Monday, January 31, 2011

Sagamore Bridge solution

Guest article by Jeff Foster
 
The Sagamore and Bourne bridges were built in the mid 1930’s. They replaced outmoded and antiquated bridges and handled the increased automobile traffic flow.
 
At the time the bridges were designed, they were sufficient to handle the traffic flow on and off the Cape.
 
As years have passed the volume of traffic has increased dramatically; increases both on a daily basis and during the peak summer season.
 
The Sagamore Bridge is now overworked. The heavy flow of auto traffic causes repairs to be done much sooner than would be required if there was a lesser traffic flow. These repairs cause no end of traffic problems to folks who depend on the bridge daily.
 
How do we rectify the situation?
 
I’ll bet (studies would probably confirm this) that more than three quarters of the Sagamore bridge traffic represents through trips. This means that they originate beyond the first exit on either side of the bridge.
 
What is needed is another bridge dedicated to those through trips. Local trips would use the current bridge and its road network.
 
The east entrance to the third bridge would be on the level ground approach to the current bridge. The approach would break left and come down the hill toward the canal above the long approach road that passes Pave Paws and the Outlet Mall.
 
The bridge would continue across the canal, at a slight angle with the current bridge. It would reach the other side on the vacant land to the west of the current bridge. Whether the state or Army Corps of Engineers owns that land, I don’t know. Then it would continue above ground past the Department of Public Works shed where it would join Route 3.
 
The bridge would be double decked so that less width is needed and, if a crash occurs on one level, the other is left unimpeded. The majority of the infrastructure work would be at each end of the bridge, not at the current strangle points of the Sagamore Bridge.
 
Several reasons that make this plan attractive
  • The current bridge and the infrastructure would be left alone. There wouldn’t be any reconstruction of the Sagamore Bridge and few changes would be necessary to the road network. And with the flow of traffic lessened on the current bridge, future repairs would be needed less frequently, saving money and increasing the longevity of the bridge.
  • Modern bridge construction methods would result in a minimum of land needed under the new bridge. I envision slender ground support towers to support the bridge.
  • There would be a minimum amount of private land taking. The major parcels are owned by the state or the Army Corps of Engineers. Reaching a deal with these parties should be relatively easy. Private land that must be taken should be well paid for so as to reduce the need to enter into long term Land Court negotiations.
  • For aesthetic beauty, the current bridge would be left intact. Surely many would complain if the Sagamore was to be visually altered.
  • As a plus, this would give us three road bridges off the Cape in case one might be closed for repairs, or if we had to evacuate.
  • This plan could be implemented in a reasonable time. There would be fewer land takings, road relocations, and fewer parties involved.
I grew up in Dennis and have gone over the Sagamore Bridge for years. While I am not a professional engineer, during my 24 years as a location and marketing research manager for a major supermarket chain, I have rubbed shoulders with many contractors, engineers, planners and town boards, which leaves me familiar with the elements that would be important for such a project.
 
I welcome comments to spur a discussion about this proposal.
 
Jeff Foster
Sandwich

Friday, January 28, 2011

Get a snowbrush, pal


This guy was on Route 3 today with 6 to 7 inches of snow piled up on his car. When I took the picture, we were stopped in a traffic jam close to Exit 12 waiting for a crash to be cleared. (Click on the photo for a closer view.)

If you look through the driver's side window, you can see the mound of snow on his hood. It almost looks like snow on the side of the road, but it's not.

What could have caused that crash? Here’s one possibility: Perhaps a virtual landslide of snow coming off a car blinded and panicked the driver behind.

When I caught up to this numbnut, he was gabbing on his cell phone while peering through the portals he dug in the snow drift that covered his car.

A DPW truck with its yellow lights flashing went by us on the right carrying an emergency sign to close down the breakdown lane, which is used at this time of the day as a third travel lane. Taking this as a cue, Numbnut whipped the abominable snow car into the breakdown lane to race after the truck.

Oblivious to everything and everyone around him, I guarantee that this fellow has no idea that he did anything wrong or was a danger to other people this morning.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Expanded bottle bill: Revenue enhancer, environmental initiative, or both?

Do you support expanding the “bottle bill” to include non-carbonated beverages, such as water and juice?

Is the idea just a tax in disguise? Or is it an effort to clean up our environment? Or both?


Note that this perennially-filed bill finally got through the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy for the first time last session. I serve on that committee, so I am looking for input on the topic. Vote in the poll at the top of this page and weigh in with your comments below.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Personal income tax simplification can pay for ferreting out fraud, waste and abuse

An idea spawned over 30 years ago

Back in the late 1970s, I was a college student with a part-time job programming accounting software. One of my assignments was to write routines to calculate state income tax withholding for a payroll system.

For each state I had to read the personal income tax law and incorporate the withholding tables into the calculations. It was an interesting exercise for a young person to see the wide variations in state income tax law.

There were several states with no income tax, which currently number seven. I quickly checked these off as “Complete.” All the rest, spare one, were variations on a theme: Take the employee’s gross pay, look up the base rate from the appropriate chart, and apply adjustments for those states that had progressive income tax rates.

The one exception to this routine was Arizona. Their state income tax withholding was simply 10% of the federal amount. One line of programming code and I was done.

The connection to fraud, waste and abuse

Elected officials often hear stories about people gaming the system, government employees being inefficient or worse, and unscrupulous opportunists abusing workplace and hiring rules, the pension system, and more.

An anecdote can be a useful entrĂ©e into investigating fraud, waste and abuse—the proverbial tip of the iceberg, if you will—but we need resources to confirm if the alleged fraud, waste and/or abuse exists and more resources to root out how it happened and if a systemic issue needs to be addressed.

As an auditor, I learned long ago that independence and healthy skepticism is necessary to effectively assess and address a problem situation, something that insiders cannot bring to the table.

The state does have an auditor, of course, but my idea is to create or expand an existing tactical audit team aimed exclusively at ferreting out fraud, waste and abuse. How do we do this without increasing the state’s headcount?

The answer is to free up scores of employees at the Department of Revenue (DOR) who are focused on monitoring, auditing and collecting personal income taxes. With additional training in state-of-the-art auditing techniques, this group can be the resource we need to go after the big bucks.

How it would work

The key to redirecting our resources from personal income tax auditing to fraud, waste and abuse (FW&A) audits is to simplify the commonwealth’s personal income tax calculation by passing the Personal Income Tax Simplification Act (PITS Act).

I propose that, in its simplest terms, we take federal taxable income and multiply that by a percentage to arrive at state income tax.

Say that the rate turns out to be 5% in order to make this system revenue neutral. If your federal taxable income is $50,000, your state income tax would be $2,500.

You could write the calculation on a postage stamp. And the need to audit this calculation would vanish. A computer would recalculate 100% of the tax returns.

And here’s the part of this plan that brings a smile to my face. If the DOR suspects that someone is not properly reporting income or deductions, there is no need to send out the audit team. Instead, the DOR notifies the IRS and lets them spend the time and money to perform the audit.

An unfunded mandate put onto the federal government by a state. Sweet.

It’s not really that simple, is it?

For the majority of taxpayers, it really is that simple. Multiply federal taxable income by the state income tax percentage and you’re done.

There are a relatively few exceptions, of course. Here they are:

The federal taxable income figure would need to be adjusted by taxpayers who have the following situations:

  • Add back deduction for taxes paid from Schedule A (Itemized Deductions)
  • Add back non-Massachusetts tax exempt interest and dividends (out-of-state muni bonds)
  • Add back self-employment tax deduction
  • Add back net operating loss carryforward (a rare situation)
  • Subtract Massachusetts income tax refund included in federal income
  • Subtract taxable portion of social security benefits
  • Subtract nontaxable federal, state and local pension income
  • Subtract U.S. government obligations interest income

I created a simple Excel spreadsheet to accommodate for these exceptions and it took me less than two minutes per tax return to locate these numbers on the federal return and enter them into the PITS calculation.

Can you calculate your state income tax now in two minutes or less? Is your child 12 or 13? It makes a difference.

Other considerations relative to the PITS Act

For those who support the idea of simplifying our state’s personal income taxation rules—the governor made reference to such in his recent inaugural speech—but support the concept of individual exemptions, deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving, PITS makes all this possible.

Income tax credits are subtracted from the amount a taxpayer owes, therefore, the legislature can still offer credits to incent certain activities or provide relief for certain taxpayers without complicating the PITS calculation. The septic system installation credit, senior circuit breaker credit, and earned income tax credit, for example, can all be maintained under the PITS system.

Proposed implementation

A change of this magnitude cannot be made without an extensive study of the effects of such a law and amendments to other laws that would be necessary to implement PITS. I propose forming a commission to take on this task, which would include the Commissioner of Administration, the Commissioner of Revenue, the Senate and House Chairs on Revenue, the Senate and House minority leaders, select legislators, and several non-government representatives, such as tax attorneys, CPAs, and representatives from the several nonprofit public policy institutes.

The objective would be to line up our ducks to allow the PITS Act to be filed for the 2013-2014 legislative session.

Back to fraud, waste and abuse

Although personal income tax simplification is a laudable goal in and of itself, we can make this effort pay even greater dividends by applying the freed up human resources to attacking the FW&A that we all know exists.

I have no qualms with the missions of the many state agencies, departments and “quasis,” but if we were successful at identifying cost savings of just one percent through consolidation and elimination of FW&A, the effort would be well worthwhile.

One percent of the Health and Human Services budget is $153 million, for example. If we could save this amount without reducing service levels and without cutting programs, but rather by eliminating fraudulent recipients of benefits and eliminating wasteful and abusive practices, we would produce a less costly and more sustainable state government.

Conclusion

Lawmakers may take a first glance at PITS and conclude that it’s too simple or that there isn’t enough fraud, waste and abuse in the system to warrant chasing after it.

I would remind my fellow legislators of Occam’s razor. Father William of Ockham wrote the following in 14th century: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

We passed that stage long ago and need to return to a simpler, more effective model.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

State rep offers sincere "Thank You"

Ten years ago, if you asked what I would be doing ten years hence, I would have rattled off a list of a hundred possibilities, but being sworn in as a state representative wouldn’t have been among them.

It’s interesting how life serves up curves and twists. I have always embraced the opportunities that come with those unexpected turns. That’s what keeps things fresh and unpredictable.

Yesterday I took the oath of office and I am truly honored to be representing the 5th Barnstable District. I look forward to working with my fellow representatives to make Massachusetts a better place for all Bay Staters.

I offer my sincerest thank you to everyone who had any role, large or small, in turning my ambition into reality. I consider it a privilege to serve in my new role and, as I said many times during the campaign: It’s not about me… It’s about you…

Hold me to that.