ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Humboldt County is about to feel the impact of a federal government that makes no bones about its alliance with and allegiance to Big Business. Dubya and the Little Guy


EDITOR'S NOTE:

About six weeks ago free-lance writer George Ringwald proposed a story about the Bush administration and the profound changes coming out of Washington. "Not interested," I replied. "The Journal has plenty of local stories to do. Leave it to the national media -- and opinion writers."

"Ah, but I am proposing a local story," he said, and he went on to successfully argue his case.

Ringwald picked a range of topics for his investigation -- tort reform, bankruptcy law, workplace safety, the environment -- and began his interviews. When he brought the story in, he had to argue all over again.

The article that follows is a perspective piece -- that is, from the perspective of those in our community who are most affected by those changes coming out of Washington. It will undoubtedly provoke some controversy, but we hope it will bring about serious thought and discussion -- and some good letters to the editor.


by GEORGE RINGWALD

A EUREKA FRIEND CONFIDED TO ME RECENTLY THAT SHE SUFFERS "serious neck problems and terrible wrist problems," and on top of that, tendinitis -- "all from the computer" at which she works daily. Sheri, as I will call her (she preferred anonymity for this article), is a victim of what are known as repetitive stress injuries and/or carpal tunnel syndrome.

She is not alone. Indeed, there is a plethora of repetitive stress injuries among workers in Humboldt County. The sad part is that under the new presidency of George W. Bush, they can expect little help from the companies that employ them. Before he left office in January, former President Clinton had initiated a regulation requiring businesses to take action to limit repetitive stress injuries on the job. The Republican Congress, however, scuttled that in March, with the ready support of President Bush.

And so it has gone down the line: From a revised bankruptcy law that was vetoed by Clinton in December and is now being resuscitated by the Bushies; to the proposed legislation that would reduce business company liability in judgments won by trial lawyers; and to an expected postponement of Clinton's ban on road-building and logging in a third of the nation's forest lands.

Humboldt County is about to feel the impact of a federal government that makes no bones about its alliances with and allegiance to big business. As a local lawyer said about the new bankruptcy law speeding through Congress: "Multimillionaires don't run up large credit card debt, but the little guy does."

Dr. Steven G. Ballinger, 41, an orthopedic surgeon with a seven-year practice in Arcata, posits a poignant story of how "the little guy" with repetitive stress injuries gets raked over the corporate coals.

"Some companies, for instance," he says, "don't start giving benefits to employees until they've worked for six months, so you can weed out almost everybody who's going to get carpal tunnel because they'll have it within six months. And they'll say, `Well, you don't get any benefits until you've been working here to six months. So, goodbye.'"

It reminds him of business practices in England about the time of the industrial revolution: "If you got killed on the job, they'd send a box of apples home to your family."

Ballinger, who sees about 50 patients a month, says: "I've seen businesses that should probably have a platform for loading up some shelves, and they're making people lift 40-pound boxes over their heads repetitively all day. I have seen young guys pulling green chain (the fellows who help guide logs into the saw mill); they've been doing it for two years and they already have arthritis in their wrists and elbows, and their shoulders are shot.

"Most of the work people do here are jobs that are physically demanding -- you think about crab fishermen, surf fishermen, the whole logging industry pretty much."

(Yet, surprisingly, he's never seen anybody from Blue Lake Forest Products who had this stress injury. "They're doing something right," Ballinger muses. "Simpson, too -- very few repetitive stress type things.")

Ballinger, who writes poetry and short stories when he isn't dealing with carpal tunnel cases, suggests that the responsible thing for companies to do to lessen job injuries is to hire a consultant who can recommend appropriate job modifications.

"And it's a cost-effective thing to do," he adds. "If it costs you $5,000 to hire a consultant and $10,000 to change your equipment, you've paid for two carpal tunnel surgeries right there. Employers are actually helping themselves by doing that kind of preventative stuff. They're saving money."

Responsible or not, it's no big mystery that Dubya or Shrub -- a man who himself thrives on nicknames -- would want to overturn the Clinton plan of getting companies to alleviate their employees' injuries.

"It's money," asserts Eureka attorney Zachary Zwerdling. "He's stating that people who are major donors in this campaign were insurance industries, manufacturers, large business interests. And they just don't want to foot the bill for these injuries.

"There's nothing really mystical about any of this. Every time a consumer issue comes up, he takes the side of business against the consumer. Bush wants to impose a national no-fault scheme (rejected twice by California) that would deprive people in auto accidents from being compensated for their injuries. He wants strict limits on medical malpractice cases. Once again, I don't see much sympathy or concern about the victims of other people's negligence. I see a lot of concern about protecting big business."

[photo of Zwerdling]As a trial lawyer, Zwerdling, of course, is acutely aware of the Bush mandate to "defund the trial lawyers," as one businessman puts it, and is quick to respond.

"We represent people who have been victimized or very seriously injured, and the limits that the Bush administration is proposing affect the most seriously injured people the worst. Again, it's consistent with the philosophy of not doing anything to help injured people, but to benefit the people who contribute so much."

Zwerdling, 49, a virtual native of Humboldt County (he came here as a very small child), also fires a shot at the Bush plan to end the longtime role of the American Bar Association (ABA) as a semi-official screening panel for a president's judicial nominees. The GOP worries about the assumed "liberal bias" among ABA members.

"This criticism of the ABA wasn't around, for instance, when Reagan was president," he observes. "I think in fact he went along with a lot of their reviews of justices. I don't know of any other way that a president can get input from people (lawyers) who actually appeared before these proposed judges. It's helpful information that I would think anybody would want to know."

When I call W. Timothy Needham, another trial attorney in Eureka, to set up an interview on the Bush-attorney face-off, he laughs and says: "Which string of epithets would you like me to use?"

As Needham sees the Bush move, it's to get "a lot of donations from very large corporations."

[photo of Needham]He adds: "If you think you're eliminating an evil by eliminating a small portion of trial lawyers that you hate, recognize that what you're really doing is damage to the consumer."

A member of the Board of Consumer Rights, Needham notes that he has settled cases with automobile companies "where they were clearly guilty of defective product." He also mentions a class action suit "where we found that an insurance company was cheating all the members in a health maintenance organization."

He goes on: "It's the consumers who get really hammered here. What they're trying to eliminate is not litigation between corporations, but litigation between consumers [and corporations]. And you see that across the board; if you look to the agenda, it's not to eliminate lawsuits, it's to eliminate the little guy."

When I ask for his gut feeling about what's going on in Washington, he replies with hardly a second's hesitation: "I think it's a tragedy. One of their concerns right now is that attorneys in these cases work on a contingency basis. They don't get paid unless the client recovers money. And you hear this cry go out about the concept of contingent fees. But the bottom line is that these days if it's a lawsuit of any significance, nobody can afford it. The middle class can't afford to hire an attorney on an hourly basis. If contingency isn't available, you won't be able to have attorneys to work with. And they'd love to eliminate that concept, because then they can eliminate the attorneys for the consumer."

Needham concludes by saying that the Bush administration is trying to recover what the Republicans lost in the past eight years of a Democratic regime in the White House. And they want to get it in during their first two years -- before, as Needham sees it, their rascals lose their dominance in Congress and the other rascals get in. "So now it's pedal to the metal!"

Probably nowhere is this synopsis more apparent than in the pell-mell rush of Dubya and company to lay claim to the environment, for the benefit of their buddies in the oil and power industries.

Big business corporations and executives contributed heavily to the Bush election campaign last year -- $146 million, for example, in "soft money" offerings --now it was payback time for the new man in the White House.

So if the timber industry was against a Clinton ban of road-building and logging in a third of the nation's federal forest lands, then it behooved Bush to hold off the implementation of that ban.

And if the mining industry opposed the Clinton proposal to reduce the permissible amount of arsenic in our drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10, then Bush was obliged to reverse that too, on the excuse that the cost was too high and the science too flimsy. Never mind that the lower standard is that set by the World Health Organization or that the higher level "increases the risk of cancer," in the view of Dr. Robert Goyer, former deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Perhaps the most sacrilegious of the Bush proposals in the eyes of environmentalists is the intent to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as America's Serengeti for its wealth of wildlife. Making it even more ridiculous is that the United States Geological Survey estimates that the area holds less than what the U.S. consumes in six months.

Then there is the presidential backtracking from a campaign promise -- no less -- to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, as agreed to by the U.S. under the Kyoto treaty, negotiated in that Japanese city in 1997, in a concerted effort to halt the threat of global warming.

That is hardly an idle concern. In its April 9 cover story on global warming, Time magazine reported that the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that by 2100 temperatures will increase between 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 10.4. As Time's reporters noted: "It took only a 9-degree shift to end the last ice age."

Administration critics again see such pullbacks as part of the Bush payback to his big business campaign funders, but the president shrugs them off.

In a White House press conference last month, the president declared that he would "not do anything that harms our economy," saying "first things first are the people who live in America."

Given George W.'s near-irreverent attitude toward our environment, it's hard to believe that this is a son of the first President George Bush, who had the courage to sign into law an acid rain program in the Clean Air Act of 1990. And it comes as something of a shock to read of two significant pro-environment moves by this new Bush administration -- upholding a Clinton administration rule to reduce industrial lead emissions and expanding protection of the country's wetlands. Also, just this past week the Bush administration announced that it may reverse itself and even tighten the standards for allowable arsenic levels in the nation's drinking water.

The fact is that Dubya is learning the hard way -- from polls showing that fewer than 40 percent of those questioned approve of his administration's handling of environmental issues. It seems a bit glib -- to put it mildly&nbsp-- for Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman to defend her boss by saying, "This administration has an extraordinarily good environmental record."

But as with the other areas explored here, let's bring the environmental issues home to the local impact.

"Clearly if these scientific predictions about global warming manifest themselves with raised sea levels, there will be (local) economic impacts," Tim McKay, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, recently told the Journal. "Eureka may have to build a dike, I don't know.

[photo of McKay]"But certainly during the El Niño year when the ocean levels here were 6-8 inches higher, you had a lot of bluff erosion. You had houses going off the cliff at Big Lagoon -- and that was all associated with a relatively minor increase in sea level. So if you have that increase on a much broader scale, well, you can expect a lot more of these expensive coastal properties to take a dip in the ocean.

"Then of course," he goes on, "they'll be around at the (county) Board of Supervisors looking for subsidies to put retaining walls to save their coastal properties. So the poor will be paying for the wealthy's coastal homes to stay up."

McKay, 54, who started working in 1975 at the Northcoast Environmental Center (coming up on its 30th anniversary in July), is also able to localize Clinton's road-building and logging ban in federal forests, presently held in abeyance by President Bush.

"As much as 878,000 acres could be protected in the Klamath, Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers national forests under the Clinton plan, which was to have gone into effect March 13," McKay said. "There are also areas in Humboldt County that could be affected -- an area that we refer to as Mad River Buttes, right out at the headwaters of Redwood Creek, very close to Humboldt Bay. Also areas to the east of the Hoopa square."

As for the issue of arsenic in our drinking water, McKay said, "I can't recall that it's a huge problem in our area."

And in fact Carol Rische, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, told the Journal: "All of our testing has been `non-detec.'"

Or, in other words, the district, which is a wholesaler supplying water to about 80,000 retail customers from Eureka to Blue Lake, has not detected any arsenic in the drinking water, which is drawn from wells in the bed of the Mad River, northeast of Arcata.

"None at all," Rische says. "Never. We're blessed up here with very high water quality."

McKay, not given to mincing words, recently lashed out in an Econews column at the "anti-environmental ideologues and their corporate greedhead fellow travelers" who now hold a strong foothold in national and state politics.

But if you're looking for greedheads, you want to take a look too at the credit card industry, which is behind the push to revive the bankruptcy bill that Clinton vetoed in December -- a bill that, once again, will hurt "the little guy" right here in Humboldt County.

MBNA, the biggest credit card issuer in the world, was the largest individual contributor to Bush's presidential campaign, according to syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington. She noted that right behind MBNA were Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, No. 2 and No. 3 biggest credit card issuers.

MBNA's political donations last year came to $3.5 million, up from a piddling $742,000 in 1996.

The bankruptcy bill, making it harder for credit card users to liquidate debt, will hit Humboldt County debtors especially hard, according to Eureka bankruptcy attorney Thomas B. Hjerpe.

[photo of Hjerpe]Hjerpe concedes that the credit card companies are suffering financial losses from bankruptcy.

"But," he adds, "you would think the appropriate response to that would be to tighten up their lending practices, to look into people's tax returns and wage statements, to look at their income and debt ratio before they loan money, rather than just taking a signature and giving them credit. But they don't want to do that, because it's much easier for them to give credit. So rather than take the obvious appropriate response at suffering losses from default, they've changed the law.

"This shouldn't be right," he continues. "It's not right for a private company to use our government in that fashion. To change the law to gain a tactical financial advantage over American business is not appropriate."

Hjerpe -- whose strongly expressed ethics would, I suspect, surprise many of us in this era of laissez-faire run amok -- pinpoints the biggest change proposed in the bankruptcy law as "something called means testing."

In essence, said Hjerpe, it means debtors who file for bankruptcy will compare their actual living expenses to standardized expenses based on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) expense schedules.

"So if this new law goes into effect, as it certainly will, we'll have the IRS expense schedule as an overlay," Hjerpe explains. "So when a person comes in here with their living expenses, we will have to compare them to what the IRS deems reasonable in that category. And if their actual transportation expenses exceed what the IRS thinks they should be spending on transportation, then the difference is excess income that you should be using to repay part of the debt."

Hjerpe doesn't expect a lot of Humboldt County residents to be facing the "means testing," because it is triggered when the debtor has the median income for the state. "And in Humboldt County," he notes, "we have very few people who have the California state median income. Most people around here have far less than the median income."

However, Hjerpe says, "there are many technical, small requirements that don't seem significant, but they add up to big burdens" -- for the debtor, for the bankruptcy court and for the bankruptcy attorneys.

"For example," he goes on, "when we change the law as it's proposed, the debtors will not only have to disclose their income, they will also have to provide their last three years' tax returns to the bankruptcy court, which means now the bankruptcy court has to create the capacity to maintain those records; the debtor's attorney has to copy the records. It's adding expenses to the cost of doing the paper work."

It sounds in fact like bureaucracy hell, and no wonder Hjerpe finds it "scary."

"The way this affects our local debtors," Hjerpe says, "is that we have people who are of the lowest income in the nation, or at least in California. Additional filing fees will be proportionately much higher expenses for someone with very low income. All this additional documentation makes it far harder on someone with a very low income."

The bankruptcy court for Humboldt and Del Norte counties now gets 30 to 50 new Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings a month. In Chapter 7 cases, the debtor almost never sees the judge, but has an appointed trustee, who is supposed to use funds to pay down some of the debt. But as Hjerpe wryly observes: "I would say 98 percent of the time there are no assets."

Filing under Chapter 7, debtors will "have to pay a lot more in attorney's fees and filing fees, and they're not going to get as much of the debt eliminated," Hjerpe observes. "They're going to be carrying more debt when they finish."

Talk about your Catch 22!

"They're saying people have abused bankruptcy for too many years," Hjerpe muses. "I don't see people abusing bankruptcy. I see people who are in desperate trouble, people who are pushed beyond the edge by too much credit card debt, and this (bankruptcy) is the only solution they've got."

Let's face it, we all get credit card solicitations in the mail every day. Last year in fact the credit card industry sent out 3.3 billion -- that's right, billion! -- credit card solicitations. And small wonder that consumer debt now stands at more than $500 billion.

"We have a big problem on our horizon," says Hjerpe. "I think the only resolution is education. People need to be prepared before they leave high school on how to defend themselves from bankruptcy. They need to know how much a credit card costs."

California Sen. Diane Feinstein proposed an amendment to the bankruptcy law that would have put a cap of $5,000 on credit that could be given on a card to a college freshman.

"Which I think is plenty of credit for a freshman in college," said Hjerpe. "And it got rejected. There's no way they're going to go for any kind of limitation on how much debt they can accumulate."

He concludes: "This is truly biased legislation, brought by the credit card companies for their own benefit."

And in the spirit of President Bush's proposed faith-based initiative, we could all say Amen! to that.

 


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