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Transportation and Infrastructure

Conservation Corps Scored at $16 Billion in Tab
Posted By: Dan Barrett - 12/14/10

Tab Insert

This week’s Taxpayer’s Tab covers a variety of legislation introduced during the 111th Congress, ranging from improving America’s small town infrastructure to eliminating sex-based pay-discrimination.

The 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act -- this week’s Most Expensive Bill -- would reestablish the Depression-era program at a cost of $16 billion each year. The Corps is intended to employ people, especially out-of-work veterans and people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, by improving America’s parks and forests.

Be sure to check out the WildCard -- a bill to get kids and families outdoors through community program grants. You might be interested how much it costs…

The bills highlighted in Issue 23 of The Taxpayer’s Tab include:

  • HR 6456/HR4318, 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act
  • HR 6246, Rural Energy Communities Development Act of 2010
  • S 3772, Paycheck Fairness Act
  • HR 6426, Moving Outdoors in Nature Act of 2010
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Unions protest Wisconsin’s governor-elect for saving money
Posted By:  - 11/19/10

Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive who was just elected Governor of Wisconsin, has been fiercely criticized for his decision to not support an expensive new passenger rail service between Milwaukee and Madison. Now, groups with a stake in rail line and its politics, such as unions and environmentalists, are staging public rallies in an effort to convince the Walker to change his mind. On Monday, a labor-backed rally took place at a train manufacturing plant in Milwaukee and at least six similar rallies are planned for tomorrow.

 

Train supporters claim that they are protesting the loss of jobs while Walker says that the state cannot afford it. Although the federal government has provided $810 million in funds for the construction of the rail line, the state could be left responsible for millions of dollars annually in operational costs. Currently, the state is dealing with an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent and faces a budget deficit of nearly $3 billion over the next two years.

 

But those who support the rail should know that Walker is serious about holding the line on spending. As Milwaukee’s County Executive, he earned a reputation for combating overspending in the county’s budgets. In fact, in each of his nine budget proposals, he kept the property tax levy to the previous year’s level. Walker did this despite howls of protest from critics who said his budgets “cut to the bone” and deprived Milwaukee County residents of important services such as transit and parks.

 

For the sake of Wisconsin’s taxpayers, let’s hope that Governor Walker stays true to his reputation as a good steward of taxpayer money.

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More Big Ethanol
Posted By:  - 11/08/10

In today's Examiner, Tim Carney argues that ending Big Ethanol's subsidies is an early test of their commitment to free markets and smaller government.  With the subsidies set to expire at the end of this year, you can never say never.  However, ethanol has hung around Washington for more than 30 years.  During the 1970s, ethanol was billed as the answer to America's energy crisis. During the 1980s, it was expected to save the family farm from financial ruin. During the 1990s, ethanol was touted for its environmental benefits.  Whatever problem Washington seems to be facing, ethanol seems to be the answer.  And, as Carney rightly points out, the industry has a lot of friends on Capitol Hill.  If Republicans can end subsidies to Big Ethanol, it would be an important accomplishment and demonstrate their commitment to reforming Washington.

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An Alternative to Ethanol
Posted By:  - 10/21/10

In case you're looking for an alternative to ethanol, Investors.com points out that you could purchase a Chevy Volt.  However, they don't seem completely sold on it: "So it's not an all-electric car, but rather a pricey $41,000 hybrid that requires a taxpayer-funded $7,500 subsidy to get car shoppers to look at it."

 

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More on Big Ethanol
Posted By:  - 10/20/10

A little more on Big Ethanol.  This week Gregg Easterbrook has a piece on Reuters.com that touches all of the bases:  subsidies, environmental benefits, and taxes.  Give it a read.

I could not agree more.

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Got questions about ballot measures? NTU's Ballot Guide has answers
Posted By:  - 10/14/10

Voters face many important decisions in the upcoming elections, which are now less than three weeks away. But many of these critical decisions will not involve choosing between the names of candidates. Instead, voters will have to choose between letters and numbers identifiying hundreds of state and local ballot measures, many of which could have an especially profound impact on tax, spending, and other fiscal policies for years to come and regardless of which political party triumphs in the state houses. To help taxpayers better understand these measures, NTU has produced and made available on our website "The 2010 Ballot Guide: The Taxpayers Perspective."

Our Guide is more than just a list of measures. The Guide is an analysis of these measures on the state and local ballots across the country, providing evaluations of how these measures grow the size of government and increase the tax burden on hard-working families. Unfortunately, there are many such measures on the ballot according to the Guide. However, many other measures on the ballot will give taxpayers opportunities to exercise a greater degree of control over government tax, spending, and regulatory powers.

Here are some highlights from the pages of the Guide:

  • In Washington State, Initiative 1098 would impose a state-level income tax there for the first time, beginning on individuals with incomes above $200,000 but later possibly extending to other groups at the Legislature’s discretion.  This would knock Washington off the list of just nine states without a broad-based income tax. On the other hand, Initiative 1053 would require two-thirds of the Legislature or a majority of voters to raise taxes in the future, while Initative 1107 would roll back taxes on candy, bottled water, and soft drinks.
  • In California, Proposition 23 on the statewide ballot would suspend the California Global Warming Act, and all of its mandates until unemployment eases. Taxpayer advocates in the state argue that this measure would prevent substantial hikes in energy costs on struggling consumers. Meanwhile, Proposition 25 would do away with a two-thirds legislative vote requirement to pass a budget but Proposition 26 would extend a two-thirds vote stricture on increases in many fees.
  • Voters in Massachusetts will consider a measure that would reduce the state’s sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, as well as one repealing in most cases the sales tax on alcoholic beverages.
  • Proposition A on the Missouri statewide ballot would take away the authority for cities to levy an earnings tax, require voter approval for the continuation of earnings taxes where they currently exist, and provide for their eventual phase-out.
  • At the local level, voters in California's San Diego County, as well as voters in Illinois' DuPage County, will vote on measures that would either require voter approval for increases in public safety pension benefit formulas or call upon the state to undertake serious pension reforms immediately.

We hope you find the Guide useful in evaluating the choices awaiting you at the polls. Be sure to check back with NTU after the election for our report on how taxpayers fared.

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Big Ethanol
Posted By:  - 10/13/10

Robert Bryce has a great piece on ethanol in The Examiner.  If you haven't read it, please do so.  Here are the closing paragraphs:

It's time to end the corn ethanol boondoggle. Despite decades of lavish subsidies, ethanol has done nothing to cut oil imports. Rather than further compound the mistakes that have already been made by increasing the volume of ethanol in the U.S. motor fuel supply, the EPA and Congress should recognize that ethanol is not, and has never been, an energy program.

Instead, it is a pernicious example of how agriculture subsidies are promulgated and expanded for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.

I could not agree more.

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Virginia transportation audit finds a lot of change in the couch cushions
Posted By:  - 09/24/10

As I travel across the country and I meet with legislators from cash-strapped states, I tell them that they should look carefully at their budgets to find savings. To use a metaphor, lawmakers need to reach into the cushions of their couch (aka the state and its bureaucracy) and feel around for the change that is lost and left there. By determining where the money is going, using funds as they should be, and finding savings here and there, legislators can help balance their budgets and meet their obligations without the need for burdensome tax hikes or draconian cuts. Sadly, few legislators have taken me up on the offer. Many of these lawmakers have told me that “budgets have been cut to the bone” and “there’s simply not enough savings” to do what they need to do.

The next time I hear a legislator say these things, I will send them a copy of this article from today’s Washington Post. Yesterday, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced that a new audit by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) found “hundreds of millions of dollars” sitting unspent in various accounts. In total, auditors found a little more than $1 billion in funding just sitting there; about $400 million in construction and maintenance accounts and, believe it or not, $654 million in federal money that was never allocated to any projects. That’s a lot of change.

The auditors also prepared a report explaining the problems, such as poor communication and inertia, which contributed to the loss of the money between the cushions of the couch known as VDOT. Auditors made 50 recommendations to correct these problems. McDonnell said that the state would move to implement these changes in the next 45 days. Sean Connaughton, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, said the state will decide what to do with the money in the next 45 days, but he indicated that at least some of the money will be spent on transportation projects in Northern Virginia such as improving the much-criticized and congested Interstates 66 and 95.

Virginia’s billion-dollar find of loose change is instructive for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the importance of good auditing and the need for transparency in government. NTU has worked with legislators, including Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli when he was a state senator, to implement meaningful budget process reforms, including the use of mechanisms to track spending. When we know where the tax dollars go, we see what should stay funded and what should go. Second, legislators should not discount eliminating waste and finding savings as a way to deal with budget problems. No legislator thinks $1 billion is small change. Granted, savings alone will not solve every problem that overspending creates, but it will go a long way. Let’s all have a go at digging between those couch cushions.

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Spending is saving?
Posted By:  - 08/26/10

“Sometimes you have to spend money to save money.” So said Pennsylvania’s Governor Ed Rendell at a Monday morning news conference in Harrisburg to detail his proposal to fund transportation projects in his state.

Specifically, Rendell wants the General Assembly to approve his plan for $1 billion in various taxes and fees on Pennsylvania oil companies and drivers to pay for roads, bridges, and mass transit. Rendell wants to slap Pennsylvania oil companies with an 8% gross profits tax and increase the driver’s license fee by $4 (from $28 to $32, which includes the mandatory photo charge). Additionally, Rendell would raise the car registration fee $13 (from $36 to $49) and increase the fee for inspection stickers $3 (from $2 to $5).

Based on the media reports, it appears the governor said little about how raising $1 billion in taxes now will save Pennsylvania taxpayers money later. In fact, Pennsylvania’s transportation secretary has suggested that it will take at least $3.5 billion to fully fund transportation needs going forward.  There is a huge gap between $1 billion and $3.5 billion, which will have to be bridged. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, that bridge looks like more tax hikes down the road.

Rendell also employed a fairness argument in defense of his oil profits tax proposal. He said, “megafirms such as Exxon and Shell often try to hide behind the image of small "mom and pop" companies while they rake in huge profits.” But this is not exactly accurate. Oil companies typically pay more in taxes than they make in profits. In a recent report, Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation wrote, “[S]ince 1981, when the failed wind­fall profits tax was first enacted, federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. have collected more in taxes from the oil industry than the industry has earned in actual profits for its shareholders.”

As I pointed out in a recent blog post, more money, especially in the form of higher fees and taxes, is not the answer for better transportation in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth Foundation reports that Pennsylvania ranks fourth in overall highway spending, yet has the worst roads in the nation. What Pennsylvania needs is reform in its transportation policies, including reform of prevailing wage laws, more privatization of services, and increased service sharing.

This is not the first time the governor has proposed increased taxes or fees to pay for transportation. Rendell proposed a tax on oil companies back in 2007, which went nowhere fast. Just a few weeks ago, Rendell targeted drivers with higher gasoline taxes and fees to pay for transportation projects. Clearly, he has not gotten the message. During his news conference, Rendell said, “The time to act is now.” Indeed. Let’s hope that the General Assembly swiftly and decisively rejects the governor’s proposal.

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Expanding High-Speed Rail
Posted By:  - 06/28/10

Ever been frustrated with bumper-to-bumper traffic, road rage, or hour-long commutes? If you're like me, the answer is a resounding yes. But have no fear. President Obama has a solution! A few weeks ago, the Department of Transportation announced part of Obama's plan to increase funding for high-speed rail systems across the country. They informed us that $80 million in grants has been given to several states to help improve their rail systems. The majority of the funding will be allocated towards the development of a high-speed rail system in Florida. A significant portion of the funds will also be used to create new tracks or repair old ones between major cities in California, Wisconsin, New York, and New Mexico.

That's not all. "The grants released today are merely the very beginning of many more to follow," claims Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. That's just what we wanted, especially considering that Congress already appropriated $8 billion for high-speed rail funding in 2009 and an additional $2.5 billion to this plan in 2010.

Although many Americans would like to believe high-rail transportation is the savior of US transportation problems, this simply isn't the case. Obama's high-speed rail system plan is not likely to reach more than 1% of the passenger travel market. And the environmental benefits? There isn't too much good news on that front either. A Florida high-speed rail study found that their trains would produce more nitrogen oxides and organic compounds and use 3.5 to 6 times more energy than the cars they would replace.

This isn't even the whole picture. Obama has visions for still more extensive rail system repair. His entire plan proposes to update all 12,800 miles of the track system – a proposal that is estimated to cost close to $50 billion. Is the current Administration actually proposing a $50 billion transportation plan – that is neither cost-efficient nor environmentally friendly – at a time when our nation is facing a growing debt of $13 trillion?

Yes. The only encouragement we are offered is that grants such as these are "merely the very beginning" of what's to follow. I guess the "best" is yet to come. Uh oh…

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