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October 27, 2007

Rocket Science Not Required

A news article posted at the online Arlington Sun-Gazette noted the Arlington School Board will soon have “hard choices coming.” According to the article:

“That may be the result coming out of an expected decision by Arlington school officials, who are now saying they will have the money to move forward on only one of three long-planned, major construction projects in South Arlington . . . There’s not that much money – it’s just not there,” School Board member Sally Baird told the Sun-Gazette. “We’re not going to build three buildings in the next four years. That’s not going to happen.”

Sheesh! It takes the School Board’s newest member to figure that out?

A comparison of the available CIP funding available, according to a document from Tuesday’s School Board worksession, and page 3 of the adopted FY2007-2012 CIP suggests a potential problem. According to the adopted CIP, $153 million would be available from issuing bonds ($97 million in FY 2008; $56 million in FY 2010; and an unknown amount in FY 2012). Now, APS is projecting that $308 million will be available from the same bond issuances ($122 million, $102 million, and $84 million, respectively).

We’re not privy to all the number crunching going on at Quincy Avenue, but it makes a taxpayer wonder just who is really questioning the numbers that are being crunched.

October 24, 2007

Efforts Undertaken to Reduce Tax Burdens

Brianna Cardiff of the National Taxpayers Union comments at Government Bytes on a story in yesterday Wall Street Journal. She notes the article:

“outlines some of Wal-Mart’s strategies to lower the state taxes it pays. The strategies vary from state to state and also in their complexity and risk. Wal-Mart has gone so far as to hire an outside firm to provide them with suggestions for lowering their taxes in certain states. Trying to stay one step ahead would seem to be firms’ object in relation to their competitors – not governments. Yet new strategies need to be constantly developed as states close up loopholes (Wal-Mart is not always popular with states as evidenced by their current court case in North Carolina).”

She goes on to note the:

“situation illustrates the tremendous amount of resources that are consumed by taxes. The time, effort, expense and brain power expended on these strategies could have been used for a multitude of other projects.”

Not to mention having more earnings to pay stockholders high dividends.

October 18, 2007

ACTA Candidate Questionnaire Featured in Sun-Gazette

We appreciate the Arlington Sun-Gazette thinking highly enough of the questions and responses by the Arlington County Board candidates which appears in the October issue of the The ACTA Watchdog newsletter to write two stories. They provide good preparation for the November 6 elections.

  • One article focused entirely on the question of the so-called Revenue Sharing Agreement in which the School Board gets nearly half of all county tax revenues.
  • The second article focused on the use of “green rods” – a mechanism used by County Board members Ferguson and Zimmerman when they were new on the Board in a effort to weed-out programs of lower priority.

Non-members can obtain either an Adobe copy of the ACTA newsletter or a paper copy. For an Adobe copy, send your e-mail to the editor: timwise <@> verizon.net. If you prefer a paper copy, provide the editor your mailing address. An Adobe copy of the newsletter will be posted to the website next week after ACTA members have received their copies.

UPDATE (10/24/07): The ACTA Watchdog is now available online; see righthand column.

October 17, 2007

Congressional Energy Legislation May Worsen Supplies

With the House and Senate moving forward to resolve differences in energy bills passed by each body, a group of 234 prominent economists have warned Congress that:

More taxes, regulations, and subsidies will harm, not help, American energy policy.

The National Taxpayers Union organized the joint statement by the economists who wrote to tell Congress they:

“"strongly advise against the inclusion of damaging anti-market provisions in the energy bills moving through Congress . . .History has shown that attempts by the federal government to tax, regulate, and subsidize our way to more plentiful and secure energy have failed miserably.”

Will the political elite in Congress put politics above history? If we had to bet, our guess would be that, unfortunately, supplies will worsen and prices will rise.

October 15, 2007

Arlington County Board Thinks They’ve Found the ‘Free Lunch’

It seems so after reading about two of their actions on Saturday. Both items are in the online Arlington Sun-Gazette (tree fund and preschools). So who is the Board's latest ‘sugar daddy?’

Why it’s the developers. The Board wants trees? They mandate that developers kick in $2,400 whenever “the required number of trees cannot be planted on site.”

Want more preschools? Why not get the County Manager to “encourage developers to consider adding space for preschools in new projects that come to the board (sic) for review.”

No need to risk overburdening taxpayers; just overburden the commercial interests, instead. Getting taxpayers upset risks their remembering who raised their taxes come the first Tuesday in November when taxpayers exercise their civic duty.

[More information about the tree fund is in the county press release and the Manager’s report to the Board for items 32A and 32B on the Board’s October 13, 2007 agenda.]

October 14, 2007

A Question of Sustainability

One of the favorite watchwords of the Arlington County Board to explain why they are raising taxes and spending every year is sustainability. That thought came to mind in reading about the protest staged by the police and fire fighters unions during the public comment period at yesterday’s Board meeting. The longer version is reported in the online Arlington Sun-Gazette while the Washington Post has a shorter version on page C12.

According to the Sun-Gazette:

“The unions are upset at what they see as hard-won gains on salaries, benefits, health care, disability and retirement matters being lost to what one firefighter called the “depraved indifference” of top county leaders.”

The Sun-Gazette further reports:

“There is no dispute from the Arlington public-safety unions that pay and benefits have improved dramatically in recent years. Their concern is that the trend has started to reverse itself . . . (County Manager Ron) Carlee said the county government's unfunded liabilities for such benefits now top a half-billion dollars, and that the current county system “is not sustainable over the long term.” [emphasis added]

“The county government's contribution to each public-safety employee's retirement plan has increased from $1,600 to almost $14,000 a year, Carlee said, while public-safety employees have seen an increase in total compensation of around 10 percent annually for each of the last six years – ‘far beyond anything we have contemplated for other employees.’”

The firefighters union, especially, seems to have a legitimate complaint about how disability retirees are treated or mistreated, as reported in the Washington Post. However, that is an issue completely separate from the matter of pay and benefits. On this, rather than growling, County Manager Ron Carlee has what seems the more reasoned position.

October 13, 2007

Outside of Virginia’s Political Mainstream?

Yesterday, the Virginia-Pilot reported on a poll conducted by Christopher Newport University’s Center for Public Policy, which reported that most Virginians pay too much in local taxes. According to the news report:

61 percent of Virginians believe their city or county taxes are too high, compared to 37 percent who said the local taxes were either about right or too low.

“In contrast, 47 percent said their state taxes are too high and 51 percent said they were either about right or too low.”

Given Arlington County voting patterns over most of the past two decades, that 61-37 split might just about be reversed if only Arlington County residents were surveyed.

HT: Virginia News Source

UPDATE (10/14/07): An editorial in yesterday's Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that the CNU poll:

"shows that Virginians who are asked how they would prefer to balance the state budget prefer cutting spending over raising taxes by a 3-2 margin. They also prefer making the cuts targeted rather than simply slashing budgets across the board.

"Those are encouraging numbers. They suggest citizens have not been taken in by the spurious claim that the state does not tax them enough. Indeed, when confronted by a state budget that grew 20 percent over the past biennial budget thanks in no small part to one of the biggest tax increases in state history, a lot of ordinary citizens find it hard to reconcile such growth with the notion that the state is short of cash."

October 12, 2007

Monuments to Congressional Dumbness

Need to raise your blood pressure? Andy Roth at the Club for Growth’s blog provides a list of the 10 dumbest votes in the U.S. House of Representatives. He says there are dumb votes every year, but these 10 struck him as “monuments to dumbness.” Here are just two examples:

  • Mohair Subsidies. Offered by then-Rep. Mark Sanford, this vote sought to defund all mohair subsidies. Pray tell, what exactly is mohair? Webster's dictionary says it's, "a fabric or yarn made wholly or in part of the long silky hair of the Angora goat." From 1995 to 2005, taxpayers have been on the hook for $40 million on mohair subsidies.”
  • Viagra Subsidies. Did you know that Viagra used to be subsidized through Medicaid and Medicare? Rep. Steve King (R-IA) offered an amendment to remove the subsidy in 2005. According to the New York Times, "Mr. King said it was wrong to tell taxpayers that "we're going to take the money you earned on overtime to pay for Grandpa's Viagra." Thankfully, the House sided with King, but 121 members still wanted to keep it up (the subsidies, that is).“

Wondering how Jim Moran, Arlington’s Congressional representative, voted on the 10? Andy provides links to the specific votes so you can find out..

October 11, 2007

The “Nannification of America"

Most of us at one time or another have commented upon the growing Nanny State. Now there’s a book out with that title although the subtitle is explanatory, but quite long. Bill Stiegerwald, associate editor at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review interviews the author, David Harsanyi, which is posted at Townhall.com. Here’s the essence of the book:

Q: What’s “Nanny State” about?

“A: It’s about the difference between coercing someone to do the right thing and convincing them to do the right thing. In the Nanny State, we coerce them -- or the government does, at least. All these intrusions -- what we eat, what we smoke, what we watch -- one by one they don’t seem like they are much. But when you bundle them together, you have a movement, and a movement that undermines our freedoms. That’s what the book’s about. ”

Midway through, the interview gets to the author’s primary concern:

Q: It’s innocent, I guess, on the local level as long as you can move to another town. But at some point….

“A: Where do you move now? It’s happening everywhere. Colorado Springs is a conservative place, maybe one of the most conservative places in the country. They have schools that just banned tag, because some kid would have to be “it.” That’s a whole different area. We get the kids started early: this is politically correct not to have someone be “it” or someone chasing someone else.

“People keep giving me the example about the frog in a pot and you just keep incrementally putting up the heat and then it’s boiling and frog doesn’t even know it. I think we’re almost there. But I don’t see any stop to it, because it’s hard for a politician to get up and defend tobacco, or strippers, or drinking and all those things, even though the underlying argument obviously is freedom of choice and individual choice. But what we’re doing is creating a nation of dependents. Not just as far as welfare programs go, but as far as people believing that government should always protect them, from Katrina all the way down to a kid playing tag. And it’s dangerous. ”

David Boaz of the Cato Institute has an interesting observation in response to the book review, which was reviewed in today’s Washington Post. Boaz writes at Cato at Liberty:

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity, and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we’re progressively less free.

October 09, 2007

Close the Congressional Pigpen

Justice Robert H. Jackson once wrote:

“It is not the function of the government to keep the citizen from falling into error, it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

That certainly seems to be the case with Congressional pork-barrel spending. Last Thursday, the National Taxpayers Union participated in a rally involving activists, citizen groups, and Members of Congress that called:

for a "discharge petition" that would force consideration of a bill to provide solid disclosure of special-interest "earmarks" on spending legislation.

In commenting on the need to get 22 more signatures on the earmark reform discharge petition so the full House can debate a bill that would provide full disclosure of special interest earmarks, Pete Sepp, NTU’s VP for communication said:

Taxpayers who thought the majority party understood what the word 'reform' means have been sorely disappointed, as the meaning of an earmark has been twisted, the vehicles for earmarks have been expanded, and the point of disclosure has been stretched to the final few minutes of the legislative process.

Dick Armey once quipped, “Three groups spend other people’s money” children, thieves, and politicians. All three need supervision.” From the looks of Congressional spending, politicians need a lot more supervision than children or thieves. Arlington County taxpayers should contact Representative Jim Moran's office (you can write Rep. Moran from this link).

October 07, 2007

Arlington Treasurer Wants Another Perk for County Employees

At last week’s monthly meeting of the Arlington County Civic Federation, Arlington County Treasurer Frank O’Leary “rolled out” his proposal for “home loans with below-market interest rates,” according to the online Arlington Sun-Gazette. The program:

“would use a portion of the funds currently invested by the county government, lending them out to financial institutions, which in turn would provide low-cost home loans to police officers, firefighters, teachers and others in the county workforce.”

In a comment posted to the article, Wayne Kubicki, Arlington’s preeminent fiscal watchdog, raises the issue of risk and whether taxpayers really want local government in the mortgage business.

Taxpayers should also know that most state and local government employees are already well-compensated. According to Budget & Tax News, published by the Heartland Institute, state and local government employees earn almost $1,000 more than do their private-sector counterparts, However, when total compensation is considered, which includes fringe benefits, the difference increases to over $6,000, meaning that state and local government employees earn 11% more than do their private-sector counterparts.

The Heartland Institute article, which is based on U.S. Department of Commerce data, notes that average teacher pay is yet even higher. They note:

teacher compensation has closely tracked the overall state and local government pay average since 1990. The average compensation in state and local education in 2006 was $62,371.

State and local workers are not paid as well as federal workers, on average, but they usually receive similarly generous fringe benefits, including high job security and lucrative pension and health care plans. The BEA data do not capture the value of non-dollar benefits.”

Just how princely do we want our county employees?

October 06, 2007

Ordinary Services @ Extraordinary Costs

For many years, we’ve said that services provided by Arlington County and the Arlington Public Schools comes at too steep a price. An analysis of the facility costs of five Virginia high schools put under contract during school year 2005-2006 provides the latest proof.

Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School was one of the five high schools put under contract during school year 2005-2006. Maximum occupancy for the five ranged from 1,310 students at Warhill to 1,644 at Culpeper; W-L's is listed as 1,600. Here are the pertinent, comparable numbers for the five schools:

High School

 

 

School Division

 

Square Feet per Student

 

Building Cost per Square Foot

 

Total Cost per Student

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warhill

 

WJCC

 

184

 

$183.47

 

$38,875

 

Culpepper

 

Culpeper

 

158

 

$159.71

 

$28,673

 

Dinwiddie

 

Dinwiddie

 

141

 

$164.24

 

$25,340

 

King George

 

King George

 

145

 

$145.07

 

$23,462

 

W-L

 

Arlington

 

227

 

$213.86

 

$53,025

 

The above data comes from the facilities cost data for 2005-2006 from the Virginia Department of Education. Interestingly, the data for Washington-Lee was not available until about two weeks ago when we started asking why it was missing from the report even though school year 2006-2007 data had been posted. The data for W-L is there now, however.

October 05, 2007

About All That Blood in the Proverbial Turnip

When asked how they plan to pay for their many promises, several of the Democrat candidates for presidents suggest they’ll pay for those benefits by ‘taxing the rich.’ Before figuring out who they are, perhaps we should look first at how much “the rich” earn and pay in federal income taxes. You may be surprised.

The Tax Foundation released a study today that looks at the latest IRS data on individual income taxes for 2005. Here is that highlight from the report:

“This year's numbers show that both the income share earned by the top 1 percent and the tax share paid by the top 1 percent have reached all-time highs. In 2005, the top 1 percent of tax returns paid 39.4 percent of all federal individual income taxes and earned 21.2 percent of adjusted gross income, both of which are significantly higher than 2004 when the top 1 percent earned 19 percent of AGI and paid 36.9 percent of federal individual income taxes.

“The IRS data also shows increases in individual incomes across all income groups (see Table 3). Just as the highest earners lost the biggest percentage of their incomes during the recession of 2001, so they have prospered the most as the economy has continued to rebound. For example, from 2000 to 2002, the adjusted gross income (AGI) of the top 1 percent of tax returns fell by over 26 percent. In that same period, the AGI of the bottom 50 percent of tax returns actually increased by 4.3 percent. However, since 2002, as the recession has ended, AGI has risen by 61 percent for the top 1 percent and 10.7 percent for the bottom 50 percent.

“In sum, between 2000 and 2005, pre-tax income for the top 1 percent group grew by 19.1 percent. On the other hand, in that same time period, pre-tax income for the bottom 50 percent increased by 15.5 percent.”

What about the top 25 percent of income earners? The Tax Foundation says:

“The top-earning 25 percent of taxpayers (AGI over $62,068) earned 67.5 percent of the nation's income, but they paid more than four out of every five dollars collected by the federal income tax (86 percent). The top 1 percent of taxpayers (AGI over $364,657) earned approximately 21.2 percent of the nation's income (as defined by AGI), yet paid 39.4 percent of all federal income taxes. That means the top 1 percent of tax returns paid about the same amount of federal individual income taxes as the bottom 95 percent of tax returns.”

Remember your Mother telling you that you can’t get blood out of a turnip? Well, believe her and not the politicians!

October 04, 2007

Congress' Latest Porkmeistress

In 2002, the Veterans Administration started reviewing its properties to see where money could be saved and facilities improved.

Enter Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California). Citizens Against Government Waste has named her September 2007’s Porker of the Month, a dubious honor for those grandees showing a “blatant disregard for the interests of taxpayers.” She received the monthly award:

“for a provision inserted into the 2008 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Act that would obstruct the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) attempt to improve the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.”

CAGW went on to explain:

“Sen. Feinstein would prohibit enhanced use leases on the West LA property as well as outlaw any sale of the land for private use.  The VA is not planning on selling any of the land; however, it would like to enter into more enhanced use leases to stop wasting money on maintaining vacant and underused buildings.  The VA is already engaged in contracts with UCLA, a Hollywood production company, a rental car company, and a theater.  These agreements bring revenue to the VA through rent, save the VA money on maintaining excess buildings, and often provide discounts and services to veterans.  Current leases bring in about $5 million a year.”

According to CAGW:

“Critics have speculated that Sen. Feinstein is going to bat for wealthy constituents concerned that development on the land would ruin the views from their homes and hurt property values.  The VA center is surrounded by the ritzy towns of Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Bel-Air, home to many celebrities and country clubs.”

Ah yes, taking care of those who take care of you.

October 03, 2007

The Perks of Government Employment

Past audit work by the U.S. General Accountability Office showed “widespread improper premium class travel” by employees at the Department of Defense and the Department of State. In a report released today (requires Adobe), GAO looks at “the magnitude of premium travel governmentwide and the extent such travel was improper.”

GAO reports it found:

“Breakdowns in internal controls and a weak control environment resulted in at least $146 million in improper first and business class travel governmentwide. The federal government spent over $230 million on about 53,000 premium class tickets from July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006. Premium class tickets are costly—for example, a Department of Agriculture (USDA) executive flew business class from Washington, D.C., to Zurich, Switzerland, at a cost of $7,500 compared to $900 for a coach class ticket. Based on statistical sampling, GAO estimated that 67 percent of premium class travel was not properly authorized, justified, or both.”

GAO also reports that:

“GAO’s analysis of flights involving destinations in the United States and Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe lasting 14 hours or more showed that 72 and 83 percent, respectively, of State’s and Millenium Challenge Corporation’s) flights involving these locations were in premium class. In contrast, 3 percent of all DOD’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s flights to the same locations were in premium class.”

My favorite example, however, was from the State Department where a family of eight relocating to Eastern Europe flew premium class at a cost of $46,000 whereas coach tickets would have cost $12,000.

Ah yes, the joys of working for the fedrull government where travel is to be conducted "as responsibly as possible."