Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Flip flopping on RomneyCare

Although both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney seem to be doing a flip flop on RomneyCare, significant changes to the Massachusetts law have taken place since the initiating bill passed in 2006. As a Massachusetts state legislator, I have seen many bills working their way through the committee process that seek to add procedures/equipment/illnesses to what we call the “minimum creditable coverage” (MCC) standard—the definition of what a policy must cover in order to be deemed “legal” (that is, not subject to penalty for the policy owner via his/her personal income tax return).

The continuing ratcheting up of the MCC has produced health insurance policies that average well over $14,000 per year for a small group family plan, the highest premium cost in the country (a statistic from the Internal Revenue Service). At the same time, RomneyCare did not carry with it any provisions to reduce the cost of health care delivery; just the theory that universal coverage would temper fast rising premiums as well as emergency room visits for people without health insurance. The theory proved not to be correct, but the blame for this can be pinned on the state legislature’s actions since the enactment of RomneyCare as much, or more so, than the 2006 legislation.

It is not at all surprising that both Gingrich and Romney have reformulated their opinions on RomneyCare as it pertains to ObamaCare. No one questions that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was premised on the Massachusetts concept, but one only has to look at the results of this incubator experiment in Massachusetts to see that, perhaps, this solution should not be ported to the nation as a whole.

For those who do support the ACA, there may be some level of comfort in noting that, in spite of Massachusetts leading the way in high health insurance premiums both before and after RomneyCare, the rate of increase since passing RomneyCare is tracking below the national average. Cost savings measures, such as uniform electronic medical records and accountable care organizations are being discussed at the Statehouse as ways to make our health care delivery system more efficient and less subject to fee-for-service arrangements.

In my opinion, expressing disappointment with a system that was so promising five years ago (before it was implemented) is not at all hypocritical, but reflective on outcomes to-date. The more important policy issue for these candidates is not the repeal of ObamaCare, but what avenue will yield the best, most affordable health care delivery system for the United States.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Spring peeper leaping to finish line

Spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
Debra Jeffries' second grade class studies amphibians as part of their curriculum at Crocker Elementary School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. This year, they exercised their state constitutional right to file a bill in the General Court which declares the spring peeper to be the official amphibian of the Commonwealth.

I noticed in the House of Representatives session log for today that the bill has moved to the Committee on Bills in the Third Reading. That means this bill is rounding third base and on its way home. Votes to engross the bill by the House and Senate and the Governor's signature are all that need to be accomplished for this aqua lung to enjoy its rightful place among official state stuff.

Some people rail at legislation such as this, claiming that we're wasting our time and money on nonsensical things. I disagree.

First off, no one is paid any additional money to shepherd such a bill through the legislature. Not making the spring peeper official would save no one any money.

Secondly, our state constitution gives citizens the right to author bills and petition their government to act on them. These "by request" bills are sometimes important, sometimes not so important, but who's to judge which citizens should be allowed to exercise their constitutional rights and which should be denied?

Thirdly, when we're doing stuff like this, it happens in informal sessions. Only a few people are present and no contentious bills are discussed. If one is, the objection of a single representative kills it. Today's session dealt with 17 items and took a total of 27 minutes.

Lastly, the kids in Ms. Jeffries' class will have a learned an important lesson on how the government works and how they can actually affect change. I would rate this lesson even more important than learning about spring peepers.

Some other official state stuff:

Official bird: Black-capped chickadee
Official game bird: Wild turkey
Official dog: Boston terrier
Official cat: Tabby
Official fish: Cod
Official insect: Lady bug
Official marine mammal: Right whale
Official flower: Mayflower
Official tree: American elm
Official bean: Navy bean
Official beverage: Cranberry juice
Official cookie: Chocolate chip
Official dessert: Boston cream pie

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Town of Sandwich's "no plow" rules generating snowstorm of discontent

Prius plow: To stop global warming, we'll need more of these
Guest article by Jonathan Fitch

I don’t much like that our town leaders continue to deny plowing services to folks on some private roads. The announced reasoning is that these roads do not meet standards the leaders feel are not just desirable, but absolutely critical for municipal workers to be able to do the job at all. The advice from the selectmen is for affected residents to hire private contractors. To my mind, the logic in this advice defeats the reasons given for the town’s refusal to plow. If a private contractor can do the job, so can the town.

There are no legal obstacles preventing the town from plowing all private roads; the decision to deny services is purely political business. Many years ago, town meeting voted to authorize the town to plow private ways. Without that vote, no town would plow private ways. I doubt voters at that meeting realized, however, that the vote authorized, but did not require plowing.

For starters, this is a fairness thing. Taxes pay for town owned roads so why shouldn’t they pay for private roads just the same. Neighborhoods that wish to be truly private can opt out, but for the rest of us, our private roads are available to the public just the same as town roads. The only differences are technical and unlikely to deter the general public from driving on them.

I am not a fan of big government, but I concede there are some services government is better suited to handle than individuals. Snow plowing of all roads is one of those services. (I’ll save the subject of maintenance for another day.) Providing snow plowing for all who need it is not unlike operating a transfer station for all who need it. We have a DPW that is staffed and equipped and knows how to handle plowing. We can all benefit from economies of scale and management now in place.

But, for some time now, town leaders are just saying “No.” I don’t hear any talk of solutions and that is the most disappointing of all. I think it is fair to say that snow plowing of private roads is an important issue that is not getting the attention from leadership that it deserves. Without going on for ten pages and spouting off with my own proposals, I’m asking for an exchange of ideas.  Perhaps a solution will emerge.

Is the town’s current position legitimate? Is it fair? Should it be fair? Should government be involved at all? Should all roads be town roads upon request? Are those on town roads assessed differently from those on acceptable private roads and are they assessed differently from those on “no plow” private roads? How do we work this out?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What's on your iPod?

This is a common question for celebrities these days: What’s on your iPod?

Described in the book Steve Jobs, Jobs handed his iPod to Walter Isaacson, biographer, who found among other things the complete catalog of Bob Dylan’s works through 1989 including several bootleg albums.

My iPod has five playlists: Jazz, Country, Singers (Sinatra, Mathis, Bennett, etc.), Beatles, and Not The Beatles. Each, other than the Beatles playlist, features a variety of artists, but I’m pretty heavy on Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rolling Stones, CCR, ZZ Top and U2.

My office computer, on the other hand, has one music CD that was compiled by my youngest daughter, Gayle, and given to me on Father’s Day. I play it often because she spent a great deal of time selecting the pieces just for me.

Hero – Mariah Carey
Because You Love Me – Celine Dion
Daddy – Beyonce
I’ll Always Be Your Baby – Natalie Grant
I Need You – LeAnn Rimes
Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler

If a photo is worth a thousand words, these songs are worth a million.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Texas hog hunt

Every few years we pack the car and take a drive down to Texas to see our kids and my two brothers. One of my brothers lives in El Paso, about 2,400 miles from Cape Cod, so this is no light undertaking.

My other brother, Alan, lives with his wife, Mary, on a ranch east of San Antonio. Because my wife, Mary, makes for two Mary Hunts, we call her Mary Lyn to keep them straight.

I wrote a piece about Alan called O Brother, Where Aren't Thou, which explains a lot about his obsessions and is a pretty funny read. With more than 300 notches on his headboard for (not what you think) feral hog kills, it's always fun and interesting to accompany him on a late night hunt to control the population of these extremely destructive animals. The first two nights of our stay were too windy even for the most stalwart hunters, which left two more opportunities to show off our hunting skills before Mary Lyn and I had to start the trip back to the Cape.

The third day turned out to be picture perfect: Cool and clear with little wind. The temperature would be dipping into the thirties, so I dressed appropriately. Starting with long johns, I wore two pair of socks, jeans, a t-shirt, two long-sleeved shirts, field jacket, boots, and camo gloves and cap. I walked out of the house ala John Wayne for lack of movement in all of those clothes.

Gear for the hunt included binoculars, night vision goggles, a .308 rifle with a night scope, and a .44 magnum revolver. Alan traded his Kawasaki four wheel drive "Mule" for an electric all-terrain Club Car, which eliminated the problem of a loud engine announcing your arrival to the feral hogs from three miles away.

We hauled the Club Car in Alan's pickup to a neighbor's ranch who had just sustained major damage to a field from a sounder of hogs a night or two before. Alan clicked the night vision goggles into his head gear and we drove out across the pastures with no light other than a quarter moon that was rising from the horizon.

We settled on a location under the shade (something that could be clearly distinguished with the night vision goggles) of a tree in the field that had been heavily rooted by the onion grass eating pigs.

The night was crisp and quiet. Once in awhile a cow's moo could be heard from a distant field. Packs of coyotes started howling which triggered a response from their ranch dog kin. Then we heard a squeal. That was why we were there. We were completely silent, listening for more evidence of hogs nearby. Unfortunately, they never came.

Unlike what you are led to believe by watching hunting shows, there are many more nights like this one than those that produce a kill, or even an opportunity to shoot. After a couple of hours, we called it a night and headed back to the ranch house.

On our last night there, temperatures were even chillier and we made the decision to let the hogs have a night off while we tuned into A&E Television to watch Lady Hoggers

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some lighter moments at the Statehouse

My first year as a state representative is coming to a close and I find myself reflecting back on a few of the funnier things that happened during my rookie year.

I learned a lot about how the McCormack Building garage attendants regard the intellect of freshman legislators. Pulling up to the garage on the day of our swearing in, I was asked my name. The gentleman found me on the list, radioed some codes to his fellow attendants and opened the garage door. I proceeded in and at every turn and ramp there was another walkie-talkie armed attendant pointing me in the proper direction. The final attendant literally ran to my parking slot while I followed and he staged my turn into the space much like a ramp agent guiding an airplane to a gate.

At first I thought all of this ado was a reflection of the attendants' respect for legislators. That turned out to be a fleeting thought. No, the real reason for this masterfully coordinated exercise was quite the opposite. For years, these people have had to deal with elected officials who didn't have the sense to find the right parking spot and out of that frustration they developed this crack system to prevent wasting the attendants' time and to get the legislators to the Statehouse on time. (The exercise was repeated when we were asked to take our seats in the chamber.)

After the budget sessions ended in April, various committees started holding hearings to plow through the 6,000 some odd bills that had been filed for this legislative session. I arrived on time for the first hearing of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs and pulled out my agenda along with copies of the bills. The hearing was gaveled to a start and about twenty minutes into it I came to realize that my state of confusion was not because of my newbee status, rather because the Elder Affairs Committee was meeting in the room next door.

During the summer I scheduled a tour of the Statehouse with the curator of collections, Susan Greendyke. I wanted to become a better tour guide and I’m always interested in historical anecdotes, how things got their names, etc. At the end of the three-hour tour, we were standing outside the General Hooker Entrance on Beacon Street. Ms. Greendyke lamented that she had been petitioning to get the name of the entrance changed for 25 years, preferring South Entrance to the somewhat scandalous moniker. Legend has it that General Hooker indeed had a bevy of female followers who were known as Hooker’s Ladies, shortened later to hookers.

A formal session of the House of Representatives is an interesting thing to watch, and even more interesting to take part in. One element of the sessions is the obligatory party politics. This drives me batty more than anything else we deal with on Beacon Hill. At times, the minority party pushes an amendment that we know won't pass but that makes a philosophical point and gets the majority party to go on record with their nay votes. Whenever one of these votes comes up, all of the Republicans light up their green "yea" vote lights and all of the Democrats light up their red "nay" vote lights. Since the parties are shown together on the vote tally board, there are 33 green lights in a row and 127 red lights in a row.

At a recent, long session, the minority leader jumped up at exactly 6 p.m. moving to take a dinner break until 7 p.m. A motion of this type allows for no debate, only a vote. The house clerk called for the vote and the 33 green Republican lights came on, almost in unison. About half of the 127 red lights were lit when the speaker's green light was illuminated. Mass confusion ensued as a bunch of the red lights starting changing to green only to be followed by the speaker's light switching to red which caused a second flurry of green lights changing to red. In the end, the dinner break was summarily voted down on partisan lines.

I can imagine a legislator being criticized on the campaign trail for being against dinner before being for dinner before being against dinner.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life after the U.S. Postal Service

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section VIII – The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises… 7) to establish post offices and post roads.

The USPS has been in the headlines again lamenting a $5.1 billion lost for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011 on revenues of $65.7 billion. Are we bracing for yet another bail out?

Irrespective of the spin generated by the American Postal Workers Union (click here to read it), two fundamental problems have created the five-year streak of multi-billion dollar losses:

1) Competition with online services and private sector package delivery companies.

2) Cost of retiree benefits.

Competition

There is no question that first class letters have been hit hard by email. Though only representing about 3% of total revenue, letters from household to household have become a rarity and will continue to go the way of Buicks and hair salon “permanents” as our oldest generation moves on to the Happy Hunting Grounds.

Online services by banks, credit card companies, investment houses, the federal government, etc., have had a more dramatic effect. Fewer and fewer people receive their monthly statements in the mail. The Social Security Administration has replaced those monthly kisses in the mail with direct deposit.

The effect of these changes is that a greater percentage of what shows up in your mailbox is junk mail (aka advertising). On an average day, I immediately throw out all of the mail I recover from my PO box. Once in awhile, I open an envelope, quickly peruse the contents, and then throw it out.

This begs the question: Just how much (in terms of billions of dollars a year) should the taxpayers subsidize the USPS for delivering advertisements from private sector companies? Does this not represent an indirect transfer of taxpayer money to companies that offer low interest rate, guaranteed acceptance credit cards? Or to the Mitt Romney for President campaign?

On the package delivery front, UPS, FedEx and others offer strong competition featuring better websites, tracking tools, and on-time deliveries. It is an excellent example of how competition in a free market can lead to better service at a reasonable price.

Retiree Benefits

This is the 480,000 pound gorilla in the room. Although funding for the current retirees and survivors is in place ($42.5 billion), Congress has smartly required the USPS to fund future retirement benefits with contributions of about $2.5 billion per year. The American Postal Workers Union argues that this funding should be waived in order to shore up current operations. One might argue that this is a short-sighted view.

There are about 560,000 active employees of the USPS, the second-largest employer in the private sector behind Walmart, if you concede that the USPS is a private sector employer. It doesn’t receive any taxpayer money (yet), but Congress does allow it to borrow up to $15 billion per year.

At 480,000 strong, retirees of the USPS and their survivors almost equal the number of active employees. Promises of making changes to the retirement benefits system without affecting any current or retired employees are likely to be empty. That is, of course, unless taxpayers come to the rescue.

All of this stacks up to a shrinking number of employees (already down by 121,000 since 2007) and a tipping point of more people drawing on retiree benefits than the number of people contributing to the system. Click here to read how the USPS proposes to manage this issue.

Life after the postal service

I don’t know if it will ever come to it, but I started thinking about how I would manage my affairs without the USPS. What would take its place? Does anything need to take its place?

All of our bill payments and statements are handled online. Investment statements and transactions—all online. As a CPA, we send client organizers in the mail, but my software system has an online organizer feature. I send thank you cards to my campaign contributors, but could hand deliver most of them.

My guess is that competition for what’s left of the first class mail would result in UPS and FedEx creating a Buck-An-Envelope service that would deliver up to 8 ounces or so (about 8 sheets of paper) for $1. Though more than twice as much as First Class rates of today, I would use it because my need would be infrequent.

How would you manage without the USPS? Can you imagine that becoming a reality?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Town of Sandwich special town meeting is Monday

Zoning bylaws are a perfect example of where the devil is in the details. Spend a little time looking over the warrant this weekend and come prepared to debate and vote on these important changes on Monday night, 7pm at Sandwich High School.

There are several other interesting articles queued up for Monday's spectacle of democracy in action. Click here to view the entire warrant.


November 7, 2011 – Special Town Meeting
Index of Warrant Articles

1. Increase FY’12 School Department Appropriation to Match Ch. 70 Appropriation
2. Appropriation for SEIC
3. Appropriation for Unemployment Account – Transfer from Group Health 
Insurance Account
4. Beach Account Transfer: Oak Crest Cove Parking Lot Drainage Improvements
5. CPA Appropriation: Restoration & Protection of Historic Town Records
6. CPA Appropriation: Town Neck Beach Management Plan & Old Harbor Inlet 
Stabilization Project Permitting
7. CPA Appropriation: Purchase of 3 Tarantino Parcels
8. CPA Appropriation: Purchase of Schmonsees Parcel
9. CPA Appropriation: Purchase of Falcione Parcel
10. Authorization to Grant Easement on Town SSVC Land off Quaker Meetinghouse 
Road
11. Authorization to Accept Easement off Tarragon Drive
12. Zoning By-laws: Change BL-1 & BL-2 References to B1 & B2
13. Zoning By-laws: Section 2600
14. Zoning By-laws: Section 3510
15. Zoning By-laws: Sections 4500 – 4505, 2600, and 2540
16. Zoning By-laws: Section 3100, 3130, and 3120
17. Zoning By-laws: Article VI–A, Sections 6000 – 6625
18. Zoning By-laws: Definitions Section

Monday, October 31, 2011

"Bath salts" hearing slated for Thursday, November 3rd

To All Concerned Citizens:

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary will be hearing a number of bills on Thursday, November 3rd, beginning at 1pm in Hearing Room A-1 of the Statehouse, including H03739 An Act to Include Substituted Cathinones, aka "Bath Salts," in Class C Substances (printed below).

My understanding is that Lt. Steven Xiarhos from the Yarmouth Police Department will be there to testify. Any and all other interested persons who wish to testify are welcomed. Plan to be at the Statehouse about a half hour early to sign up to testify. First come, first to speak.

Regards,

Randy

Randy Hunt, State Representative
5th Barnstable District
93 Route 6A
Sandwich, MA 02563
(508) 888-2158




HOUSE  DOCKET, NO. 03953         FILED ON: 08/01/2011
HOUSE  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  No. 03739

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
_______________
PRESENTED BY:
George Ross and Elizabeth Poirier
_______________
To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in General
                Court assembled:
                The undersigned legislators and/or citizens respectfully petition for the passage of the accompanying bill:
An Act to include substituted cathinones, also known as "bath salts," in class C substances.
_______________
PETITION OF:

Name:
District/Address:
George Ross
2nd Bristol
Elizabeth Poirier
14th Bristol
Bradley H. Jones, Jr.
20th Middlesex
George N. Peterson, Jr.
9th Worcester
Viriato Manuel deMacedo
1st Plymouth
Geoff Diehl
7th Plymouth
Donald Wong
9th Essex
Paul Adams
17th Essex
Donald F. Humason, Jr.
4th Hampden
James Lyons, Jr.
18th Essex
Angelo D'Emilia
8th Plymouth
Steven Howitt
4th Bristol
Peter Durant
6th Worcester
James E. Timilty
Bristol and Norfolk
Timothy J. Toomey, Jr.
26th Middlesex
Jennifer E. Benson
37th Middlesex
James J. Dwyer
30th Middlesex
Brian Ashe
2nd Hampden
Martin J. Walsh
13th Suffolk
Paul McMurtry
11th Norfolk
Kimberly Ferguson
1st Worcester
Aaron Michlewitz
3rd Suffolk
Todd M. Smola
1st Hampden
Shaunna O'Connell
3rd Bristol



HOUSE  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  No. 03739
By Representatives Ross of Attleboro and Poirier of North Attleborough, a petition (subject to Joint Rule 12) of George Ross and others for legislation to categorize bath salts, so-called, as a class C substance.  The Judiciary.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
_______________
In the Year Two Thousand Eleven
_______________


An Act to include substituted cathinones, also known as "bath salts," in class C substances.
                Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:
SECTION 1. Section 31 of chapter 94C, as appearing in the 2008 Official Edition, is hereby amended by adding, after the words, “(16) 4-Bromo-2, 5-Dimethoxy-amphetamine”, in line 235,  the following:-
“(17) 3, 4 - methylenedioxymethcathinone, MDMC
(18) 3, 4 - methylenedioxypyrovalerone, MDPV
(19) 4 - methylmethcathinone, 4-MMC
(20) 4 - methoxymethcathinone, bk-PMMA, PMMC
(21) 3, 4 - fluoromethcathinone, FMC
(22) Napthylpyrovalerone, NRG-1
(23) Beta-keto-N-methylbenzodioxolylpropylamine
(24) 2-(methylamino)-propiophenone; OR alpha-(methylamino)propiophenone
(25) 3-methoxymethcathinone
(26) 4-methyl-alpha-pyrrolidinobutyrophenone
(27) 2-(methylamino)-1-phenylpropan-1-one
(28) 4-ethylmethcathinone
(29) 3,4-Dimethylmethcathinone
(30) alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone
(31) beta-Keto-Ethylbenzodioxolylbutanamine
(32) 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-ethylcathinone”.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Selectmen seeking members for substance abuse prevention task force

The newly formed Town of Sandwich Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force is still accepting letters of interest for two at large members.

If you are interested in serving on this Task Force please send a letter of interest to the Board of Selectmen at Sandwich Town Hall, 130 Main St., Sandwich 02563-2208 or email selectmen@townofsandwich.net.

The Task Force is meeting monthly during the formation stage. Meetings are generally during the late afternoon on weekdays. There are also sub-committees being formed to deal with development specifics such as outreach, strategy and grant writing.

The Task Force was formed by the Board of Selectmen. It is a coalition of municipal and school leadership as well as representation from the nonprofit world devoted to youth. The mission of the Task Force is to develop a comprehensive town wide approach to prevention of substance abuse.

The deadline for letters of interest is November 2nd.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Can we advertise our way out of declining enrollment?

Guest article by Carl Johansen

Without question the past several years have taken an emotional toll on the students and parents who have or would have attended Sandwich High School.

The recent suggestion by Mr. Catalini to do something about the loss of students--who are now attending other schools--by paying to promote our school district has some merit. Running promotional ads, no matter where, to sell our schools needs to be given some serious deliberation before we actually implement it.

No doubt that the Sandwich schools have some reasons to be proud, but is promoting that to the outside world the way to stop the increasing loss of Sandwich school children to other school districts?

The use of educational funding would take dollars away from our current students, so this investment must be justified. Because we do not know, other than through anecdotal evidence, the reasons for the enrollment decline, it makes me wonder if a conditional study could be performed to confirm the reasons for the flight to other districts.

If the study can provide the answers and they are related to the past several years of disruptions, I would be more inclined to support an advertising campaign for a short time to reeducate the general public, parents and children alike, on the good points we offer in the Sandwich School District. Until such data are forthcoming, however, I would be hesitant to support such an expenditure.

What say ye citizens of Sandwich?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why 9-9-9 is headed for the deep six

I watched analysts battle over the positives and negatives of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan this weekend. After hearing their arguments and using my own CPA noggin, I'm coming down on the side that it's a great slogan but falls down in two key ways.

So we're on the same page, here are the main points from Cain's website. The 9-9-9 plan would eject the current tax code and replace it with a 9% tax on personal income, a 9% tax on corporate income, and a 9% federal sales tax. The only deduction for personal income tax returns would be charitable donations. Deductions from gross income for businesses would be purchases from other U.S. located businesses, capital investments, and net exports. The federal sales tax would be on new goods, but I haven't been able to determine if services would be taxed. In fact, other than the vague bullet points on Cain's election website, I haven't been able to locate the actual 9-9-9 plan. Although a tax code that can be printed on a note card seems appealing, it's doubtful that one that short could actually be implemented.

Here's why 9-9-9 is destined for failure:

1) It scraps the long accepted graduated tax system for one that favors people with discretionary income. A person making $50,000 in wages and who has no charitable deductions would pay $4,500 (9%) in federal income tax. An additional 9% in federal sales tax would be assessed on expenditures. Because there's no actual 9-9-9 plan to read yet, I'm not sure if spending on car and house payments would be taxed or if services would be taxed. Are utilities considered new goods or services? Let's assume that this person spends $25,000 on federally taxable stuff. That would amount to an additional $2,250 for a total of $6,750, or 13.5% of the $50,000 wage.

Now let's consider someone who makes $1,000,000 in salary and spends $250,000 of it to support a nice lifestyle. Assume again that half of the $250,000 is spent on federally taxable items. Federal income tax would be $90,000; sales tax would be $11,250. That totals to $101,250, or 10.125% of the $1 million salary.

How does that compare to the current tax code? A single person earning $50,000 with no itemized deductions pays $6,350. A married couple earning $50,000, again with no itemized deductions, pays $3,061. A single person earning $1 million would certainly be able to itemize deductions, so it's not realistic to assume a standard deduction for such a person, but for laughs, let's do just that. A single person earning $1 million would pay $324,371. A married couple would pay $313,763.

Therein lies the political challenge for 9-9-9. Lower paid folks would pay a higher percentage of their earnings in taxes than people who earn more than they spend. Secondly, compared with the current system, 9-9-9 provides a significant reduction in actual dollars paid in federal income taxes for high earners, while the opposite is true for lower earners. Some people may like this idea, but it won't fly at the ballot box.

2) The introduction of a federal sales tax is just too tempting as a new revenue source for Congress. The Fair Tax Act, as formulated by Neal Boortz and John Linder, calls for a national sales tax but marries the idea with the repeal of the 16th Amendment, which would abolish the federal income tax.

Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, according to his campaign website, is step one of a two-step process, with step two being adoption of the Fair Tax Act. The problem I see is that, in the unlikely event that Cain is elected and 9-9-9 becomes law, Congress would start dreaming about how great a 12-12-12 plan would be, or a 20-20-20 plan. Income taxes would remain on the table and the easy way to avoid spending cuts would be to crank up the national sales tax. More tools in the tax hike toolbox is a recipe for disaster.

Tax reform is needed, but I believe we will have to whittle away at the tax code we've got. Eliminating loopholes and tax preferences will result in a fairer tax system without cutting the safety net we have in place for our less fortunate citizens. Anyone who thinks they'll win the presidency on a tax policy that goes after lower wage earners to benefit high wage earners is just not tuning into the national debate.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Casino gaming bill will pass, but at what cost?


When I have an important decision to make, I jot down the plusses and minuses. It helps me visualize the issue.

For background, I will tell you that I don’t have particularly strong feelings about casinos one way or the other. I’ve been to Las Vegas and Foxwoods, spent a little bit on slot machines, and walked away having lost my money but having been entertained. Call it even. I play the lottery once in a while, usually when the prize breaks $100 million. I don’t have any favorite numbers, so I get a Quick Pick.
I don’t harbor any addictive behavior that I’m aware of other than for Diet Pepsi and the New England Patriots. Given my “neither here, neither there” attitude towards gambling, I am inclined to vote based on constituent input which, from a nonscientific sampling, is running slightly in favor of the casino bill.
This is where my plusses and minuses list comes in. On the plusses list:
Gaming will bring more economic activity to the state. I’m not sure how much of that will be generated from outside Massachusetts versus inside, but there’s no question that there will be jobs to build and operate the casinos.

I’m already running out of plusses. Some would add the projected $300 to $600 million in taxes to this list, but I’m not at all convinced that giving more money to government is a good thing. And I seriously doubt the accuracy of these revenue projections. With a budget gap each year of more than $1 billion, the $300 million (if it holds up) will be used to balance the budget, not generate spending on new programs. We could do the same by trimming the $30 billion state budget by one percent.

On the minuses list:
Class 3 gaming will add to the currently available legal gambling that has many people spending nondiscretionary income, going into debt, and getting caught up in destructive, addictive behavior.

The sheer expansion of the state government’s regulatory structure is enough to make us think twice. The gaming bill adds a commission of five people with all of the incumbent bureaucratic positions and support personnel. New jobs? Yes. But this commission will not supplant the lottery commission; only add to it.

Casinos always make money. In the big picture, the collective amount of money spent at casinos represents money not spent on more productive activities or not stashed in a savings account. The Libertarian in me says that I shouldn’t be concerned about other people’s decisions, but I’ve been in rooms filled with retirees playing slot machines in a robotic way, some of them sucking on cigarettes and some sucking on oxygen canisters; some on both. It’s not a pretty picture.

Another issue is timing. We are about to launch bidding on three resort casino licenses and a slot parlor license during the worst, most protracted recession since the Great Depression. This will ensure less competition and lower bid prices. I predict that, because the bill regionalizes the licenses, the western Massachusetts license will go unsold for a long period of time. The region is just too close to Twin Rivers in Rhode Island and the two Indian casinos in Connecticut. Don’t be surprised if we’re back in the chamber voting to lower the minimum bid prices next year.

Another minus for me is the way this bill has evolved. When Sal DiMasi was speaker, an ardent opposition voice to Class 3 gaming, the Democrats in the House of Representatives defeated the bill. A year later, with Bob DeLeo as speaker, many of the same Democrats had “seen the light” and voted for it. We all know what’s going on here.

After the embarrassing show of wills we witnessed in 2010 between the governor, speaker, and senate president (all of whom supported Class 3 gaming), a compromise was worked out this year between the three of them. Horses were traded and an acceptable version of the bill was crafted. All of this was done behind closed doors; closed to all but a select few.

Finally, I point to a quote printed in the Cape Cod Times on September 26th“This is a jobs bill; that’s the only reason we’re doing this,” Senate President Therese Murray said. “If we had a cooking economy, you wouldn’t see this happening.”

That statement gives me great pause. Should we embrace all manner of vices in tough economic times? Periods of recession and prosperity come and go. The decision to establish casinos is forever.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mixed message

Do you think the sign installer recognized the double entendre?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs, visionary

There are thousands of accounts of Steve Jobs’ life and accomplishments available on the Internet, so I will skip all of the stuff that you can read elsewhere.

The year was 1986 and I was working in New York City for Peat Marwick Mitchell (nka KPMG), an international accounting firm that had adopted the Apple Macintosh as its computer of choice for auditors in the field. During my two-year stint at KPMG’s head office, I spent one year on a team that revamped the interface of our audit software and one year on a two-man team that assisted and promoted KPMG’s consultants who installed small office computer networks and accounting software.

Part of my job involved traveling to computer trade shows and making presentations on the positives and negatives of various accounting software systems available on PC and Macintosh platforms. You might think that seminars involving such a dry subject would lack the glitziness and show-biz elements of a classic Steve Jobs product unveiling. And you’d be right.

But those seminars took me to places, like the 1985 Macworld Conference & Expo in Boston and the 1986 MacExpo at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where I attended a panel presentation by several of Jobs’ Macintosh development team. It was shortly after John Sculley, the Pepsi guy who took over the reins at Apple, ran Jobs off.

Though Jobs was absent, the team still carried his vision for the computer industry; one in which software and hardware design would focus on users, not the druthers of programmers and engineers. This vision was shared by Jef Raskin, who headed up Apple’s effort to produce a low-cost computer with an intuitive interface.

Members of the development team also included Bill Atkinson, Burrell Smith, Chris Espinosa, Andy Herzfeld and Guy Kawasaki. There were others, but these are the people I remember seeing at the Expos.

One of the above, I don’t remember whom, said something that I’ll never forget. Though it wasn’t Steve Jobs intimating this vision that day, I’m absolutely sure that he believed in it because it has nearly come true.

In response to a comment from someone in the audience about how great the Macintosh is because of its portability, one of the panelists challenged that thought. His definition of “portable” was that you could carry something else at the same time. The Macintosh failed this definition, more appropriately falling into the category of “luggable.”

Let me take that a step further, he said, and hypothesized that computers wouldn’t truly be portable until they could be woven into the fabric of your clothing.

That statement, made in 1986—before iPods, Smart Phones, and Wii Jackets were a twinkle in any of our eyes—captured my imagination.

Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996 and got to work remaking the company by bringing back the “fantastic” and “cool” that we had associated with Apple in its early days. And, sure enough, we started seeing products that integrated into our daily lives almost as seamlessly as a computer woven into a sweater.

Some people were on TV this week speculating that the era of computer innovation is over with Jobs’ passing. That’s no more true than declaring that innovation in song writing died with John Lennon’s assassination (although some may believe that too). People with genius move the creativity ball forward with incredible pace, but there is always someone who comes along to pick up the ball.

I’m just glad that I got to watch this amazing person and his team lead an entire industry from its infancy to what is now probably its toddler stage.

From Apple's Think Different ad campaign:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. 
The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. 
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. 
Maybe they have to be crazy. 
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? 
We make tools for these kinds of people. 
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Copyright 2011 Randy Hunt

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fighting al-Qaida: Can Obama have it both ways?

Anwar al-Awlaki
The assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen this week via a Predator drone strike raises some interesting legal issues.

Most, including me, would agree that thwarting terrorists’ plans by arrest or other means is justified. This week’s action carries with it the unusual circumstance that two of the people killed were United States citizens. The other, Samir Kahn, published an online magazine called “Inspire,” aimed at pro-al-Qaida readers in western countries.

Neither person had been charged or indicted, which raises questions about the limits of power enjoyed by the President. Could anyone residing in the United States be declared an enemy of the state and assassinated without repudiation?

Apparently so, since President Bush signed an executive order on September 17, 2001 authorizing the CIA to hunt down terrorists worldwide. The order does not carve out U.S. citizens or any country in which these actions cannot occur.

Some argue that such actions blur the distinctions between “free” countries and those under the heavy handed rule of despots.

How can President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder demand that Guantanamo detainees be given due process in our court system and, at the same time, skip due process by taking out American citizens al-Awlaki and Kahn?

Many criticized Cheney and Rumsfeld for transporting captured terrorists to countries where they could be waterboarded. Will those same critics remain silent about bypassing waterboarding to move straight to assassination?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Vote early, vote often in Massachusetts

I went to a movie the other day. I paid for the tickets with my debit card and I was asked to show an I.D.

Every time I walk into the Statehouse, I have to show my I.D.

Get on a plane? Keep your I.D. out and available.

Go the polls? Pick an address. Any address. Identification? Not necessary.

Quite literally, I could go to a town where they don’t know me and vote at every polling place. But no one would do that, would they?

Thirty states require voters to show identification to pull a ballot. A group of citizens believes that Massachusetts should be thirty-one, but their petition was found to be invalid by the attorney general because forcing people to show I.D.’s at the polls would make it harder to vote and, because an I.D. card from the RMV costs $25, the law would be a de facto poll tax.

Somebody please make the case for me that showing an I.D. would complicate the ballot checkout system because I can’t figure out why.

Regarding a poll tax, the attorney general’s argument is inconsistent. To register to vote, one must show identification. So the AG is saying 1) that we’re violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with our registration laws, or 2) well, I don’t what she’s saying. Help me out here.

A simple solution would be to provide free I.D. cards to people who are registered voters if they have no other valid voter identification.

Despite the AG's ruling, which has been appealed, the petitions will be ready for signature collection starting this week. If the court rules with the AG, the issue will be dead. At least for awhile.

This is an issue, like term limits, that will not be taken up by the legislature as long as the Democrats have a 5 to 1 advantage. The good news is that they had a 10 to 1 advantage just a year ago.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

President is running out of ideas

Guest article by Max Drake
Sandwich

This letter to the editor of the Sandwich Enterprise was reproduced here with the author's permission.

I read, with interest, your reposted NY Times editorial last week under the “What Others Say” column, and along with that, Joanne O’Keefe’s letter to the editor. I couldn’t help but marvel at how the political left is always so willing to give one group the shirt off someone else’s back.

Considering the fact that Obama’s last $880 billion “stimulus plan” borrowed from our Chinese friends, has resulted in a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, a debt ceiling crisis that saw our nation’s credit rating drop, and zero new jobs created in August, I am baffled by those who continue to praise his failed economic policies. It is simply beyond comprehension.

The President’s approval ratings and overall job satisfaction ratings are dropping faster than the barometric pressure at the onset of a Northeaster. For good reason. Combine a 9.1 percent (and probably higher) unemployment rate, $3.79 per gallon of gasoline, $3.90 per gallon heating oil, the highest debt load of any administration in the history of our nation, an economy that is in the toilet, and a president who is governing against the will of the majority, and you have a recipe for a Democratic disaster at the polls in 2012. Amidst all of this, all Obama can come up with is the same old and tired class warfare mantra: “Tax the rich.” Holy smokes.

Furthermore, the President’s confrontational attitude with House Republicans does not seem so much designed to facilitate the passage of legislation as it is to unite his left wing base for his 2012 election campaign. This tactic is so transparent that only the “true believers” still refuse to accept the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Who could support such a cynical approach?

In summary, could someone please tell me when last it was that a tax increase balanced our budget and paid off our national debt? It has never happened, and never will. Cut spending now.