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April 30, 2008

Just Do It!

Start drilling for oil, that is, which is the advice Robert Samuelson gives in his Washington Post column today on what the country can do about gas prices, “energy independence,” and “environmental fears.” He writes:

“The truth is that we're almost powerless to influence today's prices. We are because we didn't take sensible actions 10 or 20 years ago. If we persist, we will be even worse off in a decade or two. The first thing to do: Start drilling.

“It may surprise Americans to discover that the United States is the third-largest oil producer, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. We could be producing more, but Congress has put large areas of potential supply off-limits. These include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. By government estimates, these areas may contain 25 billion to 30 billion barrels of oil (against about 30 billion barrels of proven U.S. reserves today) and 80 trillion cubic feet or more of natural gas (compared with about 200 tcf of proven reserves).”

He makes three important points:

  1. “The best we can do is to try to exert long-term influence on the global balance of supply and demand. Increase our supply. Restrain our demand. With luck, this might widen the worldwide surplus of production capacity.”
  2. “Members of Congress complain loudly about high oil profits ($40.6 billion for Exxon Mobil last year) but frustrate those companies' desire to use those profits to explore and produce in the United States.”
  3. “On environmental grounds, the alternatives to more drilling are usually worse. Subsidies for ethanol made from corn have increased food prices and used scarce water, with few benefits.”

The bottom line, according to Samuelson:

If we don't start now, our future dependence and its dangers will grow. Count on it.” (emphasis added)

Sound advice, indeed. As the U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R) said in a press release last Friday:

“We recently marked the two-year anniversary of congressional Democrats saying they had a “commonsense plan” to lower fuel costs.  Problem is, that plan has never been revealed and gas prices are, on average, $1.25 per gallon higher than in 2006 . . . Enough is enough.  Empty rhetoric and political promises have done absolutely nothing to lower fuel costs.  So far in the 110th Congress, not one energy bill brought to a vote in the U.S. House has contained a single watt or gallon of new domestic energy, despite assurances from Democratic leaders that they have a “commonsense plan.”  It’s time to see that plan. “ (emphasis added)

Unhappy about gasoline prices? Contact (links directly to their websites):

April 29, 2008

"It's Never Enough"

And in Arlington County the taxpayers end up paying more because of the sweetheart deal between the County Board and the School Board. Oh yes, technically the two boards call it the Revenue Sharing Agreement (RSA), whereby the public, or government,  schools get a predetermined amount of tax revenue. [for complete details of the current RSA, see agenda item C.7. of the School Board’s December 18, 2007 meeting]

If you doubt the above assertion, consider the relationship between the two boards in Fairfax County described in today’s Washington Post. The headline of the Post report pretty much tells it all -- “Teachers Criticize Fairfax Budget.” In the report, Amy Gardner writes:

“In affluent Fairfax County, it's never enough. That was the lesson yesterday for the county Board of Supervisors, which approved its annual budget amid criticism -- not for raising taxes but for inadequately funding the public schools. (emphasis added)

“Supervisors gave final approval yesterday to a $3.1 billion spending plan that raises the property tax by three pennies, to 92 cents per $100 of assessed value. Most of the new money, about $45 million, will go to the public schools. But it was less than the School Board had asked for -- and that drew a rebuke from teachers, who sent out a sharply worded postcard over the weekend in anticipation of the supervisors' vote.

“The card, mailed to the Fairfax Education Association's 6,500 members, said supervisors have placed "your promised 3 percent raise in jeopardy." The card was referring to the likelihood that the School Board will trim teachers' cost-of-living increases to 2 percent to balance the school budget in the wake of the county's action.”

Consider the sweetheart RSA deal Arlington’s two board have. The two boards let staff workout the details so there will be no “tension” about budget priorities between the two boards when the Manager and Superintendent propose their budgets two months later.

Not to mention county supervisors seemingly unafraid of criticizing their school board. For evidence, consider this from the Post’s report:

“Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee, said school supporters have always wanted more than the county has given them. She said it's a function of living in an affluent county with a vocal community of parents and teachers, many of whom would rather pay higher taxes than jeopardize school class size, teacher pay and other education programs.
 
“Bulova recalled a year when supervisors gave the schools all the money they asked for, and still the School Board asked for more. "No matter what we give them, it's never enough," she said with a smile.” (emphasis added)

If you think it's time for the Arlington County Board to retire the sweetheart Revenue Sharing Agreement to the dustbin of history, please tell the Board. Just click-on the “Contact the County Board” link in the right column. Tell them ACTA sent you!

April 27, 2008

It’s The Spending, Stupid

There are undoubtedly counties in parts of Virginia that have a “revenue problem,” but Arlington County is not one of them. Rather, this county has a “spending problem,” or more precisely, a County Board unable to control spending.

The truth of that assertion came to mind, again, in looking through the Fiscal Year 2007 Comparative Report of Local Government Revenues and Expenditures, which is prepared annually by Virginia’s Auditor of Public Accounts (APA). It is based on accounting input from local governments. The FY2007 report arrived on Friday.

Consider spending in the category of parks and recreation, cultural enrichment (called cultural affairs in Arlington), and public libraries (Exhibit C-7 in the report). For each jurisdiction, the APA provides both the per capita amount and the percentage of the statewide per capita. Consider the following:

  • Parks and Recreation: Statewide, counties spend an average of $50.74 per capita. However, Arlington government spends $175.59 (346%), Fairfax County spends $90.86 per capita (179%), and Prince William County spends $65.11 per capita (128%).
  • Cultural Enrichment. Statewide, counties spend $4.71 per capita. In Arlington County, that figure is $16.65 (353%). By comparison, Fairfax County spends $10.57 while Loudoun County spends $11.78. On the other hand, Prince William County spends only $2.88 per capita (61% of the statewide average).
  • Public Libraries. The statewide spending per capita is $30.23. Arlington County spends $73.62 per capita, Fairfax County $37.10, Loudoun County $41.00, and Prince William County $34.93.

In the letter transmitting the report, the APA cautions users not to base conclusions solely on the data in the report, but rather, consider the other factors involved such as differences in efficiency of operations and differences in the quality and quantity of services. Taxpayers should expect such factors to be discussed by the Manager in proposing each year’s budget. Otherwise, the county’s financial operations are not truly transparent, and taxpayers do not have the information needed to evaluate whether the taxes they are being asked to pay are justified or even needed.

A 1992 political campaign slogan told citizens, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Well, in budget planning and execution, it’s the spending, stupid.

April 26, 2008

Property Tax Revolt in Arlington County?

The editorial section of the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal highlights a veto of a bill by Arizona governor Janet Napolitano (D) “that would have made a two-year suspension of the state property tax permanent.” The damage to Arizona property owners will be an estimated $250 million.

The Journal points out that higher property taxes carry a “double whammy” for some:

“Higher property taxes impose a double whammy on those at risk of losing their homes. First, they act as a tax surcharge on homeownership. And second, when the tax hikes aren't tied to better public services, they reduce housing values, thus reducing owner equity.

“The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky reviewed dozens of studies on real-estate prices and concluded that "the evidence from the most reliable estimates" is that between 60% and 90% of property taxes are capitalized into a reduced value of the home. So a permanent $200 a year increase in the property tax could reduce the sales value of the home by between $1,200 and $1,800.”

Politicians who support tax increases during times when home values are dropping may feel the voters’ wrath, according to the Wall Street Journal, which notes:

“One early sign of voter discontent came last year in Indiana, where 21 incumbent mayors lost re-election bids due to anger over taxes. Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson lost to underfinanced GOP challenger Greg Ballard, thanks in part to a doubling in property taxes and a 65% increase in the local income tax.”

By the way, the Arlington County Board spouts that their three cent increase in the real estate tax rate will only cost the average residential property in Arlington $104 per year. Assuming those university studies are correct, the Board’s action will likely result in a $600 to $900 reduction in the value of the “average residential property.” Thanks a lot, County Board; you're so caring and compassionate!

April 25, 2008

Spending When It’s Taxpayer Money

In adopting the FY 2009 budget last Saturday, the Arlington County Board approved a 14.9% increase in the subsidy for Metro operations -- from $17.4 million to $20 million. With such a large increase in the subsidy, one might think the Board member who sits on the Metro board of directors would be especially concerned with the economical and efficient operations of the Metro system.But you would be wrong. This morning’s Washington Post reported:

“The Metro board yesterday approved spending as much as $1 million over five years to hire professional "mystery riders" to assess the quality of service on trains and buses.

“But some rider advocates questioned the expense and said the transit agency could get equally valuable information from its riders, who already bombard Metro with more than 3,000 complaints a month.”

The Post report added that:

"We want to know what works and doesn't work, and what can be made better," said Metro board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County and pushed for the program as part of Metro's goal to improve service.

“Metro already hears from many customers about what does not work. The agency receives between 3,000 and 4,000 complaints a month, according to agency reports. The most common complaints are late buses, rude and discourteous behavior, and a lack of reliability for MetroAccess, the paratransit service. More than 1.2 million trips are taken systemwide on an average weekday.

“Zimmerman said the mystery-rider program is needed because "we can't afford to wait until there's a complaint" to improve service.”

So, the Metro system gets more than 150 complaints every workday, but Metro's chairman says they can’t wait for a complaint? Just what does Metro management do with the reports of those 150+ complaints that come in each workday? Put them on the shelf for safekeeping?

If this wasn’t bad enough, Wednesday’s Washington Post reported that a “former Metro official is charged with theft . . . $500,000 allegedly taken at sales office.” But then it’s just the taxpayers’ money.

April 24, 2008

So Much For Environmental Predictions

Although Earth Day (aka Lenin’s birthday) was celebrated Tuesday, it’s not too late to recall some of the hysteria from the original celebration in 1970. Carpe Diem reminds us that not only were most of the predictions wrong, they were “stunningly wrong.”

He also points to a press release from the Washington Policy Center, which has a list of “predictions made on the original Earth Day about environmental disasters that were about to hit the planet.” Here are some of them, including their source:

  • “...civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind,” biologist George Wald, Harvard University, April 19, 1970.”
  • “By 1995, “...somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” Sen. Gaylord Nelson, quoting Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, Look magazine, April 1970.”
  • “Because of increased dust, cloud cover and water vapor “...the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born,” Newsweek magazine, January 26, 1970.”
  • “The world will be “...eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age,” Kenneth Watt, speaking at Swarthmore University, April 19, 1970.”
  • “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” biologist Barry Commoner, University of Washington, writing in the journal Environment, April 1970.”
  • “By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half...” Life magazine, January 1970.”
  • “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich, interview in Mademoiselle magazine, April 1970.”
  • “Ehrlich also predicted that in 1973, 200,000 Americans would die from air pollution, and that by 1980 the life expectancy of Americans would be 42 years.”
  • “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, The Living Wilderness, Spring 1970.”

The conclusion of the Washington Policy Institute is worth noting:

“By being skeptical about routine portents of doom, we can stay focused on the real threats that face our planet, and on the reasonable and achievable actions we as a society can take to meet them.”

April 23, 2008

Today = Tax Freedom Day

Hard to believe that since New Year's Day, we've been working just for the government. According to the Tax Foundation:

“Most people have heard of Tax Freedom Day by now. For those who haven't, Tax Freedom Day is the day on which Americans have earned enough money to pay all their federal, state and local taxes for the year. On Tax Freedom Day, we have earned enough to pay the government and we can finally start keeping our paychecks for ourselves and our families.  It's a great way to illustrate how much the nation as a whole pays in taxes. We also calculate a Tax Freedom Day for each state.

“In 2008, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 23, which means Americans must work from January 1 until April 23—nearly a third of the year—just to pay taxes.  That's more than we spend on food, clothing and housing combined.”

The Tax Foundation’s report is here, and you can listen to their You Tube video here.

Imagine that! Working 114 days of the year (30.8%) just “for the government.” Sure makes you wonder about the value of government, not to mention what it is that government does.

April 22, 2008

Earth Day Is Also Lenin’s Birthday

Reliapundit of The Astute Bloggers reminds us that today is not only Earth Day, but also the birthday of Vladimir Lenin. And according to Wikipedia, Earth Day was founded on Lenin’s 100th birthday although it was proposed by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to be “a nationwide grassroots demonstration on the environment.” Time magazine “reported that some suspected the date was not a coincidence.”

One organization closely association with Earth Day and the environment is Greenpeace. Consequently, it’s worth reading the op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal by Patrick Moore, a co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace, in which he advises “the environmental movement is not always guided by science.” His conclusion?

“We all have a responsibility to be environmental stewards. But that stewardship requires that science, not political agendas, drive our public policy.”

Speaking of political agendas reminds one of the political agenda of the global warming alarmists, who claim that global warming is caused by human use of fossil fuels. However, Reliapundit and Doug Ross @ Journal note that world temperatures keep falling while CO2 keeps rising. Ross notes that “(a) group of scientists has formally petitioned the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

“to cease and desist on their message that CO2 emissions relate to warming temperatures.”

Sweetness & Light, in fact, suggests that because of fewer sunspots, “an ice age cometh.”

None of the above, however, will stop the foolishness of the five grandees of the Arlington County Board in wasting our tax dollars on their political agenda.

April 21, 2008

Start the Revolution with Transportation

Ron Utt, adjunct scholar with the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, has an op-ed column at Bacon’s Rebellion in which he argues that having achieved “a momentous victory with the defeat of regional transportation authorities,” Virginia citizens should “press their advantage and hold politicians truly accountable.” He writes:

“Having succeeded in wrecking the flawed transportation law, citizens must press their case against government so that the first abomination is not replaced by something equally bad. If the last few years reveal anything, it is that many elected officials are not fit to fulfill the responsibilities they have gathered around them. If the same crowd goes back to the drawing board, a second draft will not be an improvement.

“There is a remedy. Last year the independent auditor for the State of Washington hired a team of experts to assess the performance and policies of those responsible for transportation in his state. The findings were so devastating that a few weeks later voters rejected a referendum for a tax increase that would have wasted $18 billion on sketchy transportation projects.”

Utt then goes on to say:

“With an independent audit presumably exposing Virginia’s manifest government failings, the next step is to replace bureaucratic discretion with quantitative performance measures related to meaningful congestion relief, cost effective mobility, safety, and infrastructure preservation. Of course, none of these are listed as goals by my local commission, although its affiliated MPO favors “transportation choice,” as if transportation had parallels with today’s reproductive rights movement.

“With quantitative measures of performance in place, public officials would be required to meet explicit goals benefiting the motorists funding the program, rather than the business community that funds the politicians. There might then be some hope for Virginia. However, such relief will only come if citizens ride herd on their elected officials, reminding them daily who serves whom, and pressing home the point that the desires of narrow business interests often conflict with those of the voters.”

He concludes saying:

“Winning will require unremitting struggle, with political combat every day, as voters aggressively defend and retrieve their rights from those privileged by government favor.”

Thanks Ron for the great advice. Read the entire column!

April 20, 2008

Do You Know Where Your Transporation Dollars Are Going?

The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, wrote an op-ed last Monday, and suggests that congestion has a “bumpy road,” but concludes that “road pricing is inevitable” although it “won’t be a panacea.” While conservatives seem to like it, liberals seem to be of two minds, as Hiatt writes:

“Liberals focusing on climate change and smart growth tend to love road pricing. But liberals focusing on social inequities tend to believe that high-income taxpayers should pay for public amenities that are available to everyone.”

Enter Norm Leahy, writing at Tertium Quids. He notes that while congestion pricing “is an important tool . . . (in) addressing congestion,” he also writes:

“(I)f all one wants to do is shovel more money into a transportation system without first setting measurable goals and creating a list of congestion-easing priorities, let alone determining where current funds are being spent, it's little wonder there might not be anything left for maintenance. Details, details...

“Hiatt notes that there are political difficulties to overcome with tolls, particularly on long-existing (and long paid for) routes. But he also shows that not all tolls are used, or are intended to be used, for the benefit of the motorists who pay them. And not surprisingly, the comment that shows this comes from Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (who, presumably with a straight face, calls himself an economist):

"I personally don't agree that the roads should be free," he added. "We should be subsidizing mass transit, which has all kinds of benefits, as opposed to roads, which have all kinds of costs."

“There's a reason why Arlington has often been compared to a People's Republic.

“Taxpayers already provide enormous subsidies to mass transit systems, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per rider. Ought we to pour even more money into such schemes? Zimmerman believes so. It makes me wonder if he's aware that gas tax money -- which is supposed to be used to maintain and build roads -- is poured into such subsidies. Perhaps he does (after all, he is a member of that galaxy-sized black hole called Metro).”

Believe Leahy! One of the taxes approved by four of the five grandees on the Arlington County Board during their meeting yesterday was a $0.125 real estate additional tax on commercial and industrial property for transportation initiatives (agenda item 27G, April 19, 2008 meeting). None of it will be used to relieve traffic congestion, but will be used for mass transit projects. And guess who is going to pay most if not all of that so-called “additional tax?”

Bookmark Tertium Quids so you can read about important "center-right" events as well as the wise observations of the pundits blogging there. 

April 19, 2008

Same Ol’ Same Ol’ Arlington County Budget

At this morning’s Arlington County  Board meeting, Wayne Kubicki provided the following testimony about the county fiscal trends during public comment. He has graciously allowed Growls to share them with you. They capture quite well the FY2009 budget season.

Mr. Chairman, other members of the Board, good morning. Within the next hour or so, undoubtedly by a 5-nothing vote, you’ll be approving the County budget for fiscal year 2009.

This was supposed to really be a difficult budget year, calling for spending restraint.  You’d never know that by looking at the numbers. The General Fund budget is up 6.7% over last year.  Add in the new stormwater spending, which you must do in order to have a true comparison, and the year-to-year increase is 7.4%. That 7.4% is exactly the same average increase we’ve had over the past 8 years.  And it’s exactly double the percentage growth we had in the mid to late-nineties.

We’ve been told, again and again, that such growth is not sustainable.  Yet, you’re about to do it, once again. Even more telling is comparing the County budget to the Schools budget. The year-to-year increase in the total School budget is 5.2%.

If you remove the School transfer payment from the County budget, you find that County-only spending is up 8.4%.  That’s 60% faster growth than the Schools. That kind of differential begs the question – which Board has better control of its budget?

“Sustainability” here at Courthouse Plaza seems to have been redefined as 7.4% growth, and raising tax rates in amounts needed to achieve it.  Today, we’re being treated to three cents – just shy of a four percent tax increase. And you are absolutely clobbering our business community – combining assessment increases, the rate increases and the new transportation tax, their real estate taxes are going up 33% by your actions today.

So, in the speeches each of the five of you will give later, please spare us the platitudes of how difficult this budget cycle was.  The rate of growth mirrors that of the last 8 years, and the year-to-year expenditure reductions are miniscule.  This cycle was not difficult – it was business as usual.

Thanks Wayne for allowing Growls to publish your comments here. To read the county’s spin on what is now the County Board's so-called “sustainable” FY 2009 budget, here’s the link to the press release. To see that no increase in the real estate tax rate was needed, look at how the Civic Federation proposed balancing the FY2009 budget (requires Adobe).

April 18, 2008

Management by Political Correctness

After reading about the latest action by the Arlington School Board on Thursday evening in the online Arlington Sun-Gazette, I had to wonder if the School Board has adopted a new management style. The newspaper reports:

“School Board members now have a plan to redevelop the Arlington Career Center. They just don't have the money."

According to Dictionary.com, political correctness involves the “avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” The definition seemed especially relevant after seeing the reader comments to the article by Wayne Kubicki who asks:

“In light of the huge projects already on the table, is someone afraid of a "NO" vote? Shouldn't every project of anywhere near this magnitude be put up for voter approval?”

Board member Libby Garvey seemed especially animated by the architect’s presentation when she said, “I think it looks great.” However, the newest Board member, Abby Raphael, seems more fiscally responsibly by saying, “I want to be realistic about where the funding is coming from.”

Another item on the School Board’s agenda Thursday was a report from the Superintendent on debt capacity in which we growled earlier this week about spending on school construction. The Board’s various mullings makes one wonder if the School Board has adopted a new governing philosophy.

April 17, 2008

The “Little Yellow School Bus” Meeting

Think Arlington’s County and School Boards have your best economic interest at heart? Or the economical and efficient use of the tax dollars we entrust them with? If you think so, last night’s joint budget (FY2009) worksession (slides available in both .ppt and .pdf format) in which the School Board presented the schools budget to their County Board colleagues at the Education Center would probably disabuse you of those notions.

As Growls’ readers know, the cost-per-student for Arlington Public Schools is significantly higher than for the other county school districts in the region. For example, for FY2008, it was $18,563 for APS while in Fairfax County, it was $$13,407 and only $10,429 in Prince William County. For FY2009, it will cost Arlington County taxpayers $19,195, according to the Superintendent’s proposed budget.

So you might think that members of the County Board would want to know just why Arlington’s cost-per-student is significantly higher than it is in either of Arlington’s neighbors. But then you would be wrong. Not one question about this important measure of how taxpayers' money is spent.

What seemed to animate the County Board members the most? Why, the environment. In fact, the environment and “green” initiatives was part of the School Board’s “focus” in developing the budget, according to one slide. A later slide noted that four issues were the Board’s focus, and their “focus” will cost Arlington taxpayers $256,140. Hey, it’s important to be “green.” And that doesn’t include the so-called FreshAIRE initiative of the County Board.

Could one reason for the Board’s disinterest in the schools’ financial performance be that there is insufficient interest by the general public? A quick count of those attending last night’s worksession showed 24 people paid by the taxpayers, but only six taxpaying citizens. And all six have had a long interest in the school budget.

And why call it “The Little Yellow School Bus” meeting? A small foam school bus “trinket” was placed before each of the County Board members or a county staffer. An imprint of the school logo was on top of each little school bus. Charming!

More detailed comparisons of Arlington to other school districts in the region are available from the WABE Guides produced by the  Washington Area Boards of Education. 

April 15, 2008

Working for the Tax Man

With your tax return likely filed for another year, it’s probably not the time to think about tax complexity and tax burdens. But then again, it just may be. The National Taxpayers Union (NTU) released their annual study today of tax-filing burdens (press release and entire study). And it’s no surprise they found there is “little respite in sight.” According to NTU:

“ Taxpayers continue to be buried under burdensome federal income tax regulations, according to the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union's (NTU) 10th annual study of tax law complexity trends. Taxpayers using any of the 1040 tax form series will spend an average of 26.5 hours and $207 completing their returns this year, up from 25.4 hours and $185 three years ago.

"American taxpayers are spending inordinate amounts of time and money navigating the nation's twisted Tax Code," NTU Senior Counselor and study author David Keating said. "Tax complexity probably will get worse before it gets any better, unless lawmakers start quantifying burdens (or, in the rare case, savings) for proposals that affect our tax laws."

"NTU has conducted comprehensive examinations of Tax Code complexity since 1999, providing historical trends of the increased burden on citizens and businesses in complying with IRS demands. However, the IRS recently has revised its methodology for reporting compliance burdens, making NTU's research all the more challenging.”

Three findings from the report are especially worth noting:

  • “Americans filing a Form 1040 with common schedules this year will confront 155 pages of instructions, nearly quadruple the number in 1975 and nearly triple the number in 1985, the year before taxes were "simplified."
  • “The average long-form taxpayer paid $268 last year for out-of-pocket filing costs -- an 11 percent increase over two years. The average self-employed taxpayer paid $444 in out-of-pocket costs -- a 9 percent increase over the same period.
  • “As of March 15, the average per-client fee of H&R Block (which prepares one in seven tax returns filed by all Americans) was $169.15 -- a 5.5 percent jump from the same time last year.”

Sure sounds like it’s time for a flat tax or the Fair Tax. Time for another revolution?

April 14, 2008

“Stuck in the Middle” with the NVTA

An item about the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) in the Metro section of today’s Washington Post got me thinking of these lines from Bob Dylan’s song, “Stuck in the Middle with You:”

“Clowns to the left of me!
Jokers to the right!
Here I am stuck in the middle with you.”

What did NVTA do that got me reminiscing about Dylan’s song? According to the Washington Post:

“Now that it has been stripped of its ability to build roads and transit, the broke and powerless Northern Virginia Transportation Authority thinks it might have found a cheap and effective way to lobby Richmond legislators: on You Tube.

“The NVTA is asking Northern Virginia motorists to make videos of their miserable commutes and post them on its YouTube page.”

So they don’t have money to build roads, but they have the time and money to lobby the General Assembly to raise our taxes. So now we know, NVTA is made up of the clowns on the left and the jokers on the right.

Kudos to Jim Bacon, blogging at Bacon’s Rebellion, for noting that NVTA “may be broke and powerless,” after losing their taxing authority thanks to the Virginia Supreme Court, “but that’s not stopping it from agitating for more money.” As Bacon asked, however:

“Does anyone else have a problem with a quasi-state entity like the NVTA using taxpayer dollars to agitate for... more taxpayer dollars? It's one thing for the elected officials who comprise the membership of the organization to lobby for particular transportation solutions, but it's another for a taxpayer-funded organization to engage in such advocacy itself.”

Arlington County taxpayer who are outraged about this abuse of taxpayers should contact Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (czimmerman (at) arlingtonva.us), the current NVTA chairman.

April 13, 2008

What’s “Responsible and Manageable” About That?

Scott McCaffrey reports today at the online Arlington Sun-Gazette:

“(Arlington) County school officials will need to secure nearly $260 million from county voters, in three referendums over six years, to fund reconstruction projects at Yorktown and Wakefield high schools.”

“In a “conceptual” proposal being forwarded by school staff to School Board members, school bond referendums of $88.7 million in 2008, $14.1 million in 2010 and $156.7 million in 2012 would provide the funds needed for those two schools, and provide $8.7 million to maintain deteriorating facilities until facelifts can be completed.

“Acknowledging the staggering costs involved, Superintendent Robert Smith told School Board members that the plan was “responsible and manageable.”

McCaffrey went on to explain that even with that kind of spending, the school system would still be spending just 8% of its operating budget on debt service, less than the 10% figure that would put the county in risk of losing their vaunted Triple A bond rating.

We’ve growled before about the school district’s spending on school construction, most recently October 6, 2007, when we compared the cost of the newly constructed Washington-Lee High School with other Virginia high schools constructed at the same time. For example, we pointed out that the cost per square foot for W-L was $213 while the comparable cost for the new high school in Culpeper County is $159. Not only that, but the square footage per student at W-L is 227 while it is 141 square feet per student for Dinwiddie County’s new high school. Now, let's talk responsibility!

To read the Superintendent’s entire memo, and attachment, on debt capacity, see agenda item F.3. of the School Board’s April 17, 2008 meeting.

April 11, 2008

Swimming Against The Tide

It seems a day doesn’t go by that some liberal or progressive politician doesn’t call for higher, or certainly more progressive, taxes. Especially two of the three presidential candidates. Consequently, it’s a pleasant surprise to read that a foreign country is considering adopting a flat tax. This seems especially prevalent among the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The latest is Hungary, according to today’s Budapest Times, which reports:

“Small conservative opposition party the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) last Thursday said it would attempt to force the introduction of a flat tax after a coalition split raised the prospect of a minority government.”

In 2006, Chris Edwards, Director of Tax Policy at the Cato Institute, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee:

“The countries of Eastern Europe have shown the way ahead with sharp cuts to individual and corporate income tax rates. These countries have shown that low-rate flat taxes are not just an economist's dream, but a practical reality that can boost growth, reduce tax avoidance, and increase fairness.”

Dan Mitchell has blogged about this several times at Cato@Liberty.

HT: Drew Nordgren at NTU’s Government Bytes.

April 10, 2008

How Much Do Liberals Love Government?

Rep. John Campbell (R-California) was set to announce the federal version of the Tax Me More Fund today. According to his Green Eyeshade Blog:

“I will officially roll out my “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” Act, in a press conference in Washington D.C.  This bill will amend the Tax Code to allow individuals to make voluntary donations to the federal government above and beyond their normal tax liability, and actually put a line on the IRS tax form to make it easier to make donations.”

Campbell also wrote that:

“Last week, Presidential Candidate Senator Hillary Clinton stated that "We didn't ask for George Bush's tax cuts. We didn't want them, and we didn't need them" . . . It’s time Senator Clinton and other high-profile liberals like Senators Hillary Clinton (NY) and Barack Obama (IL), Warren Buffett, and Barbra Streisand who have publicly stated that Americans should pay more taxes, to put their money where their mouth is.”

Let’s see how deep liberals are willing to dig into their own pockets to pay for Big Government. We’re sure it’s not nearly as much as they say they love Big Government.

HT Citizens Against Government Waste's Swine Line.

April 09, 2008

Congress’ Fiscal Ratings Near All-Time Low

The National Taxpayers Union (NTU) released their 29th annual Rating of Congress yesterday, and the picture is generally not very pretty. “The scorecard, the only one to utilize every roll call vote affecting tax, spending, and regulatory issues, was based on a record 609 votes -- 427 in the House and 182 in the Senate.” According to NTU’s new president, Duane Pardee:

"Despite campaign-trail promises from many Members of Congress to put Washington on a stricter diet, our 2007 Rating shows that, by and large, the only things shrinking on Capitol Hill are lawmakers' pro-taxpayer scores.”

NTU reports that individual members’ ratings dropped between 2006 and 2007:

“the average "Taxpayer Score" in the House fell from 39 percent to 35 percent. The Senate's average plummeted by 11 points, from 48 percent to 37 percent. This spiral takes scores closer to the all-time low (in 1988) of 27 percent and 28 percent, respectively, for the House and Senate. The highest marks were reached in 1995, when House and Senate averages were 58 percent and 57 percent, respectively.”

The ratings for members of Congress who represent Arlington County taxpayers saw no “Taxpayers Friends,” indeed far from it.

  • Sen. John Warner (R)  55%  (C - Satisfactory)
  • Sen. Jim Webb (D)       13%  (F - Big Spender)
  • Rep. Jim Moran (D)      5%  (F - Big Spender)

The complete ratings are here (requires Adobe). Read them and weep! Then, take action!

April 08, 2008

Comments About Manager's Proposed Budget

Two weeks ago, Arlington County residents and business owners had the opportunity to tell the County Board what they thought about the Manager’s proposed budget for FY 2009.

Last week’s Arlington Connection provides another opportunity to growl about the budget. The most cogent comments made to the five County Board members were provided by Wayne Kubicki, Arlington’s uber Watchdog. Here’s the relevant portion from the Connection:

“Kubicki said that the proposed increase, which would represent an extra 3.4 cents per $100 of the assessed value of a property, is still too much. “Do we need all of that 3.4 cent rate increase?” he said. “I submit that we don’t.”

“Kubicki, a former member of the County’s Fiscal Advisory Commission, analyzed Carlee’s budget and found a number of areas that he felt should be cut. He said that costs for capital projects should be paid for by bonds rather than taxpayer money and that a residential tax assistance program is unnecessary now that assessments are down.

“He also said that there are 48 full-time County staff positions that have been vacant for over a year. According to Kubicki’s calculations, eliminating these positions from the budget would save almost $4 million.

“If we’ve gotten along with these positions empty for at least a year,” Kubicki said, “I think we can get a long without them.”

Will the County Board understand and take Mr. Kubicki’s advice? Taxpayers should hope they do.

April 07, 2008

Wasteful Spending, And Then Really Wasteful Spending

The Republican Study Committee (RSC) in the House of Representatives publishes occasional documents, titled “Taking Out the Trash,” which feature blurbs about wasteful government spending. Living in Arlington, as well as living next to the nation’s capital, affords us the opportunity to observe la creme de la creme of wasteful spending.

The following example from the RSC’s May 8, 2007 “Taking out the Trash,” however, provides this example of really, really, really wasteful spending, labelled “USDA Knows Hockey:”

“The USDA’s Rural Development Program recently wrote a $925,000 loan guarantee for the North America Hockey Academy (NAHA), a private high school/training facility for young, female hockey players.  Located in the affluent resort town of Stowe, Vermont, the NAHA offers periodic training camps for young female hockey players as well as a fulltime high school for girls that are able to afford the $24,500 tuition.  According to the Rural Development Program’s April newsletter for the Vermont/New Hampshire area, the NAHA used the funds to purchase a lodge and 4.25 acres of land which will “provide access to swimming and tennis while meeting the critical needs of housing students, staff and supporting classroom space.” (Rural Development: Vermont/New Hampshire Guaranteed Lender News.  Volume 2, Issue 1, April, 2007)”

So, Arlington taxpayers, who spend almost $19,000 per student (among the highest in Virginia) in the Arlington Public Schools, get to subsidize hockey training for students attending a private school in Vermont with annual tuition of $24,500. And there are 2008 presidential candidates who expect the same 535 members of Congress who approved this to implement universal health care? Sheesh!

April 06, 2008

Sorting Out The Good Teachers

An editorial in this morning’s Newport News Daily Press concludes:

“Big across-the-board raises don't sort good teachers from bad.”

Noting that public schools in many communities take the largest chunk of local budgets while personnel costs are “the biggest chunk of of school budgets, the newspaper says “the plain truth” is:

“Good teachers are underpaid. Bad teachers are overpaid.”

The editorial seems well-balanced with a lot of useful information. In concluding that merit pay for teachers is better than a “one-size-fits-all” system, the paper makes the following point:

“Big pay increases don't in themselves improve teacher quality. In fact, they can backfire. The best and the brightest, who can compete in another field, aren't going to stay because a raise means they can look forward to $45,000 in 10 years, not $43,000. But marginal performers, less likely to find a job with similar pay, benefits, time off and guaranteed security, are tied tighter to the job by a generous raise. That's probably not the intended effect, and surely not the right one.

"Also, large across-the-board raises do nothing to fix one of the big things keeping (or chasing) capable, confident people out of teaching: the knowledge that no matter how hard they work, and how successful they are, they'll be paid the same as the abysmal colleague down the hall. That's the case today, with teacher pay determined only by years of service and degrees held (even if the degree is irrelevant to their assignment).”

Well-said, and well-written, Daily Press!

April 05, 2008

It Must Be OK -- It’s For The Children

Near election time whenever members of the General Assembly are up for reelection, opposition candidates like to point out how taxpayers in Northern Virginians shovel more money to Richmond than we receive back. Earlier this year, Jim Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion pointed out just how ridiculous that process really is. Bacon writes:

“As I've often observed before, this rebenchmarking process represents one of the greatest inter-regional transfers of wealth in the state. By a complicated process, it punishes municipalities that choose to spend more local tax dollars on tax education. Each time the SOLs are rebenchmarked, the more dramatic the redistribution gets. Accordingly, it is instructive to see what happened when the SOLs were last rebenchmarked, in 2006. Many Virginia cities and counties enjoyed such a windfall of state revenue that they could cut their contributions of local tax dollars.”

Add in the 2004 tax increase brought to taxpayers by Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Sen. John Chichester (R), and the result might cause anyone to rant. Using numbers compiled by Chris Braunlich (requires Adobe), a resident of Fairfax County and regular contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion, Jim Bacon points out that some localities were able to reduce their own spending “for the children” even though the tax increase was “sold” on the basis of “helping the children:”

  • City of Lexington - “received $1,139 in additional state funds per pupil -- and cut their own contribution by $446 per pupil.”
  • City of Covington - “received $796 per pupil more from the state, and cut its local contribution by $644.”
  • Henrico County -- “an affluent suburban jurisdiction, received $423 more per pupil and cut its local contribution by $53.”
  • Chesterfield County - “the fourth most populous jurisdiction in Virginia, received $415 more per pupil and cut its own contribution by $239.”

In cconclusion, Jim writes:

“If Northern Virginia taxpayers want to know how they're getting shafted in Richmond, this is where they ought to be looking. As a Henrico resident, I'm a beneficiary of the funding formula. But that doesn't make it right. This formula is broken.”

In February, we growled that Arlington’s public schools provided only average results at a very extraordinary price. That’s compounded now by learning the funding formula is a scheme that transfers more of the wealth of Northern Virginians to other regions of the state. Can the Arlington members of the General Assembly spell accountability?

April 04, 2008

A "Line in the Sand on Tax Rates"

Scott McCaffrey of the Arlington Sun-Gazette reports today on the results of Tuesday’s Arlington Civic Federation Meeting in which the main item on the program was the Arlington County Manager’s proposed budget for FY 2009. The message was “blunt:” “Don’t raise tax rates this year.

“By a lopsided 39-5 majority, the Civic Federation's membership on April 1 approved a budget proposal that calls on the County Board to reject County Manager Ron Carlee's recommendation to add 3.4 cents per $100 assessed value to the current real estate tax rate.

“Carlee has proposed increasing the rate to 85.2 cents per $100, to fund health-care and retirement services for county workers and to support improvements to the county government's stormwater system.”

Congratulations to my colleagues on the the Civic Federation’s Revenue & Expenditures Committee. and also the Federation's Schools Committee, for their hard work in finding a way to balance the county budget without cutting into continuing services and requiring no increase in tax rates.

The 31-page report is ungoing final edits, and I'll post a link when it becomes available. 

April 03, 2008

American Taxpayers Paid For What?

Yesterday, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) released their 18th annual Pig Book, which totaled a whopping $17.2 billion in pork. According to their press release:

“In fiscal year 2008, Congress stuffed 11,610 projects (the second highest total ever) worth $17.2 billion into the 12 appropriations bills.  That is a 337 percent increase over the 2,658 projects in fiscal year 2007, and a 30 percent increase over the $13.2 billion total in fiscal year 2007.  Alaska led the nation with $556 in pork per capita ($380 million total), followed by Hawaii with $221 ($283 million) and North Dakota with $208 ($133 million).  CAGW has identified $271 billion in total pork since 1991.

“For the first time, the names of members of Congress were added to the projects.  The top three porkers were members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, beginning with Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) with $892 million; Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) with $469 million; and Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) with $465 million.”

Here are examples of pork from the 2008 Pig Book provided by CAGW:

  •  $3 million for The First Tee;
  •  $1,950,000 for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service;
  • $460,752 for hops research;
  • $211,509 for olive fruit fly research in Paris, France;
  •  $196,000 for the renovation and transformation of the historic Post Office in Las Vegas;
  •  $188,000 for the Lobster Institute in Maine; and
  •  $148,950 for the Montana Sheep Institute.”

You can search the Pig Book database to find pork procured by Virginia Senators Warner and Webb and Representative Moran. This is pork paid for by all American taxpayers.

April 02, 2008

Arlington Schools Sure Got The Memo

Last Wednesday, we growled that even in Arlington County there are financial limits based upon a news article in the DC Examiner. We even provided links to a County Manager’s memo, which indicated that Arlington’s debt was reaching “a perilously high level unless the county and schools curb their construction rates.” Today’s Examiner reports that Arlington school district:

“is delaying a massive, 55-month reconstruction project at Yorktown High School in the wake of warnings from the county government about dwindling funds.

“Schools officials, who have $25 million in funding from a previous bond referendum to begin construction in June, were relying on voters passing another bond in November to fund the additional $75 million needed for the project.”

Capital spending was the major issue in last night’s debate among the six School Board candidates seeking the endorsement in next month’s Democrat caucus. The Arlington Sun-Gazette contains an extensive story online from the debate.

The spin on this story is in this APS press release.