Last Week Tonight with John Oliver continued its tradition of bringing otherwise little known or downright obscure issues to the forefront by dedicating their main segment to the topic of special districts.
Before host John Oliver launched into a discussion of the plethora of special taxing districts, he began by talking about the upcoming 2016 election. Or, as the show called it, "Clowntown Fuck-The-World Shitshow 2016" - and really, they aren't that far off. They highlighted Donald Drumpf's (hereinafter referred to as Donald Drumpf) successes this past week, and showed clips of how other politicians in the Republican party are reacting to his wins. Marco Rubio in particular sunk to Drumpf's low, not by attacking his politics, but the size of his hands. Of course Rubio was alluding to a parallel to the size of Drumpf's penis, because I guess that's the kind of world in which we now live. Oliver used this as an opportunity to give viewers a pretty great life rule, "if you can't say the word 'penis' don't imply the word 'penis'". Rubio's attack lead to Drumpf literally talking about the size of his dick during a presidential debate, which basically reinforced the show's nickname for the election.
While many Republicans are clamoring to disavow Drumpf, other members of the party have equally as disturbing policies and beliefs. Oliver highlighted Texas, where not one, but two local GOP members hold horrifying and backwards views of the world. Robert Morrow was elected as the Chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, and his opinions are so extreme that the Time Warner Cable felt the need to run a disclaimer along the bottom of the screen while airing an interview, stating that its contents do "not reflect the views of this news station, or its parent company, Time Warner Cable". In only a few moments, Morrow managed to make the entire audience feel the need for a shower. His opinions sounded like "Ann Coulter fall[ing] down the stairs". Oliver also highlighted the case of Mary Lou Bruner, a candidate for the Texas Board of Education. Bruner firmly believes that dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark, President Obama is a gay prostitute, and that climate change was made up to push a socialist agenda. Some Republicans have distanced themselves from Morrow and Bruner, with one party member saying that "Morrow in no way speaks for the Republican Party or its values", and another calling Bruner a "human rain delay". Could people like Drumpf, Morrow, and Bruner be the beginnings of a split in the GOP? Perhaps the United States will find themselves with a third political party sooner rather than later.
The show also discussed the recent Land's End controversy regarding an interview with famed feminist Gloria Steinem. While her interview with the infamously bland clothing retailer contained very little in the way of controversial statements, it was still met with objection and social media outcry. Land's End responded to allegations that they were trying to make a political statement by making the political statement of removing her interview from their website. With this innocuous interview, and its subsequent removal, they managed to do what so many couldn't and united both sides of the abortion debate (though I'm sure they didn't exactly intend for it to be united in a mutual hatred of Land's End).
The main segment was all about government, or as Oliver aptly phrased it, "sport for nerds". The focus of the segment was on special districts, defined as "small units of government designed to take tax dollars for one specific thing". This "thing" could be something as beneficial and useful as a fire district or a water district, but they can also exist for nearly any purpose and are way more ubiquitous than one would think. Currently, special districts across the United States account for one hundred million dollars per year, which is sixteen billion dollars more than even Russia spends on its military. Special districts are the most common form of government in the United States, and very few people, including certain state legislators, know anything about them.
Many special districts are rife with corruption, with many not even filing their budgets with their home state. One legislator called them a "level of ghost government" which sounds fun, until one realizes that they are indeed everywhere, and impact average citizens in exceptionally negative ways. For example, it's entirely possible for one person to pay close to $1,000 in taxes, and have their neighbour pay only $7. One utilities district in Texas was found to have a disturbingly high rate of losses, and billed their residents for water usage with a bit too much consistency. One resident had the exact same, surprisingly specific, amount of water usage billed to him year after year, resulting in the need to spend a lot more than he would have if the district were not running without any oversight.
Another nearly unfathomable incident of special district corruption happened in Kentucky, where one fire chief used tax dollars to fund everything from flat screen televisions, to computers containing pornographic material, to chewing tobacco, to fireworks. In Rhode Island, a fire department chief was caught drinking on the job, while driving a fire department vehicle, and using it in his personal time, in order to ferry himself to and from the bar, while continuing to drink and smoke what appeared to be marijuana.
Of course, there are many that are run completely by the books, even when no one is watching. Oliver spoke of one special district in Litchfield, New Hampshire, where despite holding a meeting in an empty room, one special district ensured that their meeting was in keeping with governing regulations. While this is the best case scenario, it isn't the most common one.
Thankfully, there are some states that are encouraging their residents to learn about special districts and how those districts affect the average citizen. This lead to what might be the cutest Last Week Tonight bit done, and I'm including the one a few weeks ago where Oliver fed a sloth. California is hosting a contest for children to explain special districts. The show got in on the action, and had several children recap the episode, John Oliver style, with adorable and educational results.
You can watch the segment below, and tune to HBO next week at 11:00pm for the next episode.