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They're Baa-aack. Gang of Six Returns to Haunt Taxpayers
Posted By:  - 07/20/11

They’re baa-aack. Just like the evil spirits in Poltergeist ( the movie that spawned the phrase) the Gang of Six has seemingly come back from the dead. Moreover, it appears their goal is to haunt the American taxpayer.

The six Senators have put forth a lame-brained “plan,” or to be more specific, “set of vague ideas,” that they say will reduce the deficit. But why now? After all, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), a member of the Gang of Six, said that the plan would not be ready in time to factor into the debt limit negotiations. “The Gang of Six plan has not been drafted nor has it been scored by the CBO – it’s not ready for prime time,” Durbin told The Hill.”

Seems curious that you would release something that isn’t ready now and has no hopes of being ready before the supposed August 2nd deadline. That is, until you realize that the entire purpose behind the release was to divert media attention from the passage of the Cut, Cap and Balance Act. While the mainstream media, President Obama, and a smattering of Senate Democrats were fawning over the Gang’s vague promises and unspecified cuts, House Republicans actually passed a concrete plan to reduce the deficit and raise the debt limit.

The craziest thing about this ruse is that even the few details that were provided paint a pretty scary picture. Given the list of bullet points that seemingly comprise the entirety of the “plan,” it looks like it only cuts $500 billion (despite providing no details on where they come from) and then establishing a “process for the committees in Congress to specify further savings.”

And that’s the plan at its most concrete. For instance, the plan promises savings by “spend[ing] health care dollars more efficiently in order to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid.” If it were as easy as this, wouldn’t be doing it already? All that description really tells me is that it punts on making much-needed adjustments to our largest drivers of spending.

Where the plan really induces some Poltergeist-style terror are its tax provisions. To be fair, the plan says it would eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax (which Congress already patches every year) and reduce top individual and corporate tax rates, but, as with everything that comes out of Washington these days, the devil is in the details.  

The plan says it would “reform, not eliminate, tax expenditures for health, charitable giving, homeownership and retirement” which somehow would “provide $1 trillion in additional revenue.” As Daniel Horowitz sarcastically asks, “You really mean to tell me that Chris Coons and Dick Durbin finally understand the Laffer Curve and the economic effect of cutting marginal tax rates?” Either that, or (as is more likely) the vague mandate to “improve the progressivity of the tax code” implies some sneaky tax hikes on things like capital gains.   

Overall, the plan promises to provide $1.5 trillion in tax relief relative to the CBO March baseline. But this is nothing more than a dishonest budgetary trick designed to hide the real impact on taxpayers. “The CBO baseline assumes the expiration of tax relief, resulting in a $3.5 trillion revenue increase. As a result, the plan appears to include a $2 trillion revenue increase relative to a current policy baseline,” says the House Budget Committee in their analysis of the proposal. “If the $800 billion in tax increases from the new health care law are included, the plan appears to increase revenues by $2.8 trillion, without addressing unsustainable health care spending that is driving our debt problems.”

$2.8 trillion in tax hikes?!? The Gang of Six may be baa-aack, but if that’s the best they can do, they should have stayed gone.  

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50 State Flyby: Week of July 15th
Posted By: Brent Mead - 07/15/11

Minnesota is looking like they have a tentative deal on a budget solution. The compromise is essentially the budget deal Republicans offered Governor Dayton before the state shutdown for two weeks. Differences between the two sides will be covered by $700 million in defered K-12 payments and $700 million in state bonds using tobacco settlement funds. Additionally, the Governor called for halting a plan to cut the state workforce by 15%, stripping policy riders from the budget, and passage of a $500 million bonding bill.

Whether Dayton’s change in heart on soaking the rich comes from political pressure, or threat of bars going dry, the deal as it stands now does not contain any new taxes. 

California

Before heading out for a break, the California Assembly narrowly defeated ACA 6. Requiring a 2/3 majority for passage, it failed 50-23. The folks at Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have been on top of the attempt to radically rewrite the initiative process in California.

ACA 6 would prohibit any initiative from even being voted on if, in the opinion of either the Legislative Analyst or the Director of Finance, the measure did not “pay for itself.”

The most telling aspect of ACA 6 is that if it had been on the books in 1978, Prop 13 likely would never have gone to the voters.

Michigan

It is not a huge secret that pension reform looms large over many states. The Mackinac Center published a report this week detailing the billions in savings achieved in 1997 when the state moved from a defined benefit to defined contribution plan for most new hires. 

As states attempt to reform unfunded liabilities in public pensions they would do well to follow Michigan’s example.

California (Again)

Amazon.com decided to file a referendum to repeal the recently passed affiliate tax. While things are about to get litigious, affiliate taxes remain terrible policy.

As NTU’s press release earlier in the week states, companies such as Amazon have very little incentive to submit to such onerous requirements. It is far easier for the large online retailers to terminate their affiliate programs. Amazon's decision to cancel its 10,000 contracts falls in line with what happened in North Carolina, Rhode Island, New York, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the state will not reap the predicted $150 million revenue windfall, and will likely cost itself a healthy portion of the current $125 million in existing taxes collected from affiliates.

NTU argues against these proposal because they attempt to impose a burden on businesses which do not have a physical presence in the state. Further, the big box stores, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, etc. account for a large percentage of online sales and are subject to a state's sales and use tax. Amazon taxes end up having the effect of punishing small affiliates for little, if any, gain to the state.

New York

Sports fans – Next time you have a chance to grab a part of history, remember the tax implications.

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No Disenchantment on Failed Tax Policies Yet
Posted By: Brent Mead - 07/15/11

New Mexico, fresh off of cigarette tax hikes totaling $1.46 per pack in the past decade, now wants to take aim at smokeless tobacco and cigars. Calling the current 25% tax rate on smokeless products a “loophole,” tax hike cheerleaders want raise rates on all tobacco products to equal the new cigarette tax in the interest of fairness. I won't be breaking new ground with any of my arguments, but tobacco taxes still target the poor, still don't produce their advertised revenue, and they still hurt small businesses. 

New Mexico currently enjoys a slight competitive advantage vis-à-vis most of its neighbors. The 25% tax rate on the first purchaser is lower than Colorado (40%), Oklahoma (60%), and Texas ($1.16 per ounce). The proposal to more than double the rate to 57% would make New Mexico more expensive than all but the Sooner State. Further complicating the situation are the multiple Native American reservations in the state, which have varying tax relationships with the state. What all this means is that small businesses, like convenience store owners, who rely on tobacco sales will be hit hard at the register as consumers buy less, or more likely just buy elsewhere.   

Speaking of Native Americans, they are the group most likely to use smokeless tobacco, and are also the poorest demographic in New Mexico. In addition to having higher than average unemployment, many Native Americans can now also look forward to a massive tax hike that will hit them the hardest. I am not quite sure what is fair about adding another $350 in yearly taxes for a dipper who is already struggling to get by.

Finally, the past couple of years have not been kind to tobacco tax revenue estimates. The best example is the District of Columbia, which actually saw a decrease in collections compared pre-tax levels when it passed a massive increase in 2009. More recently, despite strong revenue growth across-the-board, Kentucky saw its tobacco tax revenue fall by over 5% when the state had projected an increase of over 10%. Maine is seeing similar numbers as well.   

Governor Martinez announced her opposition to the proposal, so perhaps there is hope that the enchanting spell sin taxes hold over New Mexico’s lawmakers will be broken. In the meantime, NTU and others will continue to argue for a sane tax policy that doesn’t drive business out of state, and doesn’t target the poor.

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Mitch McConnell Proposed What?!?!
Posted By: Andrew Moylan - 07/12/11

It's been a crazy week in Washington, but it just got substantially crazier. I'm sitting at my desk plugging away at some work when my email starts blowing up with details of a new debt ceiling plan being floated by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Minority Leader. It's a doozy, but the basic breakdown is this: the President would be authorized to request from Congress three separate debt ceiling increases of between $700-$900 billion each. He would be required to submit a plan for an equivalent amount of spending reductions. Congress would then be given a chance to "veto" this package by voting on what's called a "Resolution of Disapproval." If that resolution failed, then the President would have his debt ceiling hike alongside a toothless set of spending reduction ideas. Even if the disapproval passed, he could then veto the resolution meaning that a two-thirds majority of Congress would have to override his veto in order to have the disapproval stand.

So what does that mean in reality? It means the President gets his debt ceiling increase, lock, stock, and barrel, unless a miracle occurs and two-thirds of Congress (AKA every Republican in the House and 50 Democrats along with every Republican in the Senate and 20 Democrats) engage in a sudden burst of bipartisanship and override his veto. True, the plan requires the President to submit a plan to reduce spending by an equivalent amount, but a plan isn't the same as actually cutting spending. Congress would have to actually incorporate those spending reductions into future bills, and the whole reason we have the debt ceiling impasse right now is that they can't agree on what spending reductions to include in future bills.

This is a point that appears to have been missed by some. There are otherwise-solid conservative legislators and activists who have said nice things about the plan because it appears to put the debt ceiling onus directly on the President. But, let me repeat, it does NOT force any cuts in spending. It contains nothing in the way of Congressional fast-track authority, the way several "spending commission" proposals that preceded the President's Fiscal Commission executive order did. Unless I'm missing something (which is always possible), I don't see a single thing that actually requires a spending cut, just a requirement that the President identify a list of spending cuts.

People smarter than I am have also raised real constitutional questions about this plan, as it essentially reverses the legislative process by allowing the President to propose something and Congress to veto that proposal. There is something of a precedent with the Congressional Review Act, which was established to allow Congress to modify or eliminate regulations proposed by executive agencies, but that's a much narrower case where Congress has delegated its legislative authorities relating to regulatory issues. This, on the other hand, strikes right at the heart of Congress' proper authority to determine levels of spending and borrowing as defined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. It also bears a resemblance to the line-item veto debate of the 1990s, where a proposal was ruled unconstitutional because it allowed for the President to implement a set of policies not with Congress' APPROVAL, but simply by its lack of DISAPPROVAL.

Beyond all of the technical issues (which are substantial and important), it strikes me as a classic case of being worried about politics over policy. The reason this proposal was drafted in this way is because it would lay responsibility for raising the debt ceiling at the feet of the President. Of course, in shifting slightly more of the "blame" on to Obama (by the way, I think it can be argued that he already will bear most of the public responsibility for hiking the debt ceiling), it grants him a huge increase in the debt limit without including any kind of enforceable reforms to spending now or in the future. That might be a cutesy way to damage the President politically, but it's absolutely horrible if your actual goal in this whole debate is to address Washington's overspending problem.

The solution to our debt disaster is not some complicated form of legislative Jiu Jitsu, it's "Cut, Cap, and Balance." Cutting spending in the short-term will address our deficit, establishing a strong statutory spending cap will put us on a glide path to balance in the medium-term, and the passage and submission to the states of a strong Balanced Budget Amendment will provide a real long-term constraint on a Congress that has proven incapable of fiscal discipline.

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50 State Flyby Week of July 8th
Posted By: Brent Mead - 07/08/11

Obviously the big news all week was the continuing government shutdown in Minnesota.  NTU sent out an open letter to the Minnesota Legislature to continue to oppose Governor Dayton’s multi-billion dollar tax hike scheme. 

The latest development is the somewhat predictable call for higher taxation from a bi-partisan deficit commission.  The Carlson-Mondale panel called for billions in new taxes, ranging from a cigarette tax increase to an across the board 4% income tax hike.  Overtaxation does not and cannot fix an overspending problem. 

New York

In better news, Governor Cuomo officially signed legislation capping property-tax increases.  The new law caps increases at the lesser of 2% or rate of inflation.  Speaking at the ceremony, Governor Cuomo stated;

"What government has to realize is it can't just continually raise taxes because the taxpayers can't pay it anymore. People are leaving the state, businesses are leaving the state."

NTU supported Governor Cuomo’s efforts when he included a property tax cap in his budget proposal and this week marks a solid victory for Empire State taxpayers.

New Jersey

On the other side of the Hudson, Assembly leaders have called for hearings to examine Governor Christie’s $1 billion in line-item cuts to the $30.6 billion budget.  While Democrats in the legislature lack the necessary numbers to override the vetoes without Republican support, these hearings will be worth tracking to gauge what sort of a path the state is heading down going into this year’s elections.

New Hampshire

In another big win for taxpayers, NTU supported legislation was signed into law granting local municipalities the ability to once again cap property taxes.  NTU testified on behalf of SB 2 and it is good to see local taxpayers back in control.

Elsewhere

Cut, Cap, and Balance is gaining momentum with another Governor, Scott Parnell, signing the pledge.  Governor Parnell joins Rick Perry in Texas, Nikki Haley in South Carolina, and Gary Herbert in Utah in opposition to an unconditional increase of the debt ceiling.  If you haven’t already, take a few minutes and sign the pledge yourself.

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Smart States Liberalize Regulation, Reap Rewards
Posted By:  - 07/08/11

Deficits plague all forms of government from the local to the federal level.  A mixture of lower levels of revenue and continued reckless spending has caused budget fights across the country.  From Wisconsin, where budget negotiations caused Democrats to flee the capitol, to Minnesota, where the state government has been shutdown, America seems to be at a standstill due to the tax increase vs. spending cuts war.

At the federal level, Democrats are insisting that tax increases be part of any debt ceiling agreement.  However, history proves that higher taxes do not necessarily equate to higher revenues.  Another way to increase revenue is to decrease the number of regulations, especially on smaller businesses, which in turn drives sales.

Many states have done just that this year in an effort to boost tax revenues. While 2009 saw many “sin” taxes increase in an attempt to cure budget woes, many Republican majorities who recently took office at the state level have taken the smarter path and reaped the rewards for their constituents.

Tennessee, Washington, California, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia passed sampling laws, allowing liquor stores or wineries to hold tastings. Many other states have loosened their controlling grip on Sunday sales, either allowing or expanding hours for sales.  Only two states, Texas and Connecticut forbid any sale of alcohol on Sundays. Alcohol sales generate about $41 billion a year for state and local governments according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Changes in regulation can have a big effect on sales and subsequently revenue.  “Between 2002 and 2005, 12 states liberalized their laws to permit Sunday sales. According to DISCUS, each state saw an increase in tax revenue of 5 to 7 percent,” reports Stateline, a state level policy organization.

These states should be applauded for finding creative ways to improve their budget situation through free market policies, while avoiding tax increases.

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A "Balanced Solution" We Can All Agree On?
Posted By:  - 07/07/11

Whew! For a few weeks it actually looked like we weren’t going to get a debt ceiling deal. Fortunately, the President seems to have come to his senses by promoting a so called “balanced solution” in which higher revenues are part of a larger compromise.

In fact White House adviser David Plouffe said today,

“Our sense has been to make the numbers work, you’re going to have to have a revenue-positive situation.”

Perfect! So we agree.

In fact, achieving this “revenue positive situation” is as easy as…well…doing nothing.

The Congressional Budget Office’s Long Term Budget Outlook showed that revenues are expected to grow by more than seven percent each year, in large part due to a growing economy and population growth. In fact, by the end of the decade, revenue levels will exceed their historical average of 18 percent or Gross Domestic Product.

So we’ll cut spending by seven percent a year, leave revenues to grow as predicted, and watch as our deficit is erased in no time!

Having run the numbers himself, senior Cato Institute fellow Daniel Mitchell says that we really only need to cut spending by five percent each year in order to completely eliminate our deficit in just five years. In other words, because we conservatives are in such a giving mood, and so happy to compromise now that you’ve accepted a “balanced solution,” we’ll even go so far as to tilt the equation in your favor. In return for seven percent revenue growth you’ll only have to agree to five percent spending cuts.

Mitchell writes,

“So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.”

Sadly, Obama does not mean what he says. He wants to raise revenue, above and beyond the increases that will take place naturally, pushing them to historically high levels. Likewise, he has no intention of actually cutting spending. Instead, he’s using an age-old Washington trick that allows him to call any reduction in the pre-planned growth of baseline spending a “spending cut.” Only in the crazy, mixed up world of Washington could spending be “cut” and yet increase year-over-year.

Conservatives fully support a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, if only the President were honest about what that actually entails.

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What Does Economic Freedom Look Like?
Posted By: Dan Barrett - 06/28/11

Pundits can talk your ear off about what they think, politicians can endlessly tell you how their plans will fix things, and professors can give you their views on what they feel is necessary. Luckily there are real numbers to compare these groups, and their claims, with reality. Economic indicators and statistics can be manipulated to fit arguments and talking points but you’ll always find similarities. Factors such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and average income always has the US on the positive side of the scale, while countries like North Korea almost always fall on the failing, or at best struggling, side of global economic comparisons. The difference? Americans can do what they wish, when they want, and in a way they so choose. North Koreas are told how to act, what to say, and even how to think. Americans have significantly more freedoms than, say, North Koreans. This has been our publicized “secret to success.” Here’s hoping more people understand that the more thick the U.S. Code gets with minute instructions and limits to how we handle our money, and thereby our ideas and rights, the thinner our achievements will be in long-term economic development and happiness.

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The "S" Doesn't Stand for Security
Posted By:  - 06/23/11

In case you didn't know the "S" in IRS stands for service not security.  A recent report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration indicates that the IRS could certainly use a healthy dose of security.  As Robert W. Wood writes at Forbes.com, "I recently asked if your IRS data is at risk.  I suggested it might not be, but I didn’t tell you to start worrying.  Now I’m not so sure." 

Here's a very disturbing finding:  "100% of IRS Databases TIGTA tested are vulnerable to hackers."  At least it's not more than 100 percent.  Fortunately, I suppose, "IRS has agreed with TIGTA’s recommendations and is taking steps to develop strategies to deal with these issues."  Given that hackers have hit Sony, the U.S. Senate, and the CIA recently, does anyone think that the IRS will develop and implement its strategic plan in time to prevent the loss of taxpayer data?

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