected to help win a key state, one of the reasons why John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson of Texas in 1960.  That has been less the case in recent years.

In fact, vice presidential candidates rarely make a significant impact on the outcome of a presidential election.  The single most important factor is that the pick does no harm.  The Thomas Eagleton disaster in 1972 and the disruption caused when George H.W. Bush selected Dan Quayle in 1988 come to mind.  As Trump and Clinton make their decisions, that factor must weigh heavily.

All these questions will be answered next month. Until then, the guessing game will continue.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

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Déjà vu All Over Again


‘Tis budget season again in Harrisburg.  Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature face a June 30th deadline for enacting the 2016-17 spending plan. If it seems like we just finished the budget; that is because it took until April for the longest fiscal stand-off in state history to be resolved.  And now, it is time to begin anew.

Hopefully, not the lengthy stand-off part.

June is typically when the heavy lifting on crafting the new budget is done, particularly the last week of the month when legislators act like college students pulling an overnighter to get their assignments finished.  In this case though, there is no penalty for tardiness.

The big question under the capitol dome is will there be a summer re-run of the 2015-16 budget drama, or will the state budget actually get done relatively close to the constitutional deadline?  So far, the signals are mixed – but ominous.

Will it be, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again?”  Two factors point to another epic battle.  First, Governor Wolf’s “budget address” last winter lacked any content actually pertaining to the budget. Instead, he unleashed a tongue lashing at the legislature for failing to approve his historic tax and spending increases.  This was as well received as an illegal alien at a Trump rally.  Second, not a single legislator lost in April’s primary as a result of the budget battle.

That second factor is significant.  With all House members and half of the Senate up for re-election this year pressure is normally on to avoid anything even remotely controversial so as not to upset the electorate.  However, Republicans in particular are emboldened because they stood their ground, bested Governor Wolf in round one, and were rewarded by voters.  This gives them no incentive to cave to the governor’s tax hike demands.  Quite the opposite, voters in their districts clearly don’t want expanded state spending and the taxes needed to pay for it.

Conversely, Democrats – who have become essentially an urban party in Pennsylvania – represent districts that benefit from state taxpayer largesse.  Their constituents want more spending because they are on the receiving end, thus those voters returned their representatives to office as well.

Stuck in the middle are the endangered species of suburban Democrats who represent so-called “swing districts.”  Largely located in western Pennsylvania, these districts have been flipping from Democrat to Republican in recent cycles.  This is where the biggest electoral battles of 2016 will be fought, and those Democrats are on the hot seat.

This brings us to the one factor that could bring about a prompt budget resolution: Democratic desires not to lose even more of their seats.  Already Republicans hold legislative majorities not seen in over a half century.  The electoral map does not offer Democrats much hope.  At least three Senate Democrats are imperiled while the GOP faces no significant opposition to holding their seats.  In the House, most battles will again be fought on the little remaining Democrat turf in the western part of the state.

In each of those districts the trend line has been favorable for Republicans, and the Democrat constituencies are far more conservative than those found in urban areas.  Thus, Democratic candidates in each of those districts can ill afford to be tagged with supporting Governor Wolf’s tax and spend agenda.  This is incentive for Democratic leadership to postpone until next year any epic battle over the budget.

Should that occur Pennsylvania taxpayers will have only a brief respite.  Governor Wolf must stand for re-election in 2018 meaning his last shot at enacting his bold plans to expand the size and scope of state government will come next year.  Lose, and his image as an isolated and ineffective chief executive will be cemented into place.  But for Tom Wolf, even winning comes with some risk: will statewide voters actually reward a governor who just imposed upon them a historically large tax hike?

The only thing we can say for sure is it will be interesting to watch.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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The Worm in the Education Apple


There is an old saying in politics that “perception is reality.”  That is how former Governor Tom Corbett got blamed for cuts in funding to public education that never happened.  To this day many Pennsylvanians believe he took an axe to education funding when in fact he left office with more state dollars being spent on K-12 education than at any point in the commonwealth’s history.

To drive the point home, Governor Tom Wolf campaigned promising to be the education governor.  He has done more to damage public education than any governor in recent history. This reality has been cloaked in the perception that he is pro-education.  In fact Wolf is really just pro-union, propping up a system that fails both students and taxpayers.

It is true he has proposed historic increases in education spending – and the higher taxes to fund that spending.  But, the proposed increases in both taxing and spending are so large they have proven politically impossible to implement. The untenable nature of these increases are such that even in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the state capitol some Democrats have refused to go along.

The chances of Governor Wolf getting Republican support for more reasonable increases in k-12 public education spending are high if, as demanded by GOP leadership, reforms to cost drivers are included.  But the governor has adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude which gridlocked the process and produced a historic budget stand-off.

In the process of fighting that battle, the so-called education governor pushed school districts across Penn’s Woods to the cusp of closing due to the lack of state dollars flowing into their coffers.  Worse, many had to borrow money to keep their doors open, incurring costs that took dollars away from students.  His administration, willing to spend money to keep state bureaucracy operating, turned down appeals from school districts for relief.

Even if Governor Wolf were to push his education spending increases through the legislature precious few dollars would ever be spent benefitting students.  That is because the state’s pension system has become fiscally unsound. Its investments are under-performing projections and too generous benefits are draining the system faster than current employees add new dollars.  At the school district level, property taxes are rising to cover costs and the preponderance of any new state dollars directed to education must go to prop up the system as well.

June a year ago the legislature passed significant pension reform.  It was immediately vetoed by the governor who parroted the union line that the system is fine, just underfunded.  Thus an opportunity to at least partially address a major cost driver was missed.  The end result: fewer dollars available to directly benefit students.

Governor Wolf has also been waging a war on charter schools.  Even more so than traditional public schools, charters operate with minimal cash flow.  The epic budget battle resulted in teacher lay-offs, and even the closing of some charter schools.  More will likely close as the governor implements administrative policies aimed at forcing charter schools out of existence.  These policies are designed to deny parents and students valuable educational choices in an effort to preserve the union-dominated monopoly of public schools.

The latest example of Governor Wolf placing union interests over student interests involves legislation that would replace the seniority-based system for determining teacher lay-offs with a merit based system.  In other words, instead of “last in, first out” the best teachers would be retained.  At present, the legislation is on Governor Wolf’s desk – and he has vowed a veto.

Unless you are doing Common Core math, when you add all these factors together what you get is a governor whose every action has harmed students and made the state’s system of public education even more fiscally fragile than it was when he took office.  All of this is being done to prop up the very labor unions that financed the governor’s election.  For taxpayers, and for students, it is a very large worm in the education apple.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

 

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Budget Battle Ends With Electoral Dud


The final pieces of legislation ending Pennsylvania’s longest budget stalemate fell into place just days before the April primary election. And the story that dominated state news for over nine months had no apparent impact on voters who meted out no electoral punishment for the fiscal fray that had school districts on the cusp of closing, nonprofits cutting services, and politicians at each other’s throats.

This budget stand-off was different from those that took place during the Rendell era notably due to the lack of public pressure placed on Governor Wolf and the legislature.  There were no daily protests on the capitol steps. State employees did not go without pay.  When the battle commenced last summer Governor Wolf’s first salvo was an attack ad campaign. It fell flat. Outside the halls of state government and the few remaining news media that cover it, the budget battle went largely unnoticed.

Despite Governor Wolf’s threats of electoral retribution, lawmakers did not pay a political price for engaging in the budget battle.  The first clue that the fiscal free-for-all was not impacting the electorate came in February when there was no wave of candidates filing to oppose incumbent legislators.  Looking at the primary election results it would be difficult if not impossible to point to a single lawmaker who lost his or her seat because of the sustained budget stand-off.

In fact few lawmakers lost for any reason.  And those that did lose were a result of local political divisions rather than anything that happened in Harrisburg.  In Philadelphia, for example, Democrats engaged in their biannual exercise of primary fratricide.  The state’s longest serving House member – State Representative Mark Cohen – was defeated by a challenger who claimed he had been in office too long and was out of touch with his constituents.

Another rare defeat of a House incumbent took place in Lackawanna County where State Representative Frank Farina lost to former legislator Kevin Haggerty.  The two former colleagues found their districts merged in redistricting a couple of years ago and have been battling over the seat ever since.

While voters were busy returning incumbents to office some lawmakers even got a promotion.  State Representative Mike Regan ran for and won the Republican nomination to replace outgoing state Senator Pat Vance in Cumberland County.  In what was a hard fought and nasty campaign the budget crisis did not register as a key issue.

For Republicans looking to hold onto historic majorities in both the Senate and the House the future looks bright.  Senate Republicans could actually achieve a veto proof majority as the fall battles will be fought over swing seats currently occupied by Democrats.  On the House side, the primary yielded solid GOP nominees for open seats like Dawn Keefer in Cumberland County and Frank Ryan in Lebanon County.  Conversely, Democratic retirements in western Pennsylvania provide the opportunity for additional Republican pick-ups in an area already trending toward the GOP.

Further evidence of the impotence of the state budget battle on the electoral process can be found in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.  Governor Wolf’s first chief of staff, Katie McGinty, was one of the prime architects of the budget proposal that triggered the lengthy stand-off.  She resigned last summer to run for the U.S. Senate and prevailed against three opponents in the primary.

Why did the epic budget battle fall so flat with voters?  Chalk it up to a lack of attention being focused on state government.  Or the fact the absence of a state budget had little impact on the daily lives of Pennsylvanians.  Timing was also a factor.  With the nation transfixed by the presidential race scant coverage has been afforded other matters.

And so we find ourselves back to where we began.  Another budget season is underway in Harrisburg.  Governor Wolf is pushing for more spending and higher taxes, Republicans are adamant in their refusal.  The fight will continue, apparently without consequence for anyone involved.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.

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