Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Local government’

Centralization of government power is generally a very bad idea.

But this does not mean that state governments and local governments do a good job.

I’ve previously shared many examples of “great moments in state government” and today I’m going to augment my similarly sarcastic collection of “great moments in local government.”

We’ll start with one of America’s most poorly governed cities. Yes, we’re talking about Chicago.

The city can’t be bothered to stop real crime (indeed, it encourages and enables criminals by disarming law-abiding citizens), but it will nail small business owners with heavy fines for things that shouldn’t even be illegal.

A number of neighborhood small business owners are complaining that the city is overzealously policing sign permits, saying they’ve had to pay thousands of dollars in fines for words painted on their shop windows. “It just seems unfair to make you get a permit for every window panel,” said Scott Toth, owner of Craft Pizza at 1252 N. Damen Ave. …Toth had paid a contractor to paint “boiled bagels,” the hours of a pizza by the slice daily promotion, “pastries” and Sparrow Coffee in a window. Toth got a ticket for that window panel as well as three others that featured the restaurant’s logo. …hand-painted lettering at Dove’s Luncheonette advertising “breakfast, lunch, dinner,” and window script advertising “wedding dress cleaning” and “leather repair” at Wicker Park Cleaners also earned tickets, according to owners of those spots.

If you want to know what the city has achieved, here’s a “before” photo. Obviously a clear and present danger to public safety.

And here’s the “after” picture. Feel safer? Has government protected you?

I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more soundly knowing that there’s a crackdown on the scourge of illegal window signs.

Here are some details on Chicago’s inane law.

…city law enforced by the Department of Buildings states that permits are required for non-illuminated painted or vinyl advertising signs or lettering that take up more than 25 percent of any single window. The cost for each on-premise window sign is $200 per sign, plus a Department of Buildings zoning review fee that can vary from $50 to $1000 depending on the size of the sign. …The city requires that a professional contractor apply the lettering or images. Violators face fines of $350 to $15,000 per day until the signs are removed

Now let’s look at how Los Angeles is fleecing citizens.

…it is currently illegal for a pedestrian to step into a crosswalk after the red hand starts, even if there is sufficient time to safely cross. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that 17,000 people in the city were ticketed over a four-year period for stepping off the curb after the countdown had started. …”I don’t believe pedestrians should be preyed upon just to fill local coffers,” Santiago said in May.

Of course, Mr. Santiago is a politician, and I’m guessing he’s a big spender, so he presumably wants to prey on a different group of people.

Here’s a story from Arizona, as reported by Reason. It starts innocently enough, with one person wanting to buy some land but the owner rejecting the price.

For thirty years, Stapleton raised horses and plied his trade as a blacksmith while the city slowly grew up around him. During that time, says Stapleton, no one seemed to care much about his property or what he did with it. Until the former mayor of Phoenix set eyes on it. In 2006, Larry Herring, a representative for former mayor Phil Johnson offered Stapleton $225,000 for his property. Johnson intended to build condominiums next door. Stapleton told Herring his offer was much too low.

But then went awry. The property owner was threatened.

Herring, Stapleton says, told him if he didn’t sell, “bad things are going to happen to you” and that “a stone wall is going to fall on you.”

Unfortunately, city bureaucrats turned the threat into reality.

Shortly after rebuffing Herring’s offer, city officials cited Stapleton with six violations of the zoning code, everything from a fence that was too high, to vehicles improperly parked. The fines were $2,500 and came with the threat of six months in jail for each violation. Stapleton argued each of the violations were for long-standing features of his property, necessary for raising horses. “These things are farm things, and it’s a farm,” Stapleton says. “You didn’t bother me for thirty years. Now somebody wants the property, you want to bother me. And they were going to send me to jail to do it.” Stapleton chose to fight. The city rejected his request for a jury trial and in May 2007, a city judge fined Stapleton $15,000 and sentenced him to three years probation on the condition that he address his code violations or go to jail. At the same time the city was punishing Stapleton it was granting multiple variances to the ex-mayor’s development next door, one of them to allowed him to build a fence a foot higher than the one for which it fined Stapleton.

In a column for the New York Post, Walter Olson describes an insane proposal to help criminals in Philadelphia.

…in Philadelphia, …the city council will consider a bill to force owners of hundreds of small corner stores to take down glass partitions that protect their managers and clerks from being robbed and assaulted. It’s all being rationalized in the name of social justice. …Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who’s sponsoring the measure, …says…“Have you ever been served food at a sit-down restaurant establishment through a solid barrier? That is not acceptable. …What message does it send our children?”

Walter responds to the Councilwoman’s rhetorical question.

…it sends several messages. One is a moral that echoes down through the ages: Human beings threatened with violence have the right to protect themselves. …Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley, …is often quoted in the press demanding stronger government action to reduce gun violence. But that’s what the barriers deter. Philadelphia has a shooting every six hours, to say nothing of knifings and strong-arm robberies. The barriers reduce theft, too.

Now let’s close with an unbelievable story from Southern California about citizens getting abused. Let’s start by excerpting a horrifying anecdote.

Garcia got in trouble with Coachella City Hall in 2015 after a city code inspector discovered he had expanded his living room, making space to run a small day care center, without first getting building permits. Silver & Wright, a law firm contracted as Coachella’s city prosecutor, took the building permit case to criminal court, filing 29 misdemeanor charges. Garcia signed a plea agreement, brought his house up to code, paid a $900 fine to the court and moved on with his life.

Sounds annoying, right?

It gets worse. Far worse.

When Cesar Garcia pulled the letter out of his mailbox, he immediately recognized the name of the law firm on the envelope – Silver & Wright. …What did they want now? Garcia opened the letter, prepared for the worst, but was still shocked by what he found inside. The law firm had sent him a bill for $26,000. When he protested, the price climbed to $31,000.

And this sleazy firm, which acts on behalf of local governments, apparently makes a practice of targeting powerless people.

 Empowered by the city councils in Coachella and Indio, the law firm Silver & Wright has repeatedly filed criminal charges against residents and businesses for public nuisance crimes – like overgrown weeds, a junk-filled yard or selling popsicles without a business license – then billed them thousands of dollars to recoup expenses. …an extensive review of public records…identified 18 cases in which Indio and Coachella charged defendants more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since the cities hired Silver & Wright… With the addition of code enforcement fees, administration fees, abatement fees, litigation fees and appeal fees, the total price tag rises to more than $200,000.

Other examples are equally egregious.

…a Coachella family with a busted garage door and an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $18,500. An Indio man who sold parking on his land without a business license was billed $3,200. And an Indio woman who strung a Halloween decoration across the street in front of her home – then pleaded guilty to a crime no more serious than a speeding ticket at her first court appearance – was billed $2,700. …Juan Alvarado, a disabled Coachella homeowner…was prosecuted for converting his garage into a studio apartment without getting a building permit, then was billed $7,800 for the total cost of the case against him. …Indio prosecuted Fiesta Latina, a family-owned furniture store in the city’s struggling downtown district, because it didn’t have a permit for a sign on the roof. Then the store was billed $3,327 by Silver & Wright.

Utterly disgusting. Not only this story, but the other ones as well.

These local governments are basically extortion rackets. And the targets are usually the less fortunate.

These examples basically make my point that jury nullification is a very valuable tool (at least in cases where the local governments actually allow a trial rather than rely on bureaucratic edicts). I want fellow citizens to be a potential line of defense for the oppressed and mistreated.

But my final point is counter-intuitive. As much as I despise the actions of thuggish bureaucrats and politicians at the city and county level, I prefer local government over state government (or national government, or global government) for the simple reason that it’s much easier to escape their predatory behavior.

Read Full Post »

During the Obamacare bill-signing ceremony, Vice President Biden had a “hot mic” incident when he was overheard telling Obama that “this is a big f***ing deal.”

And he was telling the truth. It was a big deal (albeit a wrong deal) from a fiscal perspective and a health perspective. And it also was a very costly deal for Democrats, costing them the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. But it definitely was consequential.

Well, there’s another “big f***ing deal” in Washington, and it’s what just happened to the state and local tax deduction. It wasn’t totally repealed, as I would have preferred, but there’s now going to be a $10,000 limit on the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted.

I’ve already explained why this is going to reverberate around the nation, putting pressure on governors and state legislators for better tax policy, and I augment that argument in this clip from a recent interview with Trish Regan.

The bottom line is that high-tax states no longer will be able to jack up taxes, using federal deductibility to spread some of the burden to low-tax states.

Let’s look at what this means, starting with a superb column in today’s Wall Street Journal by Alfredo Ortiz.

The great American migration out of high-tax states like New York and Illinois may be about to accelerate. The tax reform enacted last month caps the deduction for state and local taxes, known as SALT, at $10,000. …between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, …high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and Rhode Island either lost residents or stagnated. …When people move, they take their money with them. The five high-tax states listed above have lost more than $200 billion of combined adjusted gross income since 1992… In contrast, Nevada, Washington, Florida and Texas gained roughly the same amount. If politicians in high-tax states want to prevent this migration from becoming a stampede, they will have to deliver fiscal discipline.

Mr. Ortiz shows how some state politicians already seem to realize higher taxes won’t be an easy option anymore.

New Jersey’s Gov.-elect Phil Murphy campaigned on a promise to impose a “millionaires’ tax.” But the Democratic president of the state Senate, Steve Sweeney, said in November that New Jersey needs to “hit the pause button” because “we can’t afford to lose thousands of people.” His next words could have come from a Republican: “You know, 1% of the people in the state of New Jersey pay about 42% of its tax base. And you know, they can leave.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may need to rethink his proposed millionaires’ tax. George Sweeting, deputy director of the city’s Independent Budget Office, told Politico in November that eliminating the SALT deduction would “make it a tougher challenge if the city or the state wanted to raise their taxes.” New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli added: “If you lose that deductibility, I worry about more middle-class families leaving.” …the limit on the SALT deduction is a gift that will keep on giving. In the years to come it will spur additional tax cuts and forestall tax increases at the state and local level.

Though the politicians from high-tax states are definitely whining about the new system.

The Governor of New Jersey is even fantasizing about a lawsuit to reverse reform.

Murphy, a Democrat, said he has spoken with leadership in New York and California and with legal scholars about doing “whatever it takes”… Asked if that included a joint lawsuit with other states, Murphy said “emphatically, yes.” …Murphy said. “This is a complete and utter outrage. And I don’t know how else to say it. We ain’t gonna stand for it.”

Here’s a story from New York Times that warmed my heart last month.

…while Mr. Cuomo and his counterparts from California and New Jersey seemed dead-certain about the tax bill’s intent — Mr. Brown called it “evil in the extreme” — there were still an array of questions about how states would respond. None of the three Democrats offered concrete plans on what action their states might take.

They haven’t offered any concrete plans because the only sensible policy – lower tax rates and streamlined government – is anathema to politicians who like buying votes with other people’s money.

California will be hard-hit, but a columnist for the L.A. Times correctly observes tax reform will serve as a much-need wake-up call for state lawmakers.

…let’s be intellectually honest. There’s no credible justification for the federal government subsidizing California’s highest-in-the-nation state income tax — or, for that matter, any local levy like the property tax. Why should federal tax money from people in other states be spent on partially rebating Californians for their state and local tax payments? Some of those states don’t even have their own income tax, including Nevada and Washington. Neither do Texas and Florida. …federal subsidies just encourage the high-tax states to rake in more money and spend it. And they numb the states’ taxpayers. …Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone of Temecula put it this way after Trump unveiled his proposal last week: “For years, the Democrats who raise our taxes in California have said, ‘Don’t worry. The increase won’t matter all that much because tax increases are deductible.’” Trump’s plan, Stone continued, “seems to finally force states to be transparent about how much they actually tax their own residents.”

He also makes a very wise point about the built-in instability of California’s class-warfare system – similar to a point I made years ago.

Our archaic system is way too volatile. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office reported last week that income tax revenue is five times as volatile as personal income itself. The “unpredictable revenue swings complicate budgetary planning and contributed to the state’s boom-and-bust budgeting of the 2000s,” the analyst wrote. During the recession in 2008, for example, a 3.7% dip in the California economy resulted in a 23% nosedive in state revenue. The revenue stream has become unreliable because it depends too heavily on high-income earners, especially their capital gains. During an economic downturn, capital gains go bust and revenue slows to a trickle. In 2015, the top 1% of California earners paid about 48% of the total state income tax while drawing 24% of the taxable income.

Let’s close with some sage analysis from Deroy Murdock.

“Taxes should hurt,” Ronald Reagan once said. He referred to withholding taxes, which empower politicians to siphon workers’ money stealthily, before it reaches their paychecks. Writing the IRS a check each month, like covering the rent, would help taxpayers feel the public sector’s true cost. This would boost demand for tax relief and fuel scrutiny of big government. Like withholding taxes, SALT keeps high state-and-local taxes from hurting. In that sense, SALT is the opiate of the overtaxed masses. The heavy levies that liberal Democrats (and, inexcusably, some statist Republicans) impose from New York’s city hall to statehouses in Albany, Trenton, and Sacramento lack their full sting, since SALT soothes their pain. Just wait: Once social-justice warriors from Malibu to Manhattan feel the entire weight of their Democrat overlords’ yokes around their necks, they will squeal. Some will join the stampede to income-tax-free states, including Texas and Florida. …A conservative, the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Dumping SALT into the Potomac should inspire a similar epiphany among the Democratic coastal elite.

He’s right. This reform could cause a political shake-up in blue states.

P.S. Since I started this column with some observations about the political consequences of Obamacare, this is a good time to mention some recent academic research about the impact of that law on the 2016 race.

We combine administrative records from the federal health care exchange with aggregate- and individual-level data on vote choice in the 2016 election. We show that personal experiences with the Affordable Care Act informed voting behavior and that these effects could have altered the election outcome in pivotal states… We also offer evidence that consumers purchasing coverage through the exchange were sensitive to premium price hikes publicized shortly before the election… Placebo tests using survey responses collected before the premium information became public suggest that these relationships are indeed causal.

Wow. Obamacare there’s a strong case that Obamacare delivered the House to the GOP, the Senate to the GOP, and also the White House to the GOP. Hopefully the Democrats will be less likely to do something really bad or really crazy the next time they hold power.

Read Full Post »

Time for a confession. My left-wing friends are correct. I’m an idiot.

Why?

Because I’m an anti-tax libertarian, yet I keep writing favorably about a provision that will raise my taxes. I’m talking specifically about the provision, currently in both the House and Senate tax plans, to eliminate the deduction for state and local income taxes (and maybe also property taxes, though the House proposal will retain deductibility for the first $10,000).

I think this distortion in the tax code is very bad policy and I hope the loophole is entirely eliminated (including the property tax deduction).

But as I look at all the provisions in both bills and speculate about the contours of a final agreement, it’s highly likely that the net result will be a tax hike on one of my favorite people – me!

Sigh. I’ve joked in the past that “it ain’t easy being libertarian,” but it will definitely hurt to put my money where my mouth is (and it reminded me why GOPers should have made tax reform a tax cut by including some spending restraint).

That being said, let’s remind ourselves why the deduction is a bad idea.

Citing the self-destructive example of a recent tax hike in Illinois, Andrew Wilford of the National Taxpayers Union points out that the deduction enables and encourages state and local politicians to impose higher taxes.

…eliminating SALT would…remove this incentive for local governments to overtax its citizens. … this incentive to hike taxes can prove significant enough to drive state policy. In Illinois, residents were forced to bear the burden of a 32 percent hike on their taxes because of the state’s unwillingness to tackle its growing pension funding problem. Tax increases did not solve this underlying spending problem, but it was politically expedient— in part because state lawmakers knew that the federal government would pick up part of the tab.

It also violates my ethical-bleeding-heart rule, as Brian Riedl explains in the New York Post.

Wealthy families are four times more likely to utilize SALT than other families. Only 24 million of 125 million tax filers earning under $100,000 take the deduction, typically lowering their taxes by $1,000. By contrast, 20 million of the 25 million filers earning over $100,000 take the deduction… In fact, half the savings accrue to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers — and in New York, half of the SALT savings go to families making over $500,000.

But I don’t want today’s column to fixate on the policy argument.

Instead, let’s look at whether voting to get rid of the deduction is electoral suicide for Republicans from high-tax states such as New York and California.

Looking at the situation in the Golden State, that’s certainly the argument from the folks at Vox.

Just three of the 14 California House Republicans went against leadership… Republicans in California clearly ran on cutting taxes — but this tax bill could raise taxes on their constituents. …it also sets up their constituents for more risk. Cutting the state and local tax deduction puts undue burden on the state’s budget… “At this point it looks like California Republicans are eager to lose their seats in 2018,” Tyler Law, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said.

Though Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a more upbeat (if you’re a Republican) assessment. She starts by explaining how California GOPers were targeted.

The House GOP passed its tax-reform bill on Thursday, and special medals of valor go to the 11 of 14 California Republicans who voted in support. The lobbyist brigade had joined with Democrats to target the Golden State delegation, seeing it as their best shot at peeling off enough Republicans to kill the bill. The assault was brutal, dishonest and all-out. …Gov. Jerry Brown unleashed on state Republicans, calling them “sheep” for supporting an end to most state and local tax, or SALT, deductions, and sending them letters deploring the tax hit on residents of high-tax California. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused them of “looting” the state. Her Senate counterpart, New York’s Chuck Schumer, warned of “political fallout” that would be “catastrophic.”

They fought back by arguing that the Democrats are the high-tax party.

What proved most effective, however, was the state Republicans’ willingness to go on offense and throw SALT in Gov. Brown’s face. California has the heaviest tax burden in the country and only just implemented a punishing new 12-cent-a-gallon-increase in its gasoline tax. Mr. McCarthy used the occasion to release a video pouncing on that hike and noting that “if Gov. Brown is worried about the tax burden, let’s make cutting [taxes] a federal and state project.” Other state Republicans ran with that message, even more bluntly. “Why punish the rest of the nation because California is stupid?” asked Rep. Duncan Hunter in a local TV interview. Even Rep. Darrell Issa, who voted “no” on Thursday (along with Dana Rohrabacher and Tom McClintock ), zapped a letter back to Gov. Brown, noting that if SALT had become a big issue, it was “a direct result of the tremendous weight that your misguided policies have put on California taxpayers.”

At the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed Washington apparatchik, I’m going to agree with both Vox and the Wall Street Journal.

The bottom line is that voting for tax reform probably does endanger GOP lawmakers from high-tax states, which is the message that the leftists at Vox are peddling in hopes of preserving the awful status quo.

But I want to close with the observation that enacting tax reform will improve the electoral outlook for blue-state Republicans even if it’s not necessarily good for current GOP incumbents.

That’s because voters in high-tax states will be much more likely to resist bad state tax policy if there’s no federal deduction to mitigate the burden.

And that means politicians in blue states will be under even greater pressure to lower tax rates rather than increase tax rates. If they don’t do the right thing, more and more taxpayers will escape, as the Wall Street Journal opines.

The liberal tax model is to fleece the rich to finance spending on entitlements and government programs that invariably grow faster than the economy and revenues. IRS data on tax migration show this model is now breaking down in progressive states as the affluent run for cover and the middle class is left paying the bills. Between 2012 and 2015 (the most recent data), a net $8.5 billion in adjusted gross income left New Jersey while $6.2 billion poured out of Connecticut—4% of the latter state’s total income. Illinois lost $13.6 billion. During that period, Florida with no income tax gained $39.3 billion in AGI. …As these state laboratories of Democratic governance show, dunning the rich ultimately hurts people of all incomes by repressing the growth needed to create jobs, boost wages and raise government revenues that fund public services. If the Republican House and Senate tax-reform bills follow through with eliminating all or part of the state and local tax deduction, progressive states will have an even harder time hiding the damage. They should be the next candidates for reform.

Indeed, the mere prospect of tax reform already is causing statists to rethink their approach.

Even in New Jersey.

The Republican tax reform…already it’s having a political impact in at least one high-tax, ill-governed state. Democrat Steve Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate, said last week that the GOP decision to eliminate the state and local tax deduction could throw a new tax increase on millionaires into doubt. …Excellent news. Making politicians in Trenton, Albany, Sacramento and Springfield nervous about raising taxes is one desirable outcome of tax reform. These politicians have been passing the burden of their tax-and-spend policies onto taxpayers in other states via the state and local deduction. If that goes away, Democrats will have to rethink their policies lest they drive from their states the affluent taxpayers who finance most of state government. …Here’s a radical idea: Cut taxes and make New Jersey more desirable for people to work and invest. Tax reform in Washington could also spur reform in the states.

If tax reform happens and the deduction for state and local taxes is eliminated, the left’s class-warfare agenda will become much less appealing – and much harder to implement.

And in that kind of environment, it should be much easier for Republican politicians to win votes.

For all intents and purposes, tax reform for Republicans could be like Obamacare for Democrats.

Allow me to explain. When Obamacare was enacted, I worried that it might be a long-term political victory for the left even though it was very painful for Democrats in the short run. Simply stated, voters in the future (and we’re now entering that future) would become more reluctant to vote for Republicans once they were hooked on the heroin of government dependency.

Federal tax reform would have a similar impact, except the GOP will be the long-run winners. Voters in high-tax states will be more reluctant to vote for Democrats once a $100 tax hike (for instance) actually costs $100. Which is why genuine tax reform is a win-win situation.

Read Full Post »

I don’t like the income tax that’s been imposed by our overlords in Washington. Indeed, I’ve speculated whether October 3 is the worst day of the year because that’s the date when the Revenue Act of 1913 was signed into law.

I don’t like state income taxes, either.

And, as discussed in this interview about Seattle from last week, I’m also not a fan of local income taxes.

From an economic perspective, I think a local income tax would be suicidally foolish for Seattle. Simply stated, this levy will drive some well-heeled people to live and work outside the city’s borders. And when revenues fall short of projections, Seattle politicians likely will compensate by increasing the tax rate and also extending the tax so it is imposed on those with more modest incomes. And that will drive more people out of the city, which will lead to an even higher rate that hits even more people.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Though I pointed out that this grim outcome may be averted if the courts rule that Seattle doesn’t have the legal authority to impose an income tax.

But I also explained in the discussion that a genuine belief in federalism means that you should support the right of state and local governments to impose bad policy. I criticize states such as California and Illinois when they expand the burden of government. And I criticize local entities such as Hartford, Connecticut, and Fairfax County, Virginia, when they expand the burden of government.

But I don’t think that Washington should seek to prohibit bad policy. If some sub-national governments want to torment their citizens with excessive government, so be it.

There are limits, however, to this bad version of federalism. State and local governments should not be allowed to impose laws outside their borders. That’s why I’m opposed to the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. And they shouldn’t seek federal handouts to subsidize bad policy, such as John Kasich’s whining for more Medicaid funding.

Moreover, a state or local government can’t trample basic constitutional freedoms, for instance. If Seattle goes overboard with its anti-gun policies, federal courts presumably (hopefully!) would strike down those infringements against the 2nd Amendment. Likewise, the same thing also would (should) happen if the local government tried to hinder free speech. Or discriminate on the basis on race.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that these are all examples of the Constitution’s anti-majoritarianism (which helps to explain why the attempted smear of James Buchanan was so misguided).

The bottom line is that I generally support the rights of state and local governments to impose bad policy, so long as they respect constitutional freedoms, don’t impose extra-territorial laws, and don’t ask for handouts.

And I closed the above interview by saying it sometimes helps to have bad examples so the rest of the nation knows what to avoid. Greece and France play that role for the industrialized world. Venezuela stands alone as a symbol of failed statism in developing world. Places like Connecticut and New Jersey are poster children for failed state policy. And now Seattle can join Detroit as a case study of what not to do at the local level.

Read Full Post »

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, it’s sometimes tempting to overstate the importance of good tax policy. So I’m always reminding myself that all sorts of other factors matter for a jurisdiction’s competitiveness and success, including regulation and government effectiveness (and, for national governments, policies such as trade and monetary policy).

That being said, taxes are very important. In some cases, you could almost say tax policy is suicidally important.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

Hartford, Connecticut…is edging closer to joining a small club of American municipalities: those that have sought bankruptcy protection. …The city must pay nearly $180 million on debt service, health care, pensions and other fixed costs in the coming fiscal year beginning July 1. That is more than half of the city’s budget, excluding education.

This sounds like a run-of-the-mill story about a city (like Detroit) that has spent itself into fiscal trouble, mostly because of a bloated and over-compensated bureaucracy.

But tax policy is the story behind the story. Here’s the headline that caught my attention.

As I’ve written before, this is the “Fox Butterfield” version of financial reporting (he’s the New York Times reporter who was widely mocked for repeatedly expressing puzzlement that crime rates fell when crooks were locked up).

Simply stated, it would be more accurate to state (just as it was in Detroit) that the city is in trouble “because of” high property taxes, not “despite” those onerous levies.

Imagine being a homeowner or business with this type of burden.

Since 2000, Hartford has increased its property-tax, or millage, rate seven times. The rate is now more than 50% higher than it was in 1998. At the current level, a Hartford resident who owns a home with an assessed value of $300,000 currently pays an annual tax bill of $22,287, at rate of 7.43%. A West Hartford homeowner with a similar house pays $11,853 at a rate of 3.95%.

Wow, you get to pay twice as much tax on your home simply for the “privilege” of subsidizing an inefficient and incompetent city bureaucracy (not to mention the problem of excessive state taxes).

No wonder some major taxpayers are escaping, leaving the city (and state) even more vulnerable.

…the impending departure of one of its biggest employers, Aetna Inc. …Aetna and the other four biggest taxpayers in the city contribute nearly one-fifth of the city’s $280 million of property-tax revenue. Property-tax receipts make up nearly half of the city’s general-fund revenues.

To make matters worse, the city exempts a lot of property owners, which is one of the reasons for higher tax burdens on those that don’t get favored treatment.

Half of the city’s properties are excluded from paying taxes because they are government entities, hospitals and universities. …In Baltimore, about 32% of the property is tax exempt, and in Philadelphia it’s 27%.

Excuse me if I don’t shed a tear of sympathy for Hartford’s politicians. The city is in dire straits because of a perverse combination of excessive taxation and special tax favors. Combined, of course, with lavish remuneration for a gilded bureaucracy.

That’s the worst of all worlds. It’s Detroit all over again. Or you could call it the local-government version of Illinois.

Needless to say, I don’t want my tax dollars involved in any sort of bailout.

P.S. Though it would be amusing if Hartford politicians thought this bailout application form was real rather than satire.

Read Full Post »

The federal income tax is corrosive and destructive. It’s almost as if a group of malicious people decided to deliberately design a system that imposes maximum damage while also allowing the most corruption.

The economic damage is not only the result of high tax rates and pervasive double taxation, but also because of loopholes that exist to bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

These include itemized deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions, as well as the fringe benefits exclusion and the exemption for municipal bond interest. And there are many other corrupt favors sprinkled through a metastasizing tax code.

But there’s a strong case to be made that the worst loophole is the deduction for state and local taxes. Why? For the simple reason that it encourages, enables, and subsidizes bad policy.

Here’s how it works. State and local lawmakers can increase income taxes or property taxes and be partially insulated from political blowback because their taxpayers can deduct those taxes on their federal return.

And it’s a back-door way of giving a special break to upper-income taxpayers because the deduction is more valuable to people in higher tax brackets.

Let’s look at an example that’s currently in the news. Democrats in the Illinois state legislature want a big increase in the personal income tax. If they succeed and boost taxes by an average of $1000, high-income taxpayers who take advantage of the deduction may only suffer a loss of as little as $600 since their federal tax bill may fall by almost $400.

For politicians, this is an ideal racket. They can promise various interest groups $1000 of goodies while reducing take-home pay by a lesser amount.

Let’s review some recent commentary on this topic.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue last weekend.

Chuck Schumer aspires to raise taxes on every rich person in America, save one protected class: coastal progressives. …Like many other Democrats, he’s apoplectic about a plan to end the state and local tax deduction. …One goal of tax reform is to reduce unproductive tax loopholes, and ending the state and local deduction would generate revenue to finance lower rates: The deduction is worth about $100 billion a year… About 88% of the benefits in 2014 flowed to taxpayers who earn more than $100,000, while 1% went to those who earn less than $50,000. California alone reaps nearly 20% of the benefit…and a mere six states get more than half. …The folks underwriting this windfall are in Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming and other places without a state income tax. …Eliminating the deduction would be a powerful incentive for Governors to cut state taxes on residents who are suddenly exposed to their full liability. …killing the state and local deduction would pay a double dividend: The first is creating a more equitable tax code with a broader base and lower rates. The second is spurring reform in states that are long overdue for a better tax climate.

Writing earlier this year for National Review, Kevin Williamson was characteristically blunt.

It’s time for…blue-state…tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. …eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden. Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. …allowing for the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

And Bob McManus adds his two cents in an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Voters in all heavy-tax, high-spending states have no one to blame for their situation save themselves. At a minimum, it seems clear that deductibility—by softening the impact of federal taxation—encourages outsize state and local spending. States that take advantage of deductibility—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—are in effect subsidized by states that have kept tighter control on their spending. …New York’s top-of-the-charts spending puts the state at the pinnacle…with New Yorkers paying a national high of 12.7 percent of income in state and local levies. Local property taxes in New York are astronomical and not coming down any time soon. …deductibility has powerful friends—among them the public-employee unions… New York and the nation would benefit if deductibility was jettisoned. …end the incentive for the tax-and-spend practices that have been so economically corrosive to big-spending Blue states.

Let’s close with the should-be-obvious point that the goal isn’t to repeal the state and local tax deduction in order to give politicians in Washington more money to spend. Instead, every penny of that revenue should be used to finance pro-growth tax reforms.

That creates a win-win situation of better tax policy in Washington, while also creating pressure for better tax policy at the state and local level.

For what it’s worth, both Trump and House Republicans are proposing to get rid of the deduction.

P.S. I mentioned at the start of this column that it would not be unreasonable to think that the tax code was deliberately designed to maximize economic damage. But even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t think that’s actually the case. Instead, our awful tax system is the result of 104 years of “public choice.”

P.P.S. Itemized deductions and other loopholes create distortions by allowing people to understate their income if they engage in approved behaviors. There are also provisions of the tax code – such as depreciation and worldwide taxation – that force taxpayers to overstate their income.

Read Full Post »

While most of my disdain is reserved for the federal government in Washington, I periodically share horror stories about foreign governments and state governments.

And today we’re going to add to our collection of bone-headed policies by local governments.

In some past cases, the examples captured systemic flaws. In other cases, we looked at specific bad examples. Today, we have an interesting mix.

We’ll start with an example of bad policy that is easy to mock. It focuses on the predatory interventions by a town, as illustrated by this story from Alabama.

Teens in Gardendale are in for a rude awakening this summer when it comes to cutting grass. According to the city’s ordinance, you must have a business license. Teenagers have been threatened by officials…to show their city issued license before cutting a person’s lawn for extra summer cash. Cutting grass is often one of the first jobs many have in the summer. But a business license in Gardendale costs $110. And for a job, just for a couple of months, that can be a bit extreme.

What’s really disappointing about this story is that adults are ratting out the teenagers.

I can understand that they’re irked that they pay the license fee while the kids don’t, but that’s still wrong.

“One of the men that cuts several yards made a remark to one of our neighbors, ‘that if he saw her cutting grass again that he was going to call Gardendale because she didn’t have a business license,” said Campbell. …Mayor Stan Hogeland said when operating a business for pay within the city limits, you must have a business license.

Hey, Mr. Mayor, I have a better idea. Get rid of licensing rules and give freedom a try.

If your residents want to freely contract with each other, let them. Whether they’re kids or adults.

Makes me wonder if Gardendale is one of those places that puts the boot of government on the necks of kids who set up – gasp! – unlicensed lemonade stands?

If so, I imagine Daniela Earnest and Julie Murphy can offer the mayor some useful advice.

Now let’s shift to an example of local government abuse that is more troubling. And apparently more systemic.

A column in the Washington Post reveals that local governments try to make families pay if their kids wind up in the legal system, even if they’re ultimately declared not guilty of any offense.

In dozens of one-on-one meetings every week, a lawyer retained by the city of Philadelphia summons parents whose children have just been jailed, pulls out his calculator and hands them more bad news: a bill for their kids’ incarceration. Even if a child is later proved innocent, the parents still must pay a nightly rate for the detention. Bills run up to $1,000 a month… The lawyer, Steven Kaplan…is paid up to $316,000 a year in salary and bonuses, more than any city employee, including the mayor.

I haven’t given any thought to whether families should cough up money if kids are found guilty and then incarcerated.

But I find it to be outrageous that bills are sent to families when the kids are found to be not guilty.

And let’s be honest. Such a policy is not about criminal justice. It’s about figuring out new ways of pillaging people to finance bureaucracy.

To add insult to injury, most of the families are poor, so it’s very difficult to collect revenue. Indeed, very little money is collected after paying the lawyer.

Because these parents are so often from poor communities, even the most aggressive efforts to bill them seldom bring in meaningful revenue. Philadelphia netted $551,261 from parents of delinquent children in fiscal 2016.

And when you look at the consequences for poor families, it’s hard to think this is a good policy. Especially if the kid isn’t convicted of any crime!

When parents fail to pay on time, the state can send collection agencies after them, tack on interest, garnish 50 percent of their wages, seize their bank accounts, intercept their tax refunds, suspend their driver’s licenses or charge them with contempt of court.

Here’s an example from the west coast.

When Mariana Cuevas’s son was released from a California jail, after being locked up in a juvenile hall for more than 300 days for a homicide he did not commit, the boy’s public defender, Jeffrey Landau, thought his work was done. The case had been dismissed; his client was free. But at a celebratory dinner afterward, Cuevas, a Bay Area home cleaner, pulled out a plastic bag full of bills and showed Landau that the state had tried to collect nearly $10,000 for her child’s imprisonment. …In fiscal 2014-2015, Alameda County, which contains Oakland, spent $250,938 collecting $419,830 from parents. An internal county report called that “little financial gain.”

This is astounding. Trying to pillage a poor family for $10,000 when the kid didn’t commit the crime. If you care about decency and justice, this may even be worse than civil asset forfeiture.

Let’s close with another example of easy-to-mock local government.

The New York Post reports that the city is largely incapable of getting rid of incompetent teachers. So they’re paid to sit in a room and do nothing.

In one of the “reassignment centers,” 16 exiled educators sit in a city Department of Education building in Long Island City, Queens, including a dozen packed into one room — where they do virtually no work. They listen to music, do crossword puzzles, chat — and as this exclusive Post photo reveals, doze on the taxpayer’s dime. The rules forbid beach chairs and air mattresses, but not nap time. The teacher sprawled on the floor, pulled a wool hat over his eyes to shut out the fluorescent lights and slept. Others prop up two chairs to recline or just lay their heads on the table. …the city denies the existence of the derided holding pens. “There are no more rubber rooms,” DOE officials told The Post last week, saying reassigned staffers are given “administrative duties.” …The DOE refused to say how many removed teachers and other tenured staffers remain in limbo, but sources estimate 200 to 400 get paid while awaiting disciplinary hearings. Their salaries total $15 million to $20 million a year. …They mainly just kill time to get through a six-hour, 20-minute day. “I’m so exhausted from being in this place doing nothing,” one said. Several teachers on the payroll have been benched for up to five years due to a stunning bureaucratic breakdown.

Yes, this is bureaucratic breakdown.

But if you really want to understand the story behind the story, the real problem is that the unions representing government employee unions give a lot of money to politicians. Those politicians then turn around and “negotiate” contracts that provide excessive pay to regular bureaucrats and absurd protections to bad bureaucrats.

In this case, bad teachers are removed from the classroom, but it’s very difficult to fire them. So they get paid to do nothing.

P.S. Of course, that reminds me of the standard joke that most bureaucrats get paid to do nothing. There’s even a video version of that joke.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: