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May 31, 2007

Hey, We Just Pay the Taxes

Yes, the forgotten taxpayer. With so many politicians falling all over themselves catering to every special interest group imaginable, it’s not surprising that many taxpayers feel forgotten. Consequently, taxpayers may find Amity Shlaes’s newest book, “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression,” of interest.

In April, she gave an address at the American Enterprise Institute, and spoke of how the 1936 election is helping to define the 2008 election. In announcing the event, AEI wrote the 2008 election reflects “an old political challenge.” Specifically, AEI wrote:

“Whether Democrat or Republican, candidates must address the same dilemma: on one hand, voters have enormous faith in the private sector; on the other, they expect the government to provide them with evermore generous entitlements . . . the roots of the problem lay in a single election year, 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt systematically established modern political interest groups from unions to artists to senior citizens.”

You can download Ms. Shlaes’ AEI speech at the above link. If you would like to hear Ms. Shlaes in person, she is scheduled to speak at the Heritage Foundation next Tuesday, June 4. RSVP here!

May 24, 2007

Members, U.S. House of Representatives are Consistent

The National Taxpayers Union reports has completed an analysis of the office expense accounts (or Members Representational Allowances, or MRA’s to use Capitol Hill jargon) for members of the U.S. House of Representatives for 2005. No surprise, but there was a 20% increase from 2001 to 2005.

A couple of the more interesting findings include:

The top-ranked office spender, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT), used all but $375 of his $1.3 million allowance. The lowest-ranked spender, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), did without $518,036 of his MRA (which came to $1.2 million). Had every Congressman been as frugal as Goode, House office spending would have fallen by $205.4 million that year.

Although there were exceptions to the rule, the average Republican generally spent less (92.8 percent of the MRA) to run his or her office in 2005 than the average Democrat (95.9 percent of the MRA). However, partisan differences were sharper on the ends of the scale. Of the 50 top office spenders (on a percentage-of-MRA-spent basis), 37 were Democrats. Of the 50 most frugal office spenders, 38 were Republicans. In one category -- spending on franked mail postage -- Republicans represented 29 of the top 50 (when adjusted to cost per address).

"NTU also compared scores on its annual Rating of Congress to determine if there was any link between how Members spend on their offices and how they vote on the rest of the federal budget. The NTU Rating uses every roll call vote affecting fiscal issues (a total of 201 House votes in 2005). The 50 biggest office spenders had an average score of 27 percent “

What is the significance of how your Representatives handle their office accounts? According to David Keating, NTU Senior Counselor and project manager:

"Anyone who wonders why Congress can't seem to get a grip on wasteful spending in the federal budget should examine House Members' careless handling of their own office budgets."

BTW, Arlington’s representative in the House of Representation, Jim Moran (D), ranked 356 in spending. An Excel spreadsheet is available to look at the details of each Representative’s spending.

May 23, 2007

When Traveling Near Williamsburg

Yesterday’s Newport News Daily Press reports that VDoT spent $5.75 million “to transform a dumpy place for a potty break into a gleaming new rest area” on westbound I-64, about 25 miles west of Williamsburg.

The paper said that while the new facility may not be luxurious, it certainly has a lot of “conveniences.” And besides, it may have been designed with the “green” Arlington County Board in mind since the newspaper also reports the facility “was built with features to save energy and water, including capturing and reusing rainwater and low-flow water fixtures,” features estimated by VDoT officials to save $16,000 annually.

If you happen to be driving on I-64, please stop at that rest area 25 miles west of Williamsburg and evaluate whether your tax dollars were used wisely. We will report your opinion in a future Growls, and perhaps in a future edition of the Watchdog newsletter.

May 20, 2007

Diddling While Rome Burns and Arlington Floods

In early February 2007, I received an invitation to attend a meeting at Yorktown High School regarding county plans to alleviate flooding along Little Pimmit Run, which runs along part of North George Mason Drive. At the meeting, one resident reported having $100,000 in damage from the June 2006 floods. Another reported $30,000 in damage, including removing "30 truck loads of soggy mess."

At its recessed meeting on April 24, 2007 (agenda item 39.A.), the County Board approved $1.05 million as Phase I of a construction contract to replace the existing culvert beneath Old Dominion Drive and some streetscape improvements there. In Phase II, the culvert beneath Williamsburg Boulevard would be replaced.

At the February meeting, residents (including several from Fairfax County since much of the Pimmit Run watershed is there) were told the problem existed since about 1997. Actually, the problem has been going on even longer. In an April 1999 report to the Board, then County Manager William Donahue told the Board:

“The County has records of drainage complaints from citizens in the area dating from 1985 primarily focusing on flooding at the Williamsburg Boulevard crossing of Little Pimmit Run. In 1985 the County determined that the Williamsburg Boulevard culvert was undersized and that the Little Pimmit Run area upstream may experience widespread flooding during a major storm event.”

As a result, the County Manager wrote to the Board in 1999:

“A flood control project including replacement of the Williamsburg culvert and stream bank stabilization was added to the FY88 CIP for FY91 Bond funding. Subsequently, the project was funded in the FY97 CIP”

David Schultz of the Arlington Connection reported in the May 9-15 weekly edition, “the county government’s plan to solve the water problem has turned (downstream residents against upstream residents) into adversaries” since the new culverts will allow water to flow downstream faster.

What is unclear from the available documentation is why it has taken over 20 years for this project to get this far. At the early February neighborhood meeting when residents thought the problem had been going on for 10 years, an exasperated Fairfax resident asked the Board member who attended, “You’ve been working on this since 1997, and all you’re going to have is two culverts?”

Perhaps the county has too many planners and too few doers? Think an IG with access to all county records could fix accountability for this SNAFU? And the residents of Cherrydale think they've been waiting a long time for a fire station?

May 18, 2007

$7 Billion + 1,396 Employees = What?

There has been so much news coverage of the scandal involving Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank that I do not need to include no links to it. And now that he’s announced his resignation, news coverage will soon fade away.

The coverage has raised some important questions about the World Bank, however. Power Line has a post today that raises the question of just how employee salaries are set. The question has to be asked because 1,396 bank employees have salaries higher than Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice; which is about 14% of all Bank employees.

Power Line also provides evidence that although Bank employees are generally “well-meaning, sophisticated people,” and although the mission to alleviate poverty in many third-world counties is great, the “cushy” jobs they hold don’t translate into very much good getting accomplished.

A column in the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com earlier this month notes that “American taxpayers supply some 17% of the bank’s capital” with Congress expected to provide about $7 billion soon, Power Line questions just how relevant the World Bank really is. And what kind of oversight is the Congress providing? Not much, it seems.

May 16, 2007

Computing the Arlington County Board's Greed

Gerald Prante of the Tax Foundation posted a table yesterday with the latest Census Bureau data on growth in property taxes from 2000 to 2005. Wyoming ranked first among the states with a 48.7% change in per capita property taxes (stated in 2005 dollars). Virginia ranked 18th as the average payment went from $959 to $1,109 statewide, a change of 15.7%.

According to Prante:

“Nationwide, property taxes increased by nearly 28 percent over the five-year period. Adjusted for inflation (CPI-U), that amounts to about a 12.7 percent increase in real property tax burdens, an average of about a 2.5 percent real increase each year.”

Arlington County’s property taxes far outdistanced Virginia’s average for the five years, and easily outdistanced Wyoming’s increase. The average property tax bill for Arlington County in 2000 was $2,074 and grew to $4,023 for 2005, an increase of 94%. After adjusting the 2000 amount to 2005 dollars, using the DoL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Inflation Calculator,” means the average tax bill in Arlington grew 71%.

So, no matter how you compare it, the Arlington County Board extracted a whole lot of property taxes from Arlington taxpayers. Arlington County data is available here.

May 15, 2007

How Much Government Do We Really Want?

South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford (R), and member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001, has an excellent column in The Politico in which he hopes the rounds of Presidential debates will kick off:

"a much larger conversation among the presidential candidates -- and all Americans -- on the vital issue of government spending.

According to Sanford:

Spending is one of those prickly issues that the media has seemed to assign as too boring, the pundits as too complex, and the candidates as too dangerous to really delve into. While that leaves journalists time to focus on the fate of Paris Hilton, this "hear, see and speak no evil" approach to how much government we want in our lives, and how much of it we are really paying for, is extremely dangerous for every one of us who pays taxes.

Governor Sanford closes by writing:

“All Americans should ask ourselves where we sit on that continuum today. My prayer is that we will never sink to the dark side of that path, but that will be determined by the decisions each of us make -- and the decisions one of these presidential candidates may be making in Washington when he is sworn into office.”

HT to David Keating at Club for Growth!

May 14, 2007

Can Tax-‘n-Spenders Ever Tax Us Enough?

Today’s Washington Examiner reports that Northern Virginia “faces shortfall with transportation.” What’s going on? Didn’t the Republican-controlled General Assembly just pass a transportation bill (HB3202) that contains the needed money to pay for new roads and highways? And didn’t Governor Kaine (D) supposedly improve the bill to his liking?

According to the Examiner:

Northern Virginia faces a shortfall in transportation dollars, officials say, even with the passage of a massive roads and transit funding bill that would set aside millions of dollars each year.

“There is little consensus on the size of the deficit, however, or the extent to which the first large-scale transportation funding bill in more than two decades would alleviate the backlog year in projects deemed necessary for the region. Also in dispute is the cost of those improvements.

“The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority estimates about $664 million a year will be needed in roadway, rail and other improvements through 2030. Other estimates put the yearly price tag much higher.

“’[$664 million] is a realistic number in what it describes, these are identified capacity needs,’ said Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, a former state transportation secretary. ‘But it’s not the whole ballgame. The real number is close to $1 billion a year, because you have all these ongoing costs of improvements that are needed for maximum function of our existing infrastructure.’”

Sure seems like some governmental bodies in Virginia need some adult supervision by the taxpayers. That certainly includes the unelected Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

May 13, 2007

Eminent Domain in Virginia

ACTA’s Watchdog newsletter has not carried any stories on eminent domain, but that is not because we care any less for property rights issues than we do tax issues. In Arlington County, however, there is just so much to write about on taxes.

The Virginia Institute of Public Policy has been a leader in the fight for stronger property rights for Virginia property owners. If you are interested in the status of property rights and eminent domain in the Commonwealth, VIPP published a “must-read” study last year entitled, The Real Story of Eminent Domain in Virginia: The Rise, Fall, and Undetermined Future of Property Rights in Virginia. It was written by Jeremy P. Hopkins, Esq.

In the introduction to the study, Hopkins writes:

“A state’s treatment of the right to private property is one of the most telling indicators of the character and nature of its government. Where strong private property rights exist, freedom and liberty almost always abound. Where private property does not exist, or here the protections of this right are weak, government control and domination prevail. As the United States Supreme Court once declared, “[i]n any society the fullness and suffi ciency of the securities which surround the individual in the use and enjoyment of his property constitute one of the most certain tests of the character and value of the government.” Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson announced that “the defense of private property is the standard by which ‘every provision’ of law, past and present, shall be judged.” The Court’s stated test and the standard Thomas Jefferson pronounced both indicate that the character and nature of Virginia’s government has fallen a long way since the days of Virginia’s founders.”

An important point to keep in mind as you read the study, according to Hopkins, is that:

“Eminent domain reform is not a partisan issue. The only real division when it comes to eminent domain is the takers and the taken from.”

While at the Institute’s website, take the time to read other fine studies and essays on freedom and liberty in Virginia, which it publishes!

May 12, 2007

Some Inconvenient Questions for General Assembly Candidates

All 140 seats in both houses of the Virginia General Assembly will be on the ballot in the November 2007 elections. A major project of the General Assembly this past winter was passing a transportation bill, HB3202. As a result, incumbents will be telling us what great things they’ve done while the challengers will be making their promises.

Citizens may want to ask the the candidate(s) just how much better off we are in 2007 compared to 1970. That question came to mind when we saw the latest numbers on Virginia’s state and local tax burden from the Tax Foundation.

For the years 1970, 1971 and 1972, the state and local tax burdens (and ranking with 1 being tops) were:

  • 1970/9.0%/35
  • 1971/8.8%/41
  • 1972/9.2%/40

The comparable numbers for 2005, 2006 and 2007 were:

  • 2005/10.2%/33
  • 2006/10.1%/32
  • 2007/10.3%/33

That's a 14.4% increase in the state and local tax burden since 1970 with taxes set to rise in future years with passage of the HB3202 transportation bill. Taxpayers may want to ask the candidates running for the General Assembly some inconvenient questions. For example, with that higher state and local tax burden today versus 1970, just how much better off are we, or exactly who has benefited from the higher tax burden? Take a look at the Tax Foundation's numbers to see just how the tax burden has grown over the years.

 

May 11, 2007

School Bonds Don’t Pass Everywhere

School bonds in Arlington County pass with approval ratings above 70% and 75%. Voters elsewhere in America don’t seem nearly as generous.

Yesterday’s Detroit Free Press reported that voters in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties (Detroit and suburbs) defeated six of seven bond proposals. This came on the heels of the defeat of three of four bond proposals in February and 9 of 14 bond proposals in 2006.

The newspaper reported that “many” people blamed voters’ reluctance on the economy. But there must be other reasons. One school district split the proposals into one with high priority projects and the other with lesser priority projects, but voters defeated both. The question for Arlington’s school officials is whether they can continue maintaining the confidence of county voters.

May 10, 2007

Congress Tries to Further Limit First Amendment Rights

Citizens Against Government Waste has posted a petition, and is asking for help from American citizens to:

“stop an effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to subvert your First Amendment right to petition the government!”

According to CAGW:

“Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) has introduced H.R. 2093 - legislation that would regulate the grassroots lobbying activities of organizations like CCAGW.  This legislation would curtail our ability to alert you to important issues that affect you as a taxpayer and citizen and ask you to contact your elected officials.”

The petition needs only a minute or two of your time. Help preserve your right to petition the government to redress our grievances.

May 09, 2007

Taxes Don’t Motivate, Eh?

An article by Greg Kaza last week in National Review Online and a comment by the Tax-Guru are good reminders that taxes are still a strong human motivator. The NRO article describes how State Line Road in Texarkana divides Texas and Arkansas. Just one of many economic difference cited by Kaza is that:“(p)er capita personal income in Texas is 94 percent of the U.S. total. In Arkansas, it’s 77 percent.” The reason for the difference?

“While Arkansas and Texas share a common border, each taxes income and capital in radically different ways.”

A few days later, the Tax Guru, a CPA in Arkansas, commented:

“I am amazed at how many people still live in a fairy tale world and deny that taxes at all levels (local, State, Federal) are very powerful motivators for behavior and thus think they can arbitrarily raise taxes with no consequences in the form of taxpayers leaving their jurisdiction.”

Please send the message to the Arlington County Board!

May 07, 2007

Making Sense Out of "Global Warming Scare Stories"

A recent Policy Analysis (No 576 dated August 23, 2006) from the Cato Institute reviewed “recent global warming scare stories” in order to answer the question: “Is the Sky Really Falling?” The paper was written by Patrick J. Michaels, whose most recent book is Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians and the Media.

In the Policy Analysis, Michaels writes:

“In the last two years, a remarkable amount of disturbing news has been published concerning global warming, largely concentrating on melting of polar ice, tropical storms and hurricanes, and mass extinctions. The sheer volume of these stories appears to be moving the American political process toward some type of policy restricting emissions of carbon dioxide.

“It is highly improbable, in a statistical sense, that new information added to any existing forecast is almost always “bad” or “good”; rather, each new finding has an equal probability of making a forecast worse or better. Consequently, the preponderance of bad news almost certainly means that something is missing, both in the process of science itself and in the reporting of science. This paper examines in detail both recent scientific reports on climate change and the communication of those reports.

In short, he says:

"This constellation of half-truths and misstatements is a predictable consequence of the way that science is now conducted, where issues compete with each other for public support. Unfortunately, this creates a culture of negativity that is reflected in the recent spate of global warming reports.”

Given the alarmism in most major media reporting of global warming, the policy analysis would be a good place for taxpayers to begin arming themselves with "convenient truths."

May 06, 2007

When Budgets “Cuts” Aren’t Cuts

The editorial (may require registration) in today’s Newport News Daily Press provides a useful reminder about language when discussing budgets. According to the editors:

“Language matters. But in discussions over local budgets, language also can misrepresent.

“When someone says "budget cut," the implication is clear to the average person: Spending will be reduced. When someone says that a city council or board of supervisors will cut, for example, school funding, the implication to the average taxpayer is likely this: Schools will get less money.

“But when local budget talks become highly charged, a word's meaning can shift. The term "cut" may be used, but the actual translation isn't ‘less money’ but ‘more money, just not as much more as they asked for.’”

A useful reminder since the editorial closes by noting:

“The issues are tough enough, but they're even harder to sort through when clouded by language that miscasts reality”

May 05, 2007

Arlington County Board Gives Lesson in Income Redistribution

When the Board voted at their March 17 meeting (item 21.J.) to advertise tax rates and fees, they voted to approve a residential utility tax not to exceed $1.10 per month on both electricity and natural gas. While Arlington had charged a commercial utility tax since 1989, it was the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction to not impose a residential utility tax. At the meeting, one Board member objected to the tax on the basis that it was a regressive tax.

Although the Board approved the FY 2008 budget, and taxes to pay for it, on April 21, they deferred approving the residential utility tax until today's meeting (agenda item 26). According to the press release, “The tax excludes a certain level of utility usage from taxation and caps the maximum tax that will be paid per month for electricity and natural gas at $3 dollars for each.”

The following three points, taken from the press release, provide lessons in both income redistribution and social engineering:

  1. “I am pleased to see the County create a permanent source of funding for environmental sustainability,” said County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson. “This is a modest tax, structured in such a way that it encourages residents to conserve energy. Still, this tax will cost no household more than $72 a year for electricity and natural gas combined, and many residents will pay no tax at all.”
  2. “Approximately half of all homes will pay no utility tax in a given month due to the excluded thresholds. The tax burden will fall on the heavier users of electricity and natural gas utilities. Homes able to reduce their energy consumption modestly will save more than the amount of the tax. Based on current electric and natural gas prices, residents can substantially offset the residential utility tax amount by installing compact fluorescent light bulbs or insulating their gas water heater.”
  3. “Arlington is the only jurisdiction that excludes the first 400kWh of electricity usage and the first 20 CCF of natural gas usage from taxation. This methodology is designed to impose a tax on the heavy users of our natural resources and to provide a funding source to affect a change in the community and reduce the environmental impact of carbon dioxide in the environment.”

Although the Board boasts that they avoided raising the real estate tax rate, the residential utility tax was one of several so-called "revenue enhancers" that they approved. And although the real estate tax rate wasn't increased, because of increased commercial assessments, the effective increase in real estate taxes was 4.6%.

It must all be good, though, since it’s done in the name of environmentalism and on behalf of global warming. Talk about the political elite knowing what’s good for us? Sheesh!

May 04, 2007

Members of Congress? How About Thieves?

After reading the commentary by Barbara Hollingsworth in yesterday’s Examiner newspaper, you might want to start calling them by other names such as thieves or crooks. Ms. Hollingsworth tried to track down some “simple facts” about three earmarks, but found it “nearly impossible.” She writes::

“When we asked questions about three earmarks worth millions of dollars given to local recipients, nobody seemed to know how the earmarks started or which member of Congress was responsible for them.

“One thing we did find out — members of Congress aren’t the only beneficiaries because federal agencies also get a cut — 10 percent of the total — on many earmarks.”

Ms. Hollingsworth describes in detail the “runaround” she got from Congressional offices and federal agencies as she tried to learn who authorized the payment of millions of taxpayer dollars to local businesses. To say that taxpayers should be outraged is putting it mildly!

The Examiner’s opinion page editor, Mark Tapscott, has a short companion piece in which he identifies several databases which you can use to track earmanks, or pork, as they are more commonly referred to. You'll probably want to bookmark them.

May 02, 2007

Congress Greatly Exceeds Drunken Sailors in Spending

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation released their annual study today of the voting records of members of Congress for 2005 and 2006. The press release (with links to policy paper 161 and databases with member records) begins:

Since 2001, not a single Senator or Representative has cast votes whose net effect would reduce the level of federal outlays.

For the partisan observers, an interesting highlight was that:

Partisan differences over spending activity trended to be relatively small. About $22 billion separated the voting agendas of a typical House Democrat and Republican.

Jeff Dircksen, who managed the vote tally project, noted that:

"By the end of the 109th Congress, Republicans would have been hard-pressed to list any programs that they had eliminated and had not been resurrected in one form or another over the past 12 years . . .  Now, Democrats must attempt to live up to their campaign promises on spending restraint and earmark reform. With concerns about pork-filled continuing resolutions and emergency spending bills, as well as disagreements over what constitutes an 'earmark,' the new majority party will have quite a challenge from without and within during the months to come in the 110th Congress."