Betting On Sports

The Supreme Court made a lot of important rulings earlier this year.  One ruling that got a bit lost in the shuffle may end up having an important impact on states across the country, colleges that play big-time sports, and professional sports franchises, too.

300px-eight_men_bannedIn May, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that effectively banned gambling on sports, with some exceptions, in all states but Nevada.  The federal law, called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, was based on concern that allowing widespread gambling might undercut sports as a form of wholesome entertainment.  Nevada, which already permitted gambling on sports, was allowed to continue, but other states were largely barred from doing so.  New Jersey passed a state law allowing gambling on sports and then challenged the federal law, and the Supreme Court sided with New Jersey, ruling  that while Congress has the power to regulate sports betting at the federal level, it can’t dictate to states what their individual laws must be.

Why did New Jersey decide to challenge the federal law?  Do you really need to ask?  Of course, the answer is money.  New Jersey’s casinos were struggling, and it objected to Nevada having a federally sanctioned monopoly on sports gambling.  If sports gambling were allowed in its casinos, New Jersey reasoned, it might promote tourism and increase tax revenues.  And these days, states are all about increasing their revenues.

With the Supreme Court ruling, Ohio legislators are now looking at whether Ohio, too, should legalize gambling on sports.  One argument made in favor is that many Ohioans already bet on sports through the underground economy — so why not take the activity above ground and get some tax revenue from it?  But the existence of the illicit sports betting also poses a challenge, because states that want to legalize the activity in order to earn revenue have to figure out how to make legal gambling as easy and attractive as calling the local bookie.  One issue for legislators to consider, for example, is whether Ohio should allow on-line gambling, so long as the website has some Ohio presence and the state gets a cut of the action.  Or, should such betting be limited to licensed casinos?

And colleges, universities, and professional sports leagues are holding their breath, too.  They opposed New Jersey’s effort to overturn the federal law, because confining legal sports gambling to Las Vegas kept it separate and apart from 99.9 percent of campuses, stadiums, and sports arenas.  Now legalized gambling on sports will be out in the open, and there are concerns that gamblers hoping to get an edge might bribe professional and amateur athletes to throw a game or do something to affect the point spread.

College sports administrators and professional sports leagues are worried about another Black Sox scandal — who can blame them?  After all, it’s been 100 years, and the 1919 American League champions from Chicago are still called the Black Sox.

Training Session

Today I took the train from Newark’s Penn Station to Trenton for meetings, then back again this afternoon. We boarded an Amtrak regional train, which meant that we stopped at pretty much every station along the way. (One of the stops, aptly named “MetroPark,” appears to be a giant web of parking garages and surface lots and is one of the busiest stops of all.)

The train is a bit more expensive than traveling by car, but for the Uptight Traveler — that’s me — it’s a lot less stressful. You don’t need to hassle with New Jersey traffic and risk missing your meeting because of gridlock, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and you can work while you ride. Add in a short walk from the Trenton Station to my ultimate destination, to provide a little fresh air and exercise, and you’ve got a decent business travel experience.

We don’t have any rail service in Columbus, so any train trip is a bit of an adventure. I liked my small taste of commuting, East Coast style.

Today’s Travel Tribulations

The travel day started uneventfully.  I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Newark.  The plane loaded and left on time, and actually landed in Newark about 20 minutes early.

Then, it all went horribly wrong.

5644ef75112314303e8b4807-750-563Because we were early, and because the airlines never want to leave a gate unoccupied, of course there was a departing plane at our gate.  So we waited for the plane to leave.  Then the captain announced that there were a bunch of other planes looking to use the same runway, so we would have to wait for the runway to clear.  Then — and this was the unbelievable part — the captain came on the intercom again and let us know that the captain of a plane in front of us had pulled into our gate by mistake, and the ground crew would have to back that plane out and reposition it before we could be towed into our gate area.  All told, we sat on the ground at the Newark airport for almost an hour.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but for the guy sitting next to me.  He was one of those guys who answers his cell phone using his hands-free option, so everyone around him can hear his incredibly important calls.  He was upset to begin with, because we all got to hear that there was some kind of billing snafu at his business, and as the delays mounted he got increasingly agitated — first muttering, then loudly complaining, and finally throwing around f-bombs that didn’t exactly have a calming influence on the other passengers.  We all were inconvenienced by what had happened, but this ticking time bomb had to act like it was all about him.

Then my fellow passengers acted like jerks in the scrum to get the gate-checked bags, milling around rather than lining up and not caring if they blocked everybody behind.  And when I got to the taxi stand, a loud altercation between the cabdrivers broke out because one driver was accused of cutting in line.  As I settled into my cab, with a driver who’d just been engaged in a red-faced, gesturing shouting match featuring an unknown foreign language, I wondered what might happen next:  volcanic eruption?  earthquake?  Cats and dogs living together?  Mass hysteria?

I’m going to have to ask the Jersey Girl whether flying into Newark is always like this.

Pumping Gas In Oregon

In Ohio, self-serve gas stations became the norm more than 40 years ago.  I suppose there are some stations with full-service options available somewhere in the Buckeye State, but the overwhelming majority of service stations require you to get out of your car and pump your own gas.  That’s also been true in every other state that I’ve visited where I’ve used a car.

hqdefaultI’ve never been to Oregon, alas.  And apparently Oregon (along with New Jersey) has been the exception to this prevailing rule — until now.  Until this year, gas stations in rural Oregon have been required by state law to employ attendants to pump the gas.  Now, a new law has taken effect that permits self-service gas stations in some rural counties . . . and as the Washington Post and other news outlets are reporting, the reaction among Oregonians has been incredible, and hysterical.  When a TV station issued a tweet asking for reactions to the new law, Oregonians began claiming that they have no idea how to fuel their own cars and also revealing their deepest innermost fears about the issue.  Beleaguered Oregonians expressed concerns at being required to exit their cars on cold days, having to touch a gas pump that has been handled by other germy human beings, and failing to properly insert the gas pump nozzle into the tank and ending up reeking of gasoline.  Indeed, some responders claimed that “many people” aren’t even capable of operating a gas pump.  And thoughtful Oregonians also worried that gas station attendants would lose their jobs and become chronically unemployed, and that the elderly and people with small children would never be able to manage.

Of course, those of us who live in “self-serve states” have managed to pump our own gas for years, without dousing ourselves with hi-test, producing blazing infernos, or suffering from infectious epidemics caused by touching gas pumps.  Why, I’ve even pumped gas with two small children in the car!  Looking back on it now, I can see that it was quite an achievement, even though it seemed like no big deal at the time.

I wish Oregonians well in their efforts to survive the transition to self-serve gas.  And if you’re a self-serve stater who’s going to be visiting Oregon by car in the next few weeks, and on your visit you see puzzled people stopped at gas stations, wondering how to operate the pumps, will you please do the humane thing and lend them a hand?

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

Chris Christie’s Rep

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finds himself trapped in a weird and growing scandal. It’s a huge potential problem for a man who apparently entertains visions of a run for the presidency, because the scandal goes to the very core of Christie’s reputation.

The scandal involves communications by a member of Christie’s staff in which she apparently instructed that two lanes on the George Washington Bridge that links New Jersey and New York City to be closed for no reason other than to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had not supported Christie’s recent reelection campaign. The unnecessary closures caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee and around the bridge and lots of anguish for travelers trapped in a commuting hell traffic snarl. There are apparently no emails or texts showing the Christie himself was directly aware of the decision to close the lanes to exact some political retribution, and in fact he denies knowledge of the actions and criticized the staffers once the communications were disclosed.

In New Jersey — a state that many associate with a highway, the New Jersey Turnpike — commuting, lane closures, and passages to New York City are serious stuff. But this grotesque misuse of power involves much higher stakes for Christie because it undercuts his image. Outside of New Jersey, he has a reputation as a kind of pragmatic populist — a bluff, plain-talking everyman who will get the job done for the people of his state, even if it means standing up to entrenched interests like teachers unions or enduring the criticism of the conservative wing of his own party. There is nothing pragmatic or populist about causing unnecessary angst and delays for New Jersey commuters to achieve some kind of cheap political payback, however. Indeed, it’s exactly the kind of stupid political stunt that you can imagine Christie blasting with his customary bluntness.

It remains to be seen whether there is evidence that Christie had any involvement in this incident, and his personal response to the incident and related investigation will tell a lot about its likely impact on his career. For now, the incident looks like it could be as permanently damaging for Christie’s rep as the disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been to President Obama’s carefully cultivated image for cool competence. The difference is that President Obama isn’t going to be running for President in 2016.

To Each His Own Reality

This week there were gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.  Voters went to the polls, cast their ballots, and there were winners and losers.  Right?

Not so fast!  Apparently the number of actual votes received by candidates don’t tell the real story — at least, according to the losing party.

In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie won a crushing victory in a traditionally Democratic state.  Yes, but, the Democrats say, Christie is not a Tea Party Republican and the vote for him actually should be interpreted as a rebuke to Tea Party extremism.  In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe took back a governorship that had been in the hands of the GOP.  Yes, but, the Republicans say, his opponent turned an apparent landslide into a close contest in the weeks after the problems with the Affordable Care Act hit the news, and the vote really should be seen as a repudiation of “Obamacare.”  It’s silly, of course, to try to extrapolate the results of state elections, which often turn on state-specific scandals and superstorms, into some kind of national Rorschach test.  Clearly, though, nobody apparently accepts a loss as a loss anymore; every bad election result just provides a platform for spin, excuses, and sketchy rationalizations.

It’s one thing to take that approach with election results, but quite another to apply it to functioning government programs.  Republicans see the troubled Healthcare.gov website as yet another example of catastrophic governmental hubris and ineptitude, Democrats say Republicans should accept some of the blame because they have stoutly opposed the Affordable Care Act at every turn.  The parties have radically different views of the meaning of governmental debt, whether the economy is performing poorly or well, what constitutes poverty or need for governmental assistance, and countless other topics.

How are these people supposed to reach agreement on anything if they don’t seem to even occupy the same frame of reference?  To paraphrase a classic line originally directed at Cliff Clavin on Cheers:  “Republicans and Democrats, what color is the sky in your world?”

When Hurricanes Strike, Forget Politics

Every day, those of us in the Midwest read stories about awful conditions in Staten Island and other parts of New York and New Jersey — people without power, without gas, without food, without help, and without hope, a week after Sandy the Superstorm made landfall — and we shudder.

The media is eager to label politicians as winners or losers in all of this.  They ask:  Did President Obama do a great job in the first 24 hours, or has he fallen down on the job recently, when he left the East Coast for the campaign trail?  Was New York City Mayor Bloomberg crazy to even consider holding the New York City Marathon under these circumstances?  And will FEMA ever perform flawlessly when a hurricane scores a near-direct hit on a major city?

It’s ludicrous to try to identify political winners and losers when disaster strikes; it just cheapens the colossal human tragedy to view it solely from a political perspective.  The conditions left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are unimaginable to those of us who are accustomed to modern life — a group that includes all of the wretched souls in New York and New Jersey who have had their lives turned upside down.  Imagine living in a small apartment in one of the affected communities, having to deal with overflowing toilet bowls, spoiled food in the refrigerator, rotting trash at the curbside, no food or water, unheated rooms in near-freezing temperatures, and fears of armed looters when darkness falls.  The victims of Hurricane Sandy can’t understand why, a week later, they aren’t being helped to get their lives back to normal, and I expect they find it infuriating that the media has passed judgment on which politician performed well and which didn’t, and then moved on to another story.

If there is a lesson about this, it is that natural disasters are, in fact, disasters — incidents that have catastrophic consequences that can’t be easily reversed or repaired.   Mayors, Governors, and Presidents do the best they can, but often the scale of the disaster makes appalling human suffering unavoidable.  We should just accept that fact, let the governmental bodies do their job under difficult circumstances, try to help however we can, and not be quite so quick to judge.

Like Federal, Like State

We tend to talk a lot about the federal debt — and for good reason! — but there are reasons for concern on the state level, too.

A recent report on the amount of debt at the level is very sobering.  The report looked at regular debt, the 2013 fiscal year budget gap, outstanding unemployment trust fund loans, unfunded benefit liabilities, and unfunded pension liabilities, and showed that for all of the proud words of the governors who spoke at the Republican and Democratic conventions, many states are drowning in debt.  California is in the worst shape, with a stunning $617 billion in debt, followed by New York ($300 billion), Texas ($287 billion), Illinois ($271 billion) and New Jersey ($258 billion).  Ohio, unfortunately, stands sixth with $239 billion in debt.  The state in the best shape is Vermont, with only $5.8 billion in debt — less than 1/100th of the amount owed by California.

In all, states are laboring under a crushing $4 trillion in debt.  It’s just another reminder that the flood of red ink is found across our country — and that it’s high time we start doing something about it.

California On The Brink

California is teetering on the precipice.  Yesterday Governor Jerry Brown said the state is facing a $16 billion budget deficit.  He proposed some spending cuts to make up the shortfall and asked voters to vote to raise taxes, “temporarily.”

If I were a California voter, I’d be a bit skeptical of Brown’s budget figures.  He forecast a $9.2 billion deficit in January; only four months later that amount has nearly doubled.  His budget also assumes economic growth, a sharp increase in new home construction, and $1.5 billion from Facebook’s initial public offering.  The Governor’s budget also counts on the use of one-time funds, and assumes that he will be able to convince state employee unions to accept a reduced workweek and that he will be able to convince the Democrats in the California state legislature to cut spending on social services.  Notably, Governor Brown also refuses to cut spending on a high-speed rail program.

In short, it’s the by-now-familiar scenario where voters are asked to approve “temporary” increases to the sales tax and income tax on the promise of cuts that never quite materialize.  Brown’s budget contemplates spending $91.4 billion.  Can’t California assign priorities and just cut those programs at the bottom of that priority list?  Rather than relying on phony promises of reduced workweeks and percentage cuts, or overly optimistic growth forecasts, how about making tough decisions and ending programs altogether?  How about firing employees, rather than negotiating to trim their workweek?  How about cutting the dreamy high-speed rail program in the face of budget realities?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece contrasting how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dealt the deficit he inherited with Brown’s approach.  Christie ended a high-speed rail program as an unaffordable luxury.  Christie vetoed tax increases as economically suicidal.  Christie was able to close New Jersey’s budget deficit without raising taxes.  Why can’t California make similarly tough decisions?

The Tanning Test

When should people intervene to stop the potentially destructive behavior of another?  A New Jersey situation raises that delicate question — on two levels.

The story involves a mother, Patricia Krentcil, who was arrested and charged with second-degree child endangerment.  Police claim that she took her fair-skinned, red-haired five-year-old daughter to a tanning parlor, exposed her to a tanning bed, and gave the girl a sunburn as a result.  Krentcil denies the charge and says the child got the sunburn playing outside on a warm day.  She says she brings her daughter with her to the tanning parlor, but the girl waits nearby while only Krentcil gets into the tanning bed.  She suspects that a teacher overheard her five-year-old say that she went to the tanning parlor and reached the wrong conclusion.

In my view, it’s hard to justify the state arresting and charging a mother with child endangerment under such circumstances, which apparently involves just one incident, no pattern of behavior, and a condition — a child’s sunburn — that has an entirely plausible, innocent explanation.

But look at the picture of Ms. Krentcil.  She admits to excessive tanning, and judging from the grotesque, leathery appearance of her skin, perhaps she even has an addiction to it.  How can the tanning parlor, to say nothing of her husband and her family, continue to allow her to expose herself to UV rays under such circumstances?  Shouldn’t tanning parlor attendants, like bartenders, have an obligation to cut people off when they’ve had enough?

Businesses often complain about “unnecessary” government regulations, but businesses can be as responsible for regulatory overload as overzealous bureaucrats.  If New Jersey tanning parlors are fine with taking money from misguided folks and then allowing them to tan, tan, tan until they look like an old shoe at the back of the closet, the tanning parlors shouldn’t be heard to complain when the state decides it needs to step in.

Assigning Priorities, And Saying No To Jersey Shore

Today provided another reason why I wish New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would throw his hat in the ring for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Christie vetoed a $420,000 tax credit that the New Jersey Economic Development Authority was going to give to the MTV show Jersey Shore.  Christie’s veto message says, “[i]n this difficult fiscal climate, New Jersey taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize projects such as Jersey Shore” and adds, “as Chief Executive I am duty-bound to ensure that taxpayers are not footing a $420,000 bill for a project which does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the State and its citizens.”

New Jersey, like other states, has been grappling with serious budget concerns that have required Christie and state legislators to make some tough decisions and decide where to put scarce government resources.  Giving tax breaks to a hit TV program — especially one that makes your state seem like a repository for perma-tanned, muscle-bound idiots — has to be at the bottom of the priority list, as Christie recognized and explained in clear, unmistakable language.

I like those qualities.  That’s why I’d like to learn more about Christie and hear his take on how to tackle the federal budget deficit.

Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight

Hurricane Irene has come and gone.  The storm hit the Carolinas, then weakened by the time it moved north to New Jersey and New York.  Still, it likely produced billions of dollars in damage, due to flooding and high winds, left millions of people without power, and is being blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

With cities along the East Coast still wet from Irene’s rain and storm surge, the post mortems have begun.  The main topic for debate seems to be whether politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie overreacted when they ordered evacuations, closed roads and transit systems, and issued blunt warnings about the potential harm to people who tried to ride out the storm.

Because the storm was not as devastating as some feared it might be, it’s easy to second-guess the decision-makers.  In my view, however, it’s better to err on the side of caution under such circumstances.  No major hurricane had targeted New York and New Jersey for decades.  Storms are, by definition, unpredictable.  And no one wanted to see a repeat of those memorable post-Katrina images of people huddled on rooftops or wading through hip-deep water.  I think the mayors and government along the east coast made the right decisions.

Can’t we just be happy that we avoided the catastrophic consequences that would have occurred if a major hurricane had hit our east coast population centers head on and at full force?

“Waste, Fraud, And Abuse” And The New Jersey Turnpike

Come election time we hear politicians say they plan to balance governmental budgets by getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse.  That comment always seems like a dodge to allow the candidate to avoid talking about tough budget choices — and then you run across a story like this.

It turns out that a recent audit of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority identified $43 million in wasteful payments for employee perks and bonuses.  The payments included $30 million in unjustified bonuses to management and employees without regard to performance, an employee bowling league, employee bonuses for working on their birthdays, and free E-Z pass transponders, and cash out payments for unused sick days and vacation days.  One employee with a base salary of $73,469 earned $321,985 when all payouts and bonuses were included.  All of this happened as tolls were being increased.

These kinds of stories are maddening.  They confirm our belief that some of our hard-earned tax dollars are being wasted, but they also indicate that agency administrators and legislators are abysmal failures in exercising appropriate oversight.  That result shouldn’t be surprising.  Digging into the actual uses to which tax dollars are being put is hard work, and most of our legislators aren’t nose-to-the-grindstone types who have any interest in getting into the details.  Perhaps it is time to change that?

Straight Talk From Everyman

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is an interesting political figure.  Elected last year, Christie looks like the guy next door rather than a carefully coiffed and presented candidate.  During  his time in office he has ruffled feathers, knocked the existing New Jersey political order askew, and somehow balanced the budget and righted the state’s listing financial ship.  In addition, Christie has a way of speaking that cuts through the political jargon.  It is a refreshing and welcome change from the normal guarded blather you hear from career politicians.

Recently New Jersey was eliminated from consideration for funding under the federal government’s “race to the top” education program because of an obvious clerical error.  Christie was asked whether he would fire the bureaucrat who made the mistake, and his response is a classic example of his straight talk approach.  We could use more of such candor and common sense, at all levels of government.