August 30, 2013

Marriage Equality from the IRS is not real 'Tax Equality'

Yesterday, the Internal Revenue Service announced that they would recognize legal same-sex marriages for tax purposes, granting them the same benefits as legally married opposite-sex couples.  Even if they move to a state that doesn't have a marriage equality law. Even if they were married in a foreign country.  By golly, how progressive!

Here's a comment from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on the decision:
Today's ruling provides certainty and clear, coherent tax filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide. It provides access to benefits, responsibilities and protections under federal law that all Americans deserve. This ruling also assures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change.
This announcement was entirely logical, based on the SCOTUS decision back in June that deemed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

The expected parties chimed in from both the 'pro' and 'con' side. For example:
The Treasury Department is grossly overstepping its authority. This is a nation of laws. Only Congress has the authority to change the law...This action continues a pattern of lawlessness across the nation where administrators and clerks have taken it upon themselves to interpret and re-write laws as they pertain to marriage. Only the legislative branches of the Federal or State governments enact or rewrite the law... This,  from Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. I'm guessing that those 'administrators and clerks' include Supreme Court Justices, who down DOMA?
This welcome clarification provides fair and consistent treatment for all legally married couples across the country. The federal government is right to recognized that people's marriages shouldn't dissolve when they cross state lines.  So said James Esseks, director of the ACLU's LGBT Project.
This one seemed like a no-brainer for the IRS. The alternative, of course, would be to treat opposite-sex marriages the same as same-sex marriages, which I'm sure no one wants to mess with.  For example:
  • Try telling an opposite-sex couple just back from their destination wedding and honeymoon on a Caribbean island that they're not really married, because they had their wedding in another country.
  • Try explaining to all of those loving opposite-sex couples that got married in Las Vegas at the Elvis Wedding Chapel that their marriage is meaningless here in New York, because it happened in another state.
  • Or my favorite, try telling married opposite-sex couples that they can no longer have any of the myriad benefits that go along with being married. There's more than just the tax implications, such as the one that was the reason for the Windsor/DOMA case in the first place.
If  the government shouldn't be in the marriage business, as some have suggested, then all benefits given to legally married couples should be removed.  However, if the government is going to be in the marriage business, then all legally married couples - same or opposite sex - are entitled to the same federal benefits.  That's really simple. 

What's complicated is way beyond the issue of marriage equality, and that's the thinking that somehow, every 'interest group' is entitled to some special benefit under the varied laws of the federal government and of each state.  Individuals and businesses, doctors and lawyers, farmers and bankers,  rich people and poor, military contractors and tourist traps and everyone and everything in between, have a chance at any number of reductions, credits, and benefits simply because they are, well either a person, place or thing. It's nuts.

What if, heaven forbid, we actually treated everyone equally, in just the tax code?  What if we made everyone pay their fair share, and not some manufactured share based on who they loved, their race, their location, their occupation, or how they spent their salary?

An outrage of biblical proportions, I'm sure.  The screaming that's been happening since June 26th over same sex marriage will pale in comparison to what would happen if we truly moved towards a limited government that acted with equality.

Anyone want to stick around for that?

August 29, 2013

Why We Need Campaign Finance Reform

Earlier this week I talked about ways to get the money out of politics.  To be sure, many will think they were ridiculous or extreme, but I have to say it sure was good to get them off my chest.  The fact that they will likely never become law, well, that’s just something I’m going to have to fight to change, I guess. 

When you talk about money and term limits in politics, you don’t have to go far in my neck of the woods to find examples where you have to just scratch your head. 
For example: we limit the mayor of Syracuse to two terms; Common Councilors can serve no more than eight years in the same seat – so if you represent a specific seat for two terms, you can then go and serve an additional two terms in an ‘at-large’ seat.  If you move to a different district, you could theoretically serve another two terms there. Does that make sense?

At the Onondaga County level, term limits are anathema. For example, we’ve had only three elected County Executives since the inception of the position.  John Mulroy served as the first Exec, from January 1962 through December 1987; Nick Pirro took over in January 1988 and served through December 2007, and Joanie Mahoney has been in office since then.  
Kevin ‘St Patrick’ Walsh, the County Sheriff, is now in his fifth term, and is already the longest serving sheriff in county history (Walsh portrays the Irish saint every March for the parade). Walsh is collecting a pension as a retired law enforcement officer (some $78K per year) as well as his salary as the elected sheriff, another $110K or so.  He failed to tell voters that he was going to retire until after the election was over – because no one asked him, according to published reports. 

And of course, we have our District Attorney for Life, William J Fitzpatrick, who was sworn in way
Dick Blume/The Post-Standard
back in January 1992 and is now in his sixth four-year term.  Fitz is, to be fair, a man of many accomplishments. He’s also wonderful with a turn of the phrase (sort of).

Not only is he a Big Man on Campus here in Onondaga County, he’s now a BMOC on a bigger campus, having been named co-chair of Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. 

So, now that Fitz is a key player on a commission working on campaign finance reform (as well as public corruption), the irony of the article that appeared in my local newspaper recently is not lost on me. Sara Patterson, a reporter for The Post-Standard, talked about Fitzpatrick's campaign contributions and expenses, and it was an eye-opener.
I was interested less in where the money comes from, but where the money goes. Here’s how Fitz spent lots of his contributions, according to the article, which pulled information from official campaign committee filings:
  • Restaurants and bars: at least $63,000
  • Golf courses, golf clubs, golf tournaments: at least $57,000
  • Donations to other political campaigns or political parties: at least $53,000
  • Polls, political consultants: at least $10,000
  • Ads: at least $64,000
What else was noted in the database The Post-Standard created, which covered financial reports from 2005 -2013?
  • Over $93,000 of the expenses were paid outside of Onondaga County; of that, close to $37,000 was spent outside New York State, in places like New Mexico and Idaho and Hawaii, Virginia and Tennessee and Florida (and, oddly, in Canada).
  • One restaurant  - Peter Lugar's Steakhouse in Brooklyn - received over $29,000 of Fitz's campaign funds.
  • Fitz reimbursed himself over $61,000 out of campaign funds.
Let that last one sink in for a bit -- and then let this sink in. 

Fitzpatrick, so far this year, has reimbursed himself over $12,000 out of campaign funds. During that same time period, he's also paid campaign expenses of almost $26,500 in and outside Onondaga County. And note that this is not an election year for him; he's next on the ballot for DA in 2015, having just been re-elected in 2011 to a four-year term in which he ran unopposed (for the fourth time).

Listen, I have no problem with expenses for advertising, polling, signs and the materials to make them, postage, website design, and so on -- all of which are noted in Fitzpatrick's filings.  Those are what I would expect campaign contributions to be used for.

And I'm not suggesting that our DA is doing anything unethical or illegal with how he spends campaign contributions. An election law expert would be able to tell us if these expenses are legal within the confines of campaign finance laws in New York, but I suspect they are. And that's a problem.

It's also a problem if people who donate money to local political campaign committees are not aware that their donations may be used for golf, steak dinners, travel expenses to meetings out of state, television appearances, contributions to political housekeeping accounts and other candidates, or what I loosely bucketed as 'charitable contributions', which include retirement dinners for judges, benefits to help raise funds for various causes, recreation leagues, unions, fraternal organizations and the like. 

That's not a comment on the value of the organizations or causes Fitz spends donor money on; heck, I think I've probably donated to some of the same ones he did. The difference is, when I do it, it's with my own money, not money given to me by other people in support of my election campaign.

Folks, the system is broken, and it needs to be fixed. The people selected to investigate and recommend changes are currently benefiting from the laws they'll be investigating. 

Are they the right people to fix it?  Want to talk about it over a steak dinner?

 

August 27, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $986,744

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings. 

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance. 

This week, there were 33 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $922,259.  

This week, there were two satisfied judgments totaling $64,505 to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.  

And, there were no health-care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

August 25, 2013

You Want Me to Solve the Problem? Fine!

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been having a Facebook conversation with a friend of  a friend, a man who apparently thinks that most if not all Dems are commies and that the only right thinking comes, naturally, from The Right.

What started our discussion was his comment that public employee unions need to be abolished, because 'when you have elected officials accepting contributions from unions and then having to negotiate with them", there’s an obvious conflict of interest. 
Even though I'm not the biggest fan of unions, I suggested that the same obvious conflict of interest exists when you have elected officials taking money from businesses, lobbyists, trade organizations, other legislators, etc., who then go and write or vote on legislation that will directly benefit their donors, and further that this happens equally frequently and is equally bad.
Surprisingly he agreed with me, but then put the burden on me:  
Sue, you’re absolutely correct and when you can figure a way to make legislators vote to remove the money from politics we’ll all be better off.
Typical. The R’s blame the D's and their union backers for bankrupting the country,and then leave it up to us to solve the problem of money in politics too?  Sheesh – talk about shirking responsibility.
But fine, I said to myself. There IS a way to do this, if we really wanted to. And I appreciate that's one big honking 'if'. Here are a few dozen suggestions.
All levels of government:
Implement term limits. Eliminate pensions for elected officials. Allow campaign contributions only from actual living breathing people. Period. Ban contributions from outside the district.  Limit how campaign contributions can be spent. Prevent legislators from setting up Political Action Committees. On the slim chance that a politician leaves office before death, return all remaining campaign contributions to the local jurisdiction’s general fund.  
Require legislators to be present and accounted for, for all votes.  Record all votes as either Yes, No, or Chicken. Do not allow voice votes on legislation. Require legislators at all levels to abide by the laws they pass, no exceptions.  Do not allow attachment of unrelated amendments or language to any legislation.
Reduce the number of committees, sub-committees, and the leadership positions that go along with them. Remove elected officials from the redistricting process. Permanently ban former elected officials from lobbying. Honor the voters: don’t appoint the spouse of an elected official to fill out an unexpired term of their spouse. Do not appoint someone from a different party to fill out an unexpired term. 
Here in New York:
Stop paying full time salaries to part-time legislators.  Stop paying per-diems to legislators who take the job knowing that they’ll have to work in Albany even if they don’t live there. Ban fundraising while the legislature is in session (not only in Albany and in the home district, but in other cities where politicians are prone to congregate).
For the privilege of ‘franking’, political mailings must be black and white only, use a standard format, must be sent to all residents in the district only once a month while the legislature is in session, and must include the legislator’s voting record for that month. Mailings sent when the legislature is not in session must be paid for by the official, out of their own money.  
And finally:
Any mailings sent by any elected official within six weeks of an election in which the official is a candidate must include a black-box warning similar to that on cigarettes or prescription drugs stating:
WARNING: This is NOT official correspondence from an elected official. 
It is either flattering gibberish intended solely to encourage you to vote for this person again in the upcoming election, or it is derogatory nonsense intended to discourage you from voting for their opponent.
Believing what you read in this notice may cause you to make a bad decision when you vote.
Please choose carefully.
  

August 22, 2013

Teachers: More Powerful than POTUS

President Obama came to Syracuse today.

He traveled in 'Ground Force One', as the locals were calling his bus, with a huge entourage which snarled traffic for a while on the interstates and nearby roads from Buffalo this morning, through Rochester at lunch time, Seneca Falls in the late afternoon, and finally in Syracuse towards the end of rush hour.

At one of our local high schools (where the graduation rate hovers around 50%) Obama spoke of the value of education, how it helps make a difference, helps people be successful, helps them realize their dreams.  He talked about making it more affordable for people to get a college education, making it easier for people to pay for college, and how he and Michelle struggled to pay off their loans from college and law school.  He talked about making colleges more accountable for the success of their students, and about making it easier for people to assess colleges, to take some of the guesswork out of whether the college you think you want to go to is really going to do right by you.

I think the only point of his remarks where he referenced teachers was this comment regarding debt:
And I don't want debt to keep young people - some of whom are here today - from going into professions like teaching, for example, that may not pay as much money, but are of huge value to the country.
I'm likely biased since both of my parents were teachers, but I couldn't agree with the President more, that teachers are a huge value to the country. Their value comes from opening the eyes and minds of kids to the world of endless possibilities that await them.

When my parents retired from teaching they had almost 50 years of experience between them. Mom got you in elementary school - mostly first and second grade -- and many of her students went on to have my Dad in high school.  On the flip side, Mom taught the children of Dad's students - a full circle for students in my small hometown.  I'll never forget the comments at their retirement dinner - former students and their colleagues - telling everyone what a difference my parents had made, because they were teachers. Darn good teachers.

Last month, my mom heard from a former student out of the blue. The woman had looked Mom up on line, gotten hold of her email address, and reached out.  Mom, a very young 83, was amazed to hear from someone who remembered her as a teacher after all these years.  And I'm talking sixty years here -- the woman was in Mom's very first kindergarten class, in 1953!

Tomorrow, the former student and two others from that same class are coming into town to take Mom to lunch.

Now, I know that people who were in the gym at Henninger tonight will always remember being there, maybe shaking the President's hand, or being close enough to get a good picture.

But I hope that the kids who were there have at least one really good teacher at some point, one they'll want to look up and have lunch with sixty years down the road. 

That's power, folks.

August 20, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $194,713

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings. 

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance. 

This week, there were 11 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $130,218.  

This week, there were four satisfied judgments totaling $64,495 to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.   

And, there were no health-care related bankruptcies.  

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

August 13, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $709,430

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 17 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $515,094.

This week, there were five satisfied judgments totaling $80,992 to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.  

And, there were four health-care related bankruptcies, totaling $113,344.

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

August 11, 2013

Knock Knock? Who's There? Artemis

Artemis who?  Artemis who challenges neighbors to determine who is "truly disabled" in Portland, Oregon.

Apparently this Artemis creature is distributing flyers in Portland neighborhoods that name disabled voters who live in the area, so that their neighbors can take a hard look at them and determine who is 'truly' disabled and worthy of receiving disability benefits. I gotta tell you, this is even more extreme than the usual ideas that float around on the Internet.

Here's the flyer, with the names removed, courtesy of the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR):


Artemis, twin sister of Apollo, was a huntress, protector of animals, and a protector of children, but maybe not so nice to their moms.
Being a goddess of contradictions, she was the protectress of women in labor, but it was said that the arrows of Artemis brought them sudden death while giving birth. As was her brother, Apollo, Artemis was a divinity of healing, but also brought and spread diseases such as leprosy, rabies and even gout.
Wow -- there's a contradiction for you.  The present-day Artemis wants you to be able to hunt down and identify disabled benefit suckers, but her namesake kills moms in childbirth, which would seemingly leave babies on the public teat, as it were.  Although, to her credit, she was an eternal virgin, so I guess she wasn't out there popping out kids and collecting benefits herself, right? 

There's more. From the same article as above:
Artemis was very possessive. She would show her wrath on anyone who disobeyed her wishes...Artemis with her twin brother, Apollo, put to death the children of Niobe. The reason being that Niobe, a mere mortal, had boasted to Leto, the mother of the divine twins, that she had bore more children, which must make her superior to Leto. Apollo being outraged at such an insult on his mother, informed Artemis. The twin gods hunted them down and shot them with their bows and arrows; Apollo killed the male children and Artemis the girls.
I'm guessing in this case, Portland's Artemis is very possessive of her hard-earned income (and that of course assumes that it's earned, not some other kind) and, according to the flyer, is willing to "stand in the way" of those who would destroy our democracy - which as we all know is the democracy of the perfectly-abled and them alone, right?

It's not perfectly clear whether Artemis will knock arrow and go hunting in the neighborhoods a la the mythological Artemis, but one can only assume there's at least some level of ground-standing (grand-standing?) going on here.

I have to wonder: Artemis, do you take advantage of any public benefits?  I don't mean welfare or SNAP or Medicaid or anything like that -- Goddess forbid! -- but things like any property or income tax breaks that, while legal, are ways for our modern huntress to save at the expense of others.

Donate to charity and take a tax deduction? Own a house and take a mortgage interest deduction? Get any other benefits that are built into our federal, state and local tax codes? Maybe you've been in Portland for a while, and voted in favor of the property tax limitations back in the 1990's and now you're taking advantage of those?

If yes, Artemis my dear, you're just as bad as those you're branding with a giant 'D'.

Sure, we all know there's disability fraud. Just like we all know there's income tax fraud and every other kind of tax fraud and scads of ways to try and dodge codified obligations.  All of which should be investigated and identified and appropriate actions taken. But to suggest that everyone who's on disability needs to be examined by a neighborhood of their peers so that their disability can be discerned, well, how will you do that?
  • Knock on their doors and time how long it takes them to answer?
  • Steal their medical records and see what ails them, what kind of doctors they see?
  • Follow them around and see if they use handicapped parking spots?
  • Challenge them to a stag hunt?
Further, I suggest that if you vote (and one can only assume that as an upstanding resident of the City of Roses you are a registered and regular voter), you too are 'voting yourself money' every time you make a choice. Or is there a special way Goddesses can identify and vote only for candidates who express no opinion on fiscal issues such as taxes and spending? Candidates who, if elected, will refuse to vote on anything that comes before them that might in anyway have an impact on how your money is spent?

The bottom line is, every time we vote, we're "voting ourselves money" - either we're willing to continue spending what we spend today on our various governmental jurisdictions and programs and vote for people who promise to hold the line; we're willing to increase that spending, and so vote for people who are in favor of collecting and/or spending more money;  or we want to decrease our burden and so vote for people who promise to reduce taxes, spending, or both. 

Oh -- one more thing -- once you finish off identifying the truly 'disabled', do you then move on to the 'truly' unemployed, the 'truly' hungry, the 'truly' homeless, the 'truly' legal immigrants, the 'truly' everything else, until you're left with no one else to 'truly' identify? I wonder if then you will have 'truly' lived up to the slogan Keep Portland Weird, (albeit in a completely wrong way).

Here's another quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, my dear Goddess Artemis and others who drink from the same chalice:
We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.  

August 6, 2013

Tuesday's Number: $417,701

Tuesday is the day my local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, publishes the weekly business section. In addition to special features, tips from stock experts, budgeting advice and the like, we get the judgment and bankruptcy listings.

As I did for much of last year, I will be tracking health care related filings. I include anything that is clearly a debt owed to a hospital, nursing home, physician or physician group, medical supplier, and so on; I do not include filings by insurance companies, many of which are so diversified it would not be a fair assumption that the filing is related to medical care or health insurance.

This week, there were 12 people listed with new judgments to hospitals, doctors, or other medical providers totaling $395,325.

This week, there were two satisfied judgments totaling $22,376 to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.  

And, there were no health-care related bankruptcies.

The paper publishes only those accounts of at least $5,000.

August 4, 2013

Wringing out My Bias

I live in a predominantly white, 'sidewalk friendly' neighborhood; we're on a first-name basis with some folks but everyone generally keeps to themselves. We do talk quite a bit with the immediate next-door neighbors and a family across the street, all of whom happen to be black.

Between us and downtown Syracuse, where I used to work before my company moved to the 'burbs, is a pretty dicey section of town, still in my zip code but miles away in terms of sensibility.  There's a lot of crime 'there' compared to 'here', a lot of houses in disrepair and empty lots where houses used to stand.  Truth be told, it looks like what people from the suburbs think a city looks like. Unlike my own, those neighborhoods are mostly black, with some Hispanics and very few whites.

A block or so before you get to the dicey parts, there's a house that's well taken care of; the front yard is fenced with a nice vine-covered, gated arbor at the end of the sidewalk leading up to the front door, and the yard is full of flowering shrubs and plants.  The owners obviously take pride in how their home looks. 

One day a few years ago we were passing by, and I noticed a couple standing in the doorway, looking out at the yard.  The gentleman, very tall, had his arm around the shoulder of the woman,  much shorter.  They clearly were enjoying the morning -- and I was clearly shocked.

Because they were black.  And because I assumed that the people who lived there were white.

Why? Because in my experience, the vast majority of the well-tended houses - in all of the different neighborhoods I had lived in -  were occupied by whites.  The people I saw mowing the lawn, tending the flowers, picking up trash, raking leaves in the fall, shoveling and snow-blowing in the winter, were white. And conversely.

President Obama noted recently (after George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin) that we should ask if we're wringing as much bias out of ourselves as we can. When I read that, I remembered that morning a few years ago, and I remembered feeling extremely biased. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, because I never thought of myself  that way. 

And so in the context of Zimmerman/Martin/Obama, I asked myself "Am I racist?"  I really don't care what color or ethnicity a person is, but
  • I care if they're obnoxious or disrespectful or rude.
  • I care if they're blasting horrible music or cursing on the sidewalk, or mistreating people or animals, or throwing walnuts at our house.
  • I care if they're tossing garbage in the yard or not cleaning up after their dogs.
  • I care if they leave shopping carts in the middle of parking lots, or food in the magazine racks at grocery stores.
  • I care if they throw trash out the window on the highway or leave tampons on the beach.
  • I care if they're mean to my mom or anyone else I care about.
I don't know if the people who do the things that drive me nuts are black or brown or yellow or pink or red or peach or white, because usually I don't see them doing the things that make me crazy. I can hazard a guess, in some cases, based on my experiences, where those experiences occurred, and behaviors I have seen with my own two eyes.

And while I would love to always look past the person, look only at their actions, and judge only those actions, I'm not perfect, and sometimes my reactions to situations are based more on my experience than on the blank slate that the President (and others) have asked me to use.  I'm trying to wring out my bias, just as everyone else should, but I admit I'm not completely there yet.

Oh -- back to the couple with the nice front yard up the street. Remember I said we were pretty friendly with the folks who bought the house next door?  Well, guess who?