« July 2005 | Main | September 2005 »

August 31, 2005

'Little Interest' in Latest Arlington County Scam

This week's Arlington Sun-Gazette reports: "A collective yawn has so far been the community's response to give $500 tax rebates to homeowners of modest means . . . (T)he plan is similar to one that has run for several years in Alexandria. It skirts around state law -- which requires all property owners to pay the same amount per $100 of assessed value - but has not been challenged in court." According to the Sun-Gazette, county officials projected that 3,500 residents might apply for the grants, but "fewer than 200 have filed applications," and as a result, county officials have extended the deadline. The county flyer this blogger received on the program, which urged me to "claim your cash," listed the two financial limits as 1) combined family income less than $72,000 and 2) household assets less than $240,000 excluding your home and retirement accounts. So, for many county residents, the county will take $500, subtract out about 10% in 'government overhead,' and then give them back $500. In a letter to the editor, one county resident wrote that the application procedures are so onerous that applicants "are in for an intimidating and humiliating experience" since applicants are "treated like welfare cheats." For official information on the homeonwer grants, visit the county's website.

August 30, 2005

Arlington County Proves Wisdom of Parkinson's Second Law

Parkinson's Second Law says that expenditures rise to meet income (definition here or here). This week's edition of the Arlington Sun-Gazette reports that Arlington County will be expanding their taxi program for senior citizens. The program allowed seniors 75 and older to buy 10 books of taxi coupons for $10 each. Although the county budgeted $85,000, only 3,600 of the books were sold. Rather than tell taxpayers that they budgeted too much, and therefore are returning the money to its rightful owners, i.e., taxpayers, senior county bureaucrats revised the program's guidelines so that the coupon books can now be sold to seniors 70 years and older. According to the county's poohbah in charge of the program, "we've ruled out the possibility of running out of money, even after strong interest in the program." Apparently, there's no income test for this program since a taxi driver told a friend that "folks use these things from million dollar homes." Apparently there's no limit to lame-brained thinking among county managers, either.

August 28, 2005

DoD Official Named 'Porker of the Month'

Two weeks ago, Citizens Against Government Waste awarded a senior Defense Department contracting official with that title "for encouraging contractors to lobby against an amendment being considered by U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) that would reduce excessive funding for the Defense Travel System (DTS), according to a CAGW press release. The organization notes that paragraph 1913 of 18 USC "prohibits federal employees from using appropriated money to influence the outcome of legislation." The press release says: "The total cost for five years with full usage was supposed to be $263.7 million. But DTS has already cost $474 million to date . . . Even worse, the system is defective and cannot guarantee lowest fare." DoD's Inspected General even "recommended canceling the program in July 2002." A policy blogger at the Heritage Foundation notes, "If Coburn's amendment fails, CAGW has a better idea. 'DOD could simply use private sector e-travel systems that cost taxpayers nothing to develop and provide quicker and cheaper solutions.' or GSA's e-travel, which the rest of the government uses. Sounds good to us, although we wonder why the Department of Defense hasn't been pursuing that course all along." Our thoughts exactly!

August 26, 2005

Finally! Straight Talk About Virginia's Budget Surpluses.

If you thought Governor Mark Warner (D) and Virginia Senator John Chichester (R) gave Virginia taxpayers a snow job in order to get their largest-ever tax increase through the 2004 General Assembly, you were right. Consider it the largest snow job in Virginia's history. The explanation was in an op-ed on the editorial pages of Wednesday's Washington Times. It was written by Delegate Jeff Frederick (R) who represents Northern Virginia's 52nd district in the Virginia House of Delegates.

As Frederick explains it, the General Assembly started the 2004 session with a $324 million surplus from FY2004, then had an additional $1.2 billion when they entered the 2005 legislative session, and now they have a $545 million surplus, which Governor Warner just announced. That adds up to $2.07 billion in surpluses "since the first day of the 2004 tax-increase session (this is before and without the tax increase)."

So why was it necessary to pass that $1.6 billion tax increase in 2004? Del. Frederick first notes there was a difference of 222% between what Governor Warner forecast and what actually occurred, adding that it was the "worst record of a Virginia governor in 20 years." Frederick then writes, "Many of us in the House of Delegates don't see this as unintentional. Mr. Warner entered the 2004 session with the number one goal of raising taxes. It seems very possible that in order to secure the passage of those tax increases that ultimately occurred, he could not be honest with the people about the state of Virginia's fiscal house. He had to cry wolf saying we were in a fiscal crisis, and in order to do so, had to make sure that economic figures didn't undermine his position. So, he either kept the good news of massive surpluses from all of us, or proved to be outright incompetent when it comes to budget forecasting."

Virginians owe Delegate Jeff Frederick a big round of applause for his explanation of why that largest-ever 2004 state tax increase wasn't necessary after all. Perhaps the "Straight Talk Express" has a new engineer. Thanks, Jeff!

August 24, 2005

Freedom and Prosperity: An Agenda to Improve the Future for Arlingtonians and Virginians Alike

A coalition of Virginia citizen groups and legislators has come together to introduce the Freedom & Prosperity Agenda – a citizens’ agenda for better state government that protects the properties, incomes, and futures of all Virginians. The agenda contains 11 planks that will become 11 proposed pieces of legislation in the 2006 General Assembly session. This legislation will better protect rights, and promote financial prosperity for all citizens of Arlington and the Commonwealth. These 11 planks need grassroots support to compel our state legislators to make them into law. The individual planks are:

1. Pass a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights
2. Rein in skyrocketing real estate taxes by basing them on the acquisition value of property
3. Eliminate the car tax
4. Eliminate Virginia’s death tax
5. Strictly limit the public uses for which private property may be confiscated from private citizens
6. Allow parental choice in education
7. Create freedom and fiscal accountability for Virginia’s public colleges and universities
8. Protect Transportation Trust Fund money from being used for any other purpose
9. Eliminate the War of 1812 tax (BPOL tax)
10. Require expiration dates for all new taxes and all tax increases
11. Eliminate the prepayment of the sales and use tax.

Further information about the Freedom & Prosperity Agenda is available at TertiumQuids.org, or you can contact ACTA's president for more information. Tell your friends about this Agenda, and more importantly, urge your Delegate or State Senator to support the Agenda.

August 23, 2005

The Meaning of 'Pay for Performance" in the Arlington Public Schools

This week’s Arlington Sun-Gazette reports two news articles that when taken together can leave one scratching their head. One article discusses the pay raise awarded to the Superintendent in the middle of a 4-year contract that the School Board approved last Thursday in a 3-2 vote. According to the article, the four-year contract extension signed in July 2003 “was to be adjusted each year by the annual cost-of-living increase granted to school employees. Last year, (the Superintendent) got the same two-percent cost-of-living increase that was granted to all staff members.” However, the paper adds that three School Board members voted for “an additional four-percent increase along with the three-percent cost-of-living adjustment granted to staff members,” which brings the salary to $210,000. The second article which discusses the happy face the Schools put on the latest NCLB test results, says, “Even though 35 percent of county schools are failing to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards, school officials last week sounded an upbeat note as they released the information to the public." Did the School Board ever think of structuring the Superintendent's pay so that IF and WHEN every Arlington school passed the NCLB standard the Superintendent earned a bonus? That would have made more sense to us! For those preferring the government’s version, the relevant press releases from the Arlington schools are here and here.

August 22, 2005

Studying Chewing Gun will Strengthen National Defense. Your Congress at Work.

That's correct. According to Chris Edwards, Director of Tax Policy at the Cato Institute, writing in their August 2005 Tax & Budget Bulletin (requires Adobe), "House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) is a champion at bringing pork home to Illinois. The Washington Post noted that Hastert 'makes a habit of helping Illinois-based corporations,' such as Boeing, Caterpillar, and United Airlines.' Hastert's giveaways have included trying to get United a $1.6 billion loan guarantee and adding $250,000 to a defense bill for a candy company in his hometown to study chewing gum." Edwards sees pork, or by their technical term of earmarks, as "a microcosm of the overspending problem" in today's Congress. Unfortunately, it's a growing problem since the number of earmarks has grown dramatically since 1994. Edwards notes that in the past the big porkers were mainly Democrats, but today's pork spenders are Republicans. He closes by saying: "Republican members should insist that party leaders stop undermining restraint by using their positions for parochial gain. They ought to stop supporting leaders who call themselves conservatives just because they favor tax cuts." Sure sounds like good advice to me!

August 21, 2005

Higher Taxes Candidate for Governor Gets the Standing 'O'

An editorial in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch notes that "All three candidates for Governor made an appearance before the Virginia Association of Counties conference in Charlottesville. Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore received politely restrained receptions. Independent Russ Potts got a standing ovation." The editorial points out that shouldn't surprise no one since both Kaine and Kilgore "have proposed reining in real-estate taxes, one of the chief sources of local government funding." The paper then correctly says that "while officials represent their constituents, the interests of government officials and the interests of local residents are not synomous" since residents have to worry "how they will pay for the medicine to treat (the) high blood pressure that has been been driven through the roof by rising assessments." What local government officials need is a good class in how to set and carryout priorities. Raising taxes, however, seems to be the easy road for them. Taxpayers should give a resounding NO to the candidate who got the standing 'o' in Charlottesville.

August 20, 2005

Kudos for Fighting to Strengthen FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) "guarantees every American the right to see all government documents, subject only to some reasonable exceptions for things like national security, law enforcement, privacy and commercial secrets," writes Mark Tapscott in a column today posted at Townhall.com (version posted at his Heritage Foundation blogsite). He notes that this past week, a coalition of conservative organizations, including the National Taxpayers Union, wrote to Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) who is seeking passage of the Open Government Act of 2005. The bill "would for the first time in its history put real teeth in the FOIA by establishing concrete penalties for individual bureaucrats and agencies that violate the law," says Tapscott. According to Amy Ridenour of the National Center for Public Policy Research, Tapscott has been a real leader in the fight for open government.

August 19, 2005

Taxes: More than Just a 'Simmering' Issue

Two articles this week suggest that taxes are still a hot issue going into Virginia's fall political season. On Wednesday, the headline in the Newport News Daily Press read "Property tax hike anger simmers," with the sub-heading "In the governor's race, debates over education and transportation have eclipsed the unhappiness over property taxes -- at least for now." The article tells the story of an owner of a Suffolk hair salon who "has collected pages of petition signatures from customers upset over high property taxes. She couldn't even guess how many." The petition signers want the "General Assembly to require localities to cut tax rates to offset assessment increases." The paper then goes on to frame the property tax plans of the two major gubernatorial candidates. Tim Kaine (D) has proposed to exempt up to 20 percent of a home's assessed value while Jerry Kilgore (R) would limit assessment increases to 5% a year. Needless to say, the paper reports that county officials aren't enamored with either plan. Today's Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star talks about "House Repurblicans set to push tax cuts." Specifically, the paper notes, "Speaker Bill Howell and other Republicans in the House of Delegates said yesterday they'll be pushing for two tax cuts in the 2006 legislative session." One is "eliminating the state's estate tax," and the other is "a sales-tax holiday for back-to-school shopping." At least it's a start!

August 16, 2005

More on that Greasy, Porky, 'Highway Robbery' Bill

Two more useful articles on the highway bill which I growled about yesterday flew over the electronic transom after yesterday's posting. Steve Slavinski has one in today's edition of the American Spectator. Slavinski identifies two particular problems with the current highway bill, one structural and the other political. The structural issue relates to the fact that the Interstate Highway System has been complete since 1986, but the federal highway tax to pay for it continues on. He notes that "(m)ost of the money is sent back to the states through a formula that guarantees that at least 90.5 percent (92 percent by 2009) of the revenue from each state returns to that state," which is where the political grease comes into play. A few states with politically powerful legislators get back $2 for each $1 paid (Alaska will back $5 for each $1 paid). Slavinski asks: "how about letting each state keep all the fuel tax it collects?" But if they did that, however, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) would not be able to brag, as he did about this year's highway bill, that he stuffed it "like a turkey." Afterall, he will have a $231 million bridge named after himself -- the "Don Young's Way." The second problem Slavinski talks about involves the need for fiscal discipline by the party in power. Gabriel Roth of the Independent Institute writes the second article. Roth notes that the development of electronic vehicle identification has significant implications for the financing, pricing, and ownership of road systems, but that "such arrangements cannot be introduced on a large scale so long as payments by road users must be sent to the federal government, which uses about one-third of them for non-road purposes . . . and subsidizes 'recipient' states (such as Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columnbia) at the expense of 'donor' states. Now, would Alaska's Don Young vote for a system that would reduce his power?

August 15, 2005

Greasy Politics and the 'Highway Robbery' Bill

Last week, we growled that six national budget watchdog groups wrote the President to urge him to veto the $286 billion highway bill. Unfortunately, the President did not take their advice, and signed the legislation. As details of the bill come out, it becomes more evident that the bill indeed was nothing more than Congress plundering the American taxpayers. Human Events Online has two 'must reads' about the bill. John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union writes in one article, "This bill combines spending excess, poor allocation of public dollars, gross political self-interest and fudged numbers to boot. All of these ingredients are smothered in oily rhetoric about 'creating jobs.'" Berthoud notes: "In 1987, President Ronald Reagan vetoed that year's highway bill because he (rightly) objected to the inclusion of a "mere" 152 member-requested projects for their districts. That politics trumped good public policy in this year's bill can be seen maybe most clearly in Alaska where Republican porkers -- Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young -- managed to secure the fourth highest number of earmarks for the third least populous state." If that's not enough, Amanda Carpenter points out in her Human Events column that $255 million of the bill's $286 billion tab will go towards bike paths. That's right, bike paths. Remember that the next time you're filling-up your car -- "(a) share of the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax . . . which ostensibly goes to the so-called federal Highway Trust Fund, will instead go to pay for these bicycle byways." Even today's lead editorial in the Washington Post uses the bill to bash "Big-Government Conservatives." Whatever happened to the party of limited government?

August 14, 2005

Uncle Sugar's Bureaucrats 'Asleep at the Switch.' Again!

In a recent, fully-footnoted paper for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, Paul Gessing writes about the reimbursement process for the research American universities perform for the federal government. He writes that poor oversight by the federal government "has tempted some universities into charging wildly unreasonable amounts for student labor, by claiming both inflated salaries (to attract the students) and full university tuition (to maximize their own income)," adding "(t)he situation is only getting worse." Gessing cites a 1999 GAO report in which the University of California charged the federal government $19.3 million for graduate students compensation "in excess of what it paid first-year postdoctoral researchers at a comparable level of work and effort." Even worse, "no refund of money to the government was requested." That's not all, though. "(A)ppointing a foreign national to a federal grant in preference to an American student nets the university up to $14,694 more per year in 'non-resident tuition remission,' which the university can spend any way it likes." Saying the federal bureaucrats are asleep at the switch is to put it in the mildest terms. Read the entire paper only if you want to raise your blood pressure!

August 13, 2005

Needed: More Government Executives Like Philip Shucet

Regular Growls readers know that El Growler Grande rarely has a nice thing to say about government workers. It's not because there are no nice things to say about them, but so very few stand out above the rest. In the headline column for the August 8 edition of Bacon's Rebellion, Jim Bacon writes, "If the rest of state government had kept pace with VDOT over the past three years, Virginia could have cut spending by $900 million. Don't tell me there's no waste left in state government." Bacon points out that Shucet managed to reduce VDOT staffing by more than 1,100 positions and payroll by over $67 million through "dramatic improvements in the on-time and on-budget metrics of VDOT's construction projects." While pointing out Shucet's achievements, Bacon wrote that his purpose in writing the column was "to refute those who still persist in asserting that state government has been 'cut to the bone,' that there are no efficiencies yet to be achieved, and that the only way to meet the endless list of 'unmet needs' is to raise taxes." Thank you Philip Shucet, and thank you Jim Bacon for your valuable e-newsletter, Bacon Rebellion. Growls readers can subscribe to Bacon's newsletter, Bacon's Rebellion, which he calls, "The Op/Ed Page for Virginia's New Economy."

August 12, 2005

Arts Funding: More a Jobs Program Than Creating Art

Last Saturday, I growled about the amount of federal funding of the arts, pointing out that federal funding provided less than 0.4% of all funding for the arts, and that funding by all three levels of government provided less than 5% of funding for the arts. The funding information came from a concise one-page flyer. A more detailed presentation, however, is in "Arts and Humanities: Background on Funding," a July 6, 2005 report from the Congressional Research Service (requires Adobe). Reading through the report provides ample evidence that the primary beneficiaries of much of the federal funding for much of the arts, especially within the National Endowment for the Arts, are more likely to be government employees than the American people expecting to see more art. An especially useful part of the CRS study is the table of appropriations for selected arts and humanities programs for FY2002-2006. As one local pundit likes to put it: government by government and for government. It seems the time has long passed for Congress to admit that some of their appropriations for the arts are nothing more than a jobs program, and that they should just stick a fork into future appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts.

August 11, 2005

Arlington Public Schools: Cadillac Prices to Drive a Yugo?

We growled on May 22 about the high cost-per-pupil of the Arlington Public Schools (APS). We noted that by one measure, APS ranked 13th in the nation in the amount of taxpayer money spent on the education of Arlington students. In another study, we noted that APS spent more per-pupil than any school in Virginia, even more than Virginia Governor Mark Warner spent to send his children to a private day school. Now come the school bureaucrats telling Arlington taxpayers that although we're paying Cadillac prices, we're only getting to drive around in a Yugo. How else to describe this statement from the August 10-16 Arlington Connection: "In Arlington County, six out of 13 high poverty elementary schools are facing another year of sanctions?" Or this: "Another requirement under No Child Left Behind is that 100 percent of each school district's teachers must be 'highly qualified.' In Virginia, that means teachers in every subject except physical education and vocational training must be fully licensed in their subject area. In Arlington's 30 schools, roughly 94.5 percent of teachers are considered 'highly qualified.'" For FY2006, the average cost student in the Arlington Public Schools will be $16,464, an increase of 7.6% over last year's average cost of $15,298. according to the School Board's FY2006 adopted budget (page 39; Adobe required).

August 09, 2005

Sound Logic for a Presidential Veto of Highway Bill

Six national budget watchog groups wrote to the President last week urging him to veto the highway bill that Congress passed before taking a summer recess, according to this press release from the National Taxpayers Union. In their press release, NTU noted that not only did the bill exceed the funding recommended by the President, but was packed "with nearly 6,500 nenber-requested projects amounting to more than $24 billion (almost nine percent of the total spending)." NTU also noted that President Reagan had vetoed a transportation bill in 1987 that contained only 152 such "earmarks," which are generally considered to be a piece of pork. Hopefully, this will be the President's first veto. Perhaps it would send Congress the wake-up call it needs to begin reining-in federal spending. For a cartoonist's view of how the nation's rulers expect taxpayers to spend the summer, check out the Congress Pork Farm at the Tax Guru (requires a bit of scrolling once you're there).

August 07, 2005

Did Taxpayers 'Win' in Arlington's North Tract Land Swap?

Apparently done during an unprecedented "Special Meeting" on July 5, the Arlington County Board approved the land swap with Monument Realty that was described by the Board chairman as a "win-win deal." According to the county's July 13 press release, the county acquires the seven acres that once was home to the Twin Bridges Marriott in exchange for five acres the county owned, where Monument plans to build a residential high-rise. In addition, Monument will pay Arlington $25 million, which county officials will use to further develop North Tract. We agree with the premier county watchdog Wayne Kubicki, who told the Washington Post for its July 28 edition that the swap "made a lot of sense." He also raised a fear that the project will go over budget. We share that concern, but we also are left wondering if the $25 million the county received was enough. Given the nature of the deal, taxpayers may never know if better bargaining skills on the part of the county could have squeezed out another $5 million or $10 million. The July 21 Arlington Sun-Gazette and the July 22 Arlington Connection also reported the story.

August 06, 2005

Should the Public 'Fund' the Arts? Only if you listen to the Arlington County Arts Zealots.

If you listen to advocates for public funding of the arts, unless the Arlington County Board takes from taxpayers to give to arts crowd, the public will be left to live an uncultured life. Once again, the facts do not bear out those wanting to dip further into taxpayers' wallets. Take a look at this policy brief based upon numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2001, "America spent $27 billion on non-profit arts funding." Of the $27 billion:

$11.5 billion came from the private sector;
#14 billion came from earned income, i.e., ticket sales; and,
$1.3 billion came from federal, state or local public support.

That $1.3 billion from government amounted to just 4.8%. Can anyone honestly say the arts will disappear without public funding? The federal portion of the $1.3 billion was $105 million, or just 0.39%. Americans visit Washington, D.C. from all across the nation to see the culture and art in the nation's capital, but Arlington's elite need to have their own art venues. Sheesh!

According to the Fiscal Year 2006 Adopted Budget, Arlington has a cultural affairs division, in the department of parks, recreation and cultural resources, budgeted to consume $2.5 million taxpayers in FY2006, and is staffed by the equivalent of 25.7 full-time employees.

August 04, 2005

Should new Washington-Lee High School Cost 75% More than Comparable Northern Virginia Schools?

That question has been at the heart of our concern about the replacement high school, and that is the question raised by an article in today's Arlington Sun-Gazette. The paper reports, "At a projected cost of $95 million and a projected enrollment of 1,500 students, the school's cost works out to $63,333 per student. That's considerably higher, on a per-student basis, than some other figures reported by the National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities, which tracks school construction costs." According to the School Board chair: "There are some things we value and are simply willing to pay more for." But 75% more? The article also takes note that school enrollment is declining. We looked on the Schools website, and found they are projecting that enrollment for W-L will be down to 1,387 by 2010 from it's current 1,522.

August 01, 2005

Dumb and Dumber Federal Spending

Both examples cited here could easily fall into the dumbest category, but the first gets classified as dumb only because it involves $20,000, not even a drop in the bucket at the federal level. Seems NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) employed a so-called performance artist with $20,000 of taxpayer money. According to this flyer from the Republican Study Committee (Word document), agency's 'artist in residence' "was commissioned to perform a theatrical story-telling piece in theaters across the nation, as part of a NASA outreach effort." In the 'dumber' category, the Department of Homeland Security hired a "Hollywood Liaison" for a salary of over $100,000, according to this flyer from the Republican Study Committee (Adobe required). Thanks to a budget amendment authored by Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), the funds for the position will be transferred to state and local first responder grants, according to this press release (Adobe required). Neither position was authorized by Congress. Where, oh where, is the accountability in the federal government?