Monthly Archives: March 2012

Leadership deficiency

In an increasingly embarrassing effort to raise revenue without offending Grover Norquist, Gov. Robert Bentley is begging his agency heads to come up with new fees for the services they provide.
Norquist is the Washington lobbyist who came up with the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” that Bentley signed during his campaign to become governor.
Bentley already has given behind-closed-doors encouragement to state legislators to increase taxes to resurrect the state’s desperately deficient budget. He would have to honor his pledge by slowing down the tax increase with a veto, he said according to several who attended the meeting, but he would be happy to spend the money.
Last week, Bentley sent his finance director out to ask state agency heads for “ideas for legislation which could increase fees.”
The state, under severe proration this year, faces devastating cuts next year due to a chronic shortfall in revenue.
A pending bill would eliminate grocery taxes and eliminate a state tax deduction on federal income taxes. The two moves would create a net benefit for most Alabama taxpayers, reducing the regressive nature of the state’s taxation system.
It would also increase state revenue by $159 million. An amendment could direct some of that amount to the General Fund.
Maybe when Bentley signed the Norquist pledge, he thought the national anti-tax mania made sense in Alabama. Now that he is in office, he knows better. The only people who are overtaxed in Alabama are the poor and middle class, groups that would benefit from elimination of the grocery tax.
Bentley is a great believer in the concept of servant-leadership. It is time for him to show he is a servant not of Norquist, but of the people who elected him to office.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Tax reform

House shows its priorities

The U.S. House this week approved a proposed budget that gave a painfully honest view of its priorities.
The budget slashed programs that benefit seniors and the working poor. It increased financial barriers to a college education. It decreased access to health care.
Were these difficult but necessary steps in reducing the federal deficit? Hardly. The deficit increases under the plan.
Instead, the cuts in federal programs helped finance reductions in taxes for the wealthiest Americans and continued tax subsidies for America’s most profitable corporations.
The House is doing its best to increase the gap between the rich and the poor, a gap that is already at historic levels.
Most Americans are on the wrong side of that gap. They would do well to remember the House budget when voting in November.

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Filed under Election 2012, Federal deficit, Subsidies, Welfare

Sacrificing the people

Partisanship is rampant in Washington, but we like to think that the officials we elected still have their constituents’ interests at heart.
After a plea by President Barack Obama, a majority of U.S. senators last week voted to end $4 billion in tax subsidies oil and natural gas companies receive every year. That should have been good news for a cash-strapped government with a perilously high deficit, but it was not. Sixty votes were needed to clear a filibuster, and the vote for ending the subsidies was 51 to 47.
Both Alabama senators — Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile — voted against ending the subsidies.
Opponents argued the subsidies help keep gas prices down. Given that gas prices are going up almost as fast as the profits of oil companies, the claim is dubious. The intense — and effective — Big Oil lobbying effort that preceded the vote reaffirms the suspicion that the subsidies help corporate interests, not consumers.
In the name of deficit reduction, our elected officials are attacking programs like Medicare that benefit the people. At the same time, they are giving tax breaks to corporations that don’t need them.
Whoever they are answering to, it’s not the people.

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Filed under Energy, Subsidies

Selective conservatism

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, gave a well-reasoned statement Wednesday on the importance of fully funding the National Institute of Health.
He was critical of President Barack Obama’s proposed 2013 budget, which slightly reduces the agency’s funding.
We agree with Shelby. As he put it, “For the millions of Americans suffering from a serious illness, biomedical research is the beginning of hope. NIH-funded research investigates ways to prevent disease, understand its causes, and develop more effective treatments.”
The issue is a reminder that clear-cut solutions are rare in the formulation of budgets.
House Republicans – whose budget-cutting efforts routinely receive support from Shelby – cut $1.6 billion, more than 5 percent, in NIH funding in a budget bill last year. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed
2013 budget, released last week, would eliminate 500 NIH grants in the first year and 1,600 grants in each year after 2013.
Also noteworthy: a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, which Shelby usually advocates, would not allow for any NIH funding.
Shelby and many of his colleagues in Washington are all about fiscal conservatism and constitutional purity when discussing programs they oppose. They do not let those details get in the way of programs they support.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Conservatism, Health care

Paying for Strange political games

Alabama took the lead last week with another of our incessant, taxpayer-financed attacks on the federal government.

State Attorney General Luther Strange filed papers seeking to join a lawsuit filed by EWTN Global Catholic Network. The suit challenges a federal requirement that would force religious-affiliated institutions to include contraception coverage in health insurance.

The coverage requirement of course helps women. Almost all sexually active women — including Catholics — use contraception for birth control and for other medical purposes. On a demographic level, Strange’s decision is odd in a state whose population is 52 percent female and only 13 percent Catholic.

It is even more peculiar given that President Barack Obama already has said he will not require employers like EWTN to pay directly for contraception.

This accommodation is not enough, argues EWTN, because their premiums may indirectly pay for the contraception their employees use.

We hate to break it to EWTN and other Catholic institutions, but many already are paying for contraception. If they are paying premiums to an insurer that offers contraception coverage to some of its insureds — as most do — then they are contributing to the cost. That’s how insurance works.

We suspect Strange is trying to boost his conservative credentials. The attorney general blocked enforcement of unconstitutional portions of the state’s immigration law, and he has taken a beating for his courage.

Strange is financing his anti-Obama political grandstanding with our taxes. If he has idle staff members, we wish he would engage them in prosecuting crime, not in endless and futile onslaughts on the federal government.

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Filed under Health care, Obamacare, Religion

Tax plan deserves state vote

Alabama lawmakers routinely resist any increase in taxes. Soon they will have an opportunity to demonstrate whether their concern is about taxes in general, or just about taxes on the wealthiest Alabamians.

It is difficult for voters to understand how upside down the state’s tax structure is because we are used to hearing about very different issues in federal taxation. No one is proposing a flat tax in Alabama, but imagining its application helps to demonstrate the unfairness of the state’s tax structure.

The problem with a flat tax — a single tax rate that would apply to all income levels — on the federal level is it would increase the amount the poor and middle class would pay, while decreasing the taxes of the wealthiest Americans. It would be unfair, most agree, because it would increase the economic burden on those who can least afford it.

If a flat tax replaced all other taxes in Alabama, it would do the opposite. The poor and middle class already shoulder most of the tax burden for the state. If they were to pay the same percentage of their income as the wealthiest Alabamians, they would rejoice.

A bill filed by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, would not create a fair system, but it would help.

The bill would make two changes.

First, it would eliminate the state sales tax on groceries and over-the-counter drugs. This would reduce annual revenue by about $326 million. It would help level the taxation playing field because the poor and middle class spend a greater portion of their income on these necessary items than do the wealthy.

The only other state that does not limit taxes on groceries is — you guessed it — Mississippi.

Financial realities, of course, require that we replace the revenue.

Knight’s bill would accomplish this by eliminating a deduction that allows people to reduce their taxable state income by the amount of federal income taxes they pay. This would have a modest effect on the poor and middle class — more than offset by the elimination of the grocery tax — but would increase the state taxes paid by Alabamians with high incomes.

Only two other states have a full deduction for federal income taxes paid. Eliminating the deduction would raise about $485 million a year.

Knight’s bill would direct the net $159 million increase in revenue to the Education Trust Fund.

Neither of these changes can occur without a constitutional amendment, which requires a vote of the people.

The Legislature should pass the bill. It is time to let the people decide whether they want a fairer Alabama.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Tax reform

Broccoli and democracy

Is broccoli like health care? In an important way, yes.
In the legal arguments over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Supreme Court justices demonstrated an unusual obsession with the fibrous green plant that, for some, passes as food.
The point of the conservative justices was this: If Congress can mandate that people buy health insurance, what keeps them from mandating the purchase of other items?
The answer is obvious, and it points to the reason that the unelected justices should be leery of overturning laws that do not target a minority.
First of all, if Obamacare had required the purchase of broccoli, it would not have passed Congress. That’s because no elected official wants to explain to constituents why he or she voted for such a mandate.
Second, even if our representatives were foolish enough to mandate broccoli, they could count on being voted out of office in the next election by candidates promising repeal. That’s a real threat even for those who voted for the insurance mandate.
Democracy works. Tyranny results not when elected representatives mandate broccoli, but when judges with lifetime appointments lose faith in the democratic process.

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Filed under Government regulation, Health care, Judiciary, Obamacare