Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bringing home the bacon

Earlier today, the House of Representatives approved a $400 billion appropriations package. Unlike the stimulus package, which had no earmarks proposed by members of the House and Senate, this bill has a lot of them, as most routine appropriations bills do. Some reports suggest there are around 9,000 of them.

Whether or not you think earmarks are necessary to get federal money to worthy projects or unnecessary pork to grease the palms of supporters--and there are probably plenty of examples of both--the fact is that they are there, and our representatives are pretty good at securing them.

Central Massachusetts looks to make out pretty nicely. Here is a list of the projects that will affect communities here in Worcester County:


The Twin Cities look to do very well in this bill. A cool $30 million for the Fitchburg commuter rail line, another $1.9 million for the parking lot at the Leominster station, and $950,000 for rail safety along the line top the list. Unfortunately Clinton, Sterling and Lancaster are not listed as recipients, but we don't have a lot in the way of federal projects in those towns.

(To digress for a moment, can someone try to remember the $1.5 million for the dams on the Wekepeke at some point in these processes? There wasn't even an effort to have it included in the stimulus package even though the project is the very definition of shovel-ready, as work was about to begin when Governor Patrick cut the funding as part of his 9C reductions. And there is plenty of money in this appropriations bill for mill pond restoration, dam repair, and other small-scale water management projects. Perhaps supporters of the Wekepeke will need to take the case directly to Representatives Olver and McGovern).

All told, the five representatives of my "home area"--John Olver (Sterling, Leominster) Jim McGovern (Clinton), Niki Tsongas (Lancaster) and Senators Kerry and Kennedy--have sponsored or co-sponsored $159,611,594 in appropriations.

Of that, a large portion of it is not for local earmarks, but rather for programs on a national scale. Nearly three-quarters of the $160 million are for programs such as the "Reading is Fundamental" program and the "We the People and Cooperative Education Exchange" that will be used in schools across the country. Almost all of the $120 million in national earmarks have broad bipartisan support, lest you think those programs are Democratic pet projects.

Looking at each of the representatives individually, John Olver is easily the biggest earmarker, with $38,862,472 targeted for community projects (not all in Central Mass.). Jim McGovern is responsible for $11,753,521 in community marks. Niki Tsongas is easily the least prolific earmarker, with only $3.3 million in sponsored projects, none in the Central Mass. area of her district.

Regarding our senators, there is a very interesting dynamic in play. Nearly all of the 144 earmarks (129 local) that were sponsored by the senators were, in fact co-sponsored--that is, both Kerry and Kennedy signed on to the earmark. Kennedy only signed onto three earmarks without Kerry's support, they are:


Kerry also only signed onto three earmarks without a co-sponsorship from Kennedy. See if you find the same humor in this list that I did:


That's right, the only three projects that Kerry supported without Kennedy's blessing are three projects named after members of Kennedy's family, including what looks to be the Ted Kennedy Presidential Senatorial Library...which suggests that Teddy at least has the good sense not to earmark money for his own projects, unlike Charlie Rangel. Doesn't say much for John Kerry's independence though, does it?

A couple of other leftover points...lest anyone complain that this is an "Obama spending bill" it's important to remember that this bill was crafted during the last congress. Many of the sponsors are former members of congress from both parties. In researching the bills listed here, there were co-sponsorships from John Sununu, Christopher Shays, Joe Biden, and other former members of congress who have moved on.

Also interesting in light of that is that a number of the items in the appropriations bill were also sponsored by "The President," which means that the Bush administration was on board with these requests. Looking at the list of Massachusetts projects five of them were co-sponsored by President Bush, including the $30 million for the Fitchburg rail line, $5.6 million for operations at Boston Harbor, $4.9 million for Dam Construction on the Muddy River, $372,000 for construction of a hurricane barrier in Buzzards Bay, and $215,000 for a study of the Merrimack River watershed.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Almost like clockwork, this blog welcomed its 40,000th visitor earlier today. Other milestones...

1,000: July 31, 2006
5,000: October 21, 2006
10,000: February 1, 2007
15,000: June 24, 2007
20,000: October 20, 2007
25,000: February 24, 2008
30,000: June 18, 2008
35,000: October 8, 2008
40,000: February 24, 2009

For what it's worth, I also posted my 700th entry last week.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Motorists will not go to NH to avoid gas tax

Before anyone falls for another round of "Massachusetts consumers will flee to New Hampshire because of our taxes," please do just a little research. When focusing on Governor Patrick's proposed 19 cent per gallon increase, understand that gas in Massachusetts will not be 19 cents more expensive than in the Granite State if the New Hampshire legislature has its way. From the Manchester Union Leader (via MSNBC):
A gasoline tax bill won a bipartisan 14-3 vote for passage in the Public Works and Highways Committee last week.

The bill, raising the tax five cents per gallon in each of the next three years, moves to the full House next.
Get that? New Hampshire is looking to add 15 cents to its gas tax. Raise your hand if you've heard about that in any story about the impact of an increase in the Massachusetts gas tax. Again, the lesson should be to never listen to anyone who worries more about New Hampshire than Massachusetts. They are not being honest with you.

And if the commonwealth would adopt my plan, our gas tax would increase less than New Hampshire's.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Mitt Romney's NH tax grab

A couple of weeks ago, reports surfaced that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue was trying to collect taxes on purchases that Massachusetts residences made at Town Fair Tire stores in New Hampshire. The backlash was predictable. It was also warranted. Simple fairness suggests to me that it is a bad idea to collect taxes for purchases made in another state; and I'm sure that if this case went to the Supreme Court it would be ruled a violation of the commerce clause.

But because the story surfaced during a rollout of other tax proposals, there was an assumption in some quarters that this was some sort of Deval Patrick scheme to chase people across the border for their taxes. For instance, this post at the most prominent Republican blog in the state:
Governor Deval Patrick's (D-MA) Administration has ordered Town Fair Tire a Connecticut company with 5 stores in NH and 25 stores in Massachusetts to collect Massachusetts sales tax on Massachusetts residents purchases in New Hampshire....

If I were Governor John Lynch I'd be getting the National Guard ready. Governor Patrick has just declared war on your retail economy.
The post quotes from a Boston Globe article detailing the issue. Being the curious sort, I decided to read the article for myself. Buried in there was this point, which seems to be lost on Republican critics (emphasis mine):
The Town Fair Tire legal battle dates back to 2003, when the Massachusetts Department of Revenue audited the three New Hampshire stores Town Fair Tire operated at the time, after receiving evidence that Bay State residents were driving up to buy tires and having them installed at the chain's shops....

Following the audit, Massachusetts authorities assessed the company about $108,947 in tax, penalties, and interest related to the sales.
Lest we forget, Mitt Romney was the governor of the commonwealth in 2003. Mitt Romney's Department of Revenue came up with the plan. It was part of Romney's effort to raise fees and squeeze out other drops of revenue so that he could boast that he did not raise "taxes" in order to balance the budget.

Deval Patrick's administration should publically announce that they are stoppping the effort to collect cross-border taxes. Democrats need to tell the truth about this policy. Something like this:

Mitt Romney's Republican policy of collecting Massachuetts sales tax in New Hampshire shows the lengths Republicans will go to be dishonest about our state's fiscal needs. Instead of having an honest dialogue about our need to raise revenues and pay the Big Dig debts left by 16 years of Republican governors, Romney Republicans in the legislature would rather raid New Hampshire businesses. We should work together to solve our funding crisis instead of resorting to the Romney Republican tax raids.

One other thing...the next time Mitt Romney runs for president, he should be asked over and over again from Keene to Laconia why he wanted to impose a Massachusetts sales tax on New Hampshire businesses.


Move all the chips to the middle of the table...and leave them there

One more note on the Governor's tax plans (unfortunately, I'm sure this won't be the last)...the plan to place transponder chips in inspection stickers in an effort to tax Massachusetts drivers by the mile is ripe for abuse. It should be rejected out of hand by the Legislature. From the AP, via the Telegram & Gazette:
BOSTON — The vision of Gov. Deval L. Patrick using a computer to monitor the grocery-store trips of Massachusetts residents has touched off a wave of protest against the idea of using GPS chips to charge drivers for the mileage they put on state roads.

“It’s outrageous, it’s kind of Orwellian, Big Brotherish,” said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, who drafted legislation last week to prohibit the practice. “You’d need a whole new department of cronies just to keep track of it.”
The article goes on to explain that in a test of the technology in Oregon “the receiver was not linked to a map, the DOT had no idea where the miles were driven — only that they were on Oregon roads.”

Leaving aside for a minute that Scott Brown proves why he is a classically inept Massachusetts Republican by taking a legitimate point about privacy concerns and stomping all over it with some irrelevance about cronies and bureaucracy, he’s right to oppose it. Just because the system isn’t currently used to track a driver’s movements doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be used that way. What’s to keep some governor or law enforcement type in the future from linking the information to a mapping system? The problem with this type of technology isn’t necessarily they way it will be used when it is rolled out, but the way it could be abused somewhere down the road. Hopefully, the chip ends up going nowhere.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

John Locke is not dead -- my one LOST post of the year

I interrupt the incessant discussion of state taxes for the following: John Locke is alive.

(Yes, I watch LOST. Faithfully. I guess we've all got our quirks).

Just compare the screen grab from the episode where Jack first sees Locke's dead body to last night's episode where Jack is putting his father's shoes on Locke's body. (And yes, I realize how absolutely absurd those plot lines appear when reading them.)

First, the clean-shaven Locke:

Then, from a couple of days later:

Quite a bit of beard growth for a dead guy, eh? (Note that the lining in the caskets is also different, for whatever that is worth.)

For a better look, click the links above, which will take you to the hi-res pics at Lost Media.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gov. Patrick misses the mark with toll, gas tax proposals

While I have been generally in favor of some of Governor Patrick’s proposals to raise revenues—increases in the meals tax and a repeal of sales tax exemptions on “junk food” as examples—the proposals he has rolled out over the last few months to deal with the crisis in transportation funding have missed the mark.

In December, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority looked to double tolls. Last week, Patrick floated a plan that could increase gas taxes by as much as 29 cents per gallon. Another proposal calls for taxing drivers based on the miles that are recorded using transponder chips. All are bad ideas. While we do need to find a way to pay for our roads and bridges—and the debts incurred by our transportation agencies—an increase in gas taxes this steep would just kill folks who live outside of our urban centers.

The solution is to combine a modest increase in the gas tax with a modest increase in tolls, and to deal with mass transit funding in a different way.

(I realize that some of you think all taxes are bad ideas, but we have a responsibility to pay for our debts. Have our transportation agencies been spending out of control? Probably. Feel free to blame the governors who oversaw the increase in debt (including Romney, Swift, Cellucci and Weld), your state representatives and senators, the agencies themselves…whomever. But regardless of whose fault it is, we still need to pay for it.)

Unfortunately, it looks like the governor is casting about looking for a plan. Here are some of the details of his latest proposal from the AP, via the Boston Globe:
BOSTON—Gov. Deval Patrick is considering asking the Legislature to raise the Massachusetts gasoline tax by 27 cents per gallon as part of a comprehensive package aimed at solving lingering state transportation problems, The Associated Press learned Monday.

Such an increase would stave off a doubling of Massachusetts Turnpike tolls planned for this spring, and finance a wholesale change in the way state runs its transportation system, but leave it with the highest gasoline tax in the nation at 50.5 cents. And the plan calls for increasing that tax annually, based on the Consumer Price Index, starting Jan. 1, 2011....

The plan calls for the state's Highway Division to receive $325 million, or 12.5 cents, of the added 27 cents-per-gallon gas tax. The MBTA would receive $286 million, or 11 cents, while the regional transit authorities would receive $39 million, or 1.5 cents.
The article goes on to quote an administration official explaining that the tax hike isn’t really that much, since the average driver would only pay an additional $120 or so per year. Of course if you live away from the city and have a pair of commuters in the family, as we do, you’re looking at more like $400 per year.

That is probably the biggest problem with this or other transportation taxes in a state like Massachusetts that is so evenly divided between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural populations: there is really no fair and equitable way to levy them. People in an around the city howled when the Turnpike authority proposed doubling the tolls inside 128 and on the harbor tunnels. Why should they have to carry the burden of the Big Dig debt when folks north and south of the city use the Central Artery and don’t have to pay a thing?

So now the governor comes out with a proposal that will hike the gas tax so that the tolls in and around the city can come down and mass transit can receive additional funds. Does that mean it’s my turn to complain? I almost never use the Pike or the tunnels (unless I’m heading to the airport) and I don’t have either commuter rail or a regional transit authority serving my town. Why should my gas bill go up 15% so all of those Lexus drivers from Metrowest can have their tolls taken down and some Birkenstock-wearing elitist from Cambridge can ride the train without a fare increase?

(I’m way overstating the argument for effect; I’m not that into class warfare.)

The answer is to avoid either all-or-nothing approach and cobble together a plan that will modestly raise gas taxes—which haven’t increased in 18 years—while charging drivers for the wear and tear they put on the turnpike and in the tunnels without killing them with draconian toll increases.

Looking at the figures cited above, a one cent increase in the gas tax is worth about $26 million in revenue (i.e. 1.5 cents of the proposed increase would provide $39 million for regional transit). So a 27 cent increase would bring in approximately $702 million in revenue annually. Let’s reduce the gas tax to a reasonable level:
  • 11 cents of that ($286 million total) is earmarked for the MBTA and while they need the money, ringing up the gas bill of millions of people who have no need to use the T isn’t the way to pay for it. So now we are down to 16 cents a gallon increase.

  • If we increase tolls modestly on the turnpike and in the tunnels we could bring in another $52 million to offset the money marked for the Highway Department (see below), lowering the total increase to 14 cents.

  • Because regional transit authorities are largely dependent on the use of the highways (as opposed to the MBTA which has a significant rail component) I’m going to leave that money in. I’m also going to leave in the two cents a gallon that is not broken down in the AP story.
So I’ve cut the gas tax increase nearly in half, from 27 cents a gallon to 14. This will require an increase in tolls, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. First, the people using the road are generally the ones paying for it (although I realize that by rolling the Big Dig into the Turnpike Authority—thank you Bill Weld!—we ended up saddling turnpike users with the extra debt). Secondly, robust tolls keep the traffic somewhat manageable and encourage some drivers to use mass transit—trends that could be dramatically reversed if the roadway were free or so inexpensive that it was cheaper than the alternatives. The key is to find the tipping point and keep the tolls in that range.

Here is my toll proposal:
  1. An across the board toll increase of 30%, rounded to the nearest quarter.

  2. Tunnel tolls would increase from $3.50 to $4.50.

  3. Remove all tolls on the Mass Pike west of Exit 14/15 in Weston, with the exception of the inbound tolls at the New York border and the inbound tolls at I-84 in Sturbridge. Set the rate of these at 30% higher than current inbound trip to Weston. (New tolls would be $3.50 at the New York Border and $2.25 at Sturbridge).

  4. Remove outbound tolls on the Mass Pike at Allston and at 128. To offset the change, the eastbound tolls in Allston would be increased to $3.25 (double the current rate + 30% toll increase).

  5. Charge a flat inbound toll at Exit 14/15 of $3.25., equal again to double the current rate +30% from 128 to the Pike.
And here is how my toll proposal compares to the Governor’s:
Roadway/Toll            Current              Governor’s Proposal   The Harris Plan
Ted Williams Tunnel $3.50 (inbound) $7.00 (inbound) $4.50 (inbound)
Sumner Tunnel $3.50 (inbound) $7.00 (inbound) $4.50 (inbound)
Mass Pike/Allston $2.50 (round trip) $4.00 (round trip) $3.25 (inbound only)
Mass Pike/Weston $2.50 (round trip) $4.00 (round trip) $3.25 (inbound only)
Mass Pike/Stockbridge $5.40 (round trip) $0.00* $3.50 (inbound only)
Mass Pike/Sturbridge $3.40 (round trip) $0.00* $2.25 (inbound only)

*One version of the governor's plan includes undefined tolls for these interchanges.
A compromise plan that includes both a modest toll increase and a modest gas tax increase is the only way to equitably share the burden. Even so, this plan does not address the deficit at the MBTA and does not take into account other revenue streams and efficiencies that should be explored before increasing taxes and tolls. Perhaps a dedicated push to reduce costs could lessen this burden.

In any event, if the governor continues to offer up trial balloons at the far ends of the funding spectrum (high taxes or high tolls) instead of leading with an equitable compromise plan, the legislature should take responsibility and cobble together a plan that spreads the burden equally.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

CNN brings the stupid

I was just watching CNN (or more accurately, I had it on while I was feeding Sara) and they are running some special all day called "From Lincoln to Obama." Frankly, I think that's a little over the top. I know that Obama sells right now and that they're trying to find some way to get people to watch their coverage of Lincoln's 200th birthday, but the whole thing seems contrived.

Anyway, they just went to a correspondent at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois to interview some college students from the University of Illinois-Springfield about Lincoln's legacy. They asked the first student what Lincoln meant to him or some such thing and he replied that while Lincoln did some great things, he might not have been all he was cracked up to be because he was a slave owner.


Bad enough that any college student or graduate would have the idea that Lincoln owned slaves, but maybe worse, the bubblehead doing the interview didn't correct him.

Way to go CNN.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Hysterical tax opponents are lying to you -- part 2: "junk food" tax

Since Governor Patrick proposed giving cities and towns the option to raise meals and hotel taxes as well as tax increases on the sale of “junk food” and alcohol, you can hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news without coming across some hysterical legislator, business owner, or consumer crying that the increases will force people to go to another town or state to do their business.

Do not listen to them. With almost no exception they are either monumentally stupid or lying to you.

Last week, I looked at the crazy argument that someone might run for the town or state border if a local-option meals tax were allowed. In this installment, I will discuss opposition to the governor's proposal to extend the 5% sales tax to soda, candy and other "junk" foods, and what I consider a better model for the governor's proposal.

As with any proposal to raise revenues, every conservative and commercial special interest from Great Barrington to Newburyport howled about the draconian impact that adding four cents to the price of a candy bar and seven cents to a bottle of Pepsi would have on consumers and businesses. To hear them discuss the proposal, the difference between the ability of ordinary joes to pay their bills and a life of despair and destitution is found in those 11 cents. From the Sentinel and Enterprise:
State Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, chairman of Senate Ways and Means, said he had some concerns that the new taxes would drive consumers over the border to New Hampshire. He also said he expected to see more cuts and less reserve money used....

Republicans blasted the tax proposals as a "nickel and dime" approach to balancing the budget when there are others areas that could be cut.

Rep. Robert Hargraves, [R]-Groton, said the candy, soda-and-alcohol tax will drive people over the border to shop.

"My mom-and-pop stores have one foot on a banana peel and another in the bath tub. That's a precarious situation to be in," Hargraves said.
For once, can we just have a sensible discussion. Nobody, nobody, NOBODY, is going to cross the border for a Snickers and a Coke. It is not going to happen. And if it does happen, that says more for the sorry state of education in whatever border town a moron who would drive to New Hampshire to save 11 cents comes from than it does about this tax policy.

(And can we please just forget about New Hampshire for a minute? I don't give a damn what New Hampshire does, we need to do what is best for Massachusetts. I get tired of the couple hundred thousand people (if that) who live in New Hampshire border towns driving the discussion for the rest of us. I get it. New Hampshire has no sales tax. There is a hell of a lot more that New Hampshire doesn't have. You don't hear the same discussions about Connecticut or New York or Rhode Island because they are all more expensive than Massachusetts when it comes to sales taxes, meals taxes, and yes, junk food taxes.)

The Boston Herald was characteristically thoughtful in their coverage:
The governor, who wants to see the measure go into effect by April 1, rebuffed suggestions that the tax intruded on personal choice.

“I think dedicating those funds to nutrition and wellness services is a wise decision,” Patrick said, adding other states have passed the tax. Both New Jersey and New York have a 6 to 7.5 percent sales tax on candy and soda....

Business groups say the tax will hurt the Bay State economy.

“We think it’s a totally unfair thing to do and it hurts companies like NECCO,” said Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association.

The famous NECCO wafers and Sky Bars are made in Cambridge.
Taxes are like, "totally unfair!" Your sleeve of NECCO wafers will now cost you 93 cents instead of 89 cents! Don't let the man "intrude on your personal choice!" Power to the people!

The Globe had an unintentionally (I think) hilarious take on reaction to the proposal:
Governor Deval Patrick's plan to tax candy and sodas is worrying store operators, who say it will further reduce sales at a time of economic decline, when even children have become price-sensitive and are cutting back.

"Kids are going to stop drinking sodas," said Pinto Patel, a clerk at the Brighton convenience store Palace Spa. "Their parents don't give them a lot of money."

Because of a recent increase in candy prices, he said, children are already "looking for the cheap stuff."
I wonder if Mr. Patel realizes that he is making the governor's point. As the Globe story points out, the Patrick administration is looking at lower usage of soda, candy, etc. as a byproduct of the proposal. If kids actually stop drinking soda, he would consider it a big victory:
"Evidence-supported data has shown that each of these products serve more as a detriment than a benefit on the health and well-being of an individual," the Patrick administration wrote in support of the budget proposal. "Removing the tax exemption for the purchase of sweetened soda and candy is a critical first step in discouraging the consumption of these empty calories."
I think the governor is hoping for a result that he's not going to get. Removing the sales tax exemption on these items will not have any effect on consumption, just like it will not drive people over the border. In any event, the grocery lobby wants you to know that it is on the side of consumers like you and me:
"This is not the economy to be raising taxes on consumers," said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents grocery store operators. "People's budgets are stretched to the maximum right now. They're buying down and only buying strict essentials. The last thing they need is another hit on them."
Does this Mr. Flynn--or for that matter a spokesman for any trade organization--actually pay any attention to what he is saying? If people are only buying strict essentials then they have already cut soda and candy out of their budgets, so they are not going to be taking another hit.

(As another aside, can someone tell me why we become so outraged over the idea that the 20 oz. bottle of Sprite you get at Cumberland Farms will cost you $1.56 instead of $1.49, but we express no outrage that the soda companies are charging you something in the neighborhood of five times the price of gas for what essentially is sugar water? Come on, people! If there is one ripoff in America that is it. And I say that as someone who gets ripped off buying Diet Coke at least as much as anyone else.)

But as is the governor's wont, his proposal is too clever and too nuanced and too targeted. For instance, candy is taxed, but cookies, donuts, and other pastries are not. Lemonade would be taxed, but orange juice would not. A bottle of diet soda with no calories or fat would be taxed, but a tub of ice cream or a bag of Doritos would not. A far more sensible idea would be to model the proposal after Rhode Island's tax structure:
Individual prepackaged or factory-sealed bags or packages of chips, popcorn, nuts, trail mix, crackers, cookies, snack cakes, or other snack foods sold by food or convenience stores are not considered prepared foods and are not subject to the 1% local tax. However, packages of these items of five (5) ounces or less continue to be subject to the 7% state sales taxes as food for immediate consumption.

Chilled bottles or containers of fruit juices/drinks, milk, soda, water, iced coffee/tea, etc. are subject to the local as well as the 7% state sales tax when sold in containers or bottles of 24 ounces or less.
In Rhode Island, the sales tax on food roughly mirrors the meals tax in the sense "food for immediate consumption" is taxed the same way by the state whether it is purchased in a restaurant or in a convenience store. It doesn't matter what type of food it is, it matters whether or not the food is generally meant to be eaten right away or in an individual size. That makes altogether more sense to me than it does to single out certain types of food based on how healthy or not they are. The governor should replace his current proposal with one that makes more sense.

And the hysterical tax opponents should trade in their sugary caffeinated soda for some tax-free warm milk and relax.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Isn't She Lovely?

Sara Elisabeth was born this evening at 7:41. She's an absolute doll.


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