Tattered Schools Not Trickle-Down

I preach to my communications clients — “Talk about results, not process. Or at least results before process.” What the hell does that mean? “Your kids’ schools and your roads are falling apart because too many wealthy people and corporations dodge paying the taxes that support the things we all need.”

Tell me what something means in my life before you tell me how it got there.

So here’s Hillary Clinton doing it right. According to The New York Times, Clinton told a crowd in Cleveland Wednesday, “We’re going to tax the wealthy who have made all of the income gains in the last 15 years. The super wealthy, corporations, Wall Street, they’re going to have to invest in education, in skills training, in infrastructure.”

Results not process. Not “let’s change the carried-interest clause,” but “let’s tax the people who’ve made all the money while your income has been stuck or fallen.” And why are we going to tax those who are making the increases? “They’re going to have to invest…” Invest. Pay your fair share to support the things we all use. That seems clear. That seems fair. Voters can get that.

When liberals talk about how trickle-down hasn’t worked, it means something to them but not much to regular human beings. But if you say “The wealthiest aren’t paying their share to support the things all of us, including them, need, and so our schools have no arts programs and barely enough teachers and the roads you drive on are falling apart and our libraries are closed on Saturday afternoons…” people might get it.

Results not process. Hard for a policy wonk like Clinton to not get stuck in the details of what dials she wants to turn to improve things. Hard to say “Here’s what will work better if we turn this dial.”

Clinton can make this work if she talks about results most people would think are needed and fair. Don’t talk about “the common weal” as we Progressives like to do. Talk about the neighborhood school that has 35 kids in a class while Wall Street speculators are lightly taxed on their million-dollar  bonuses, each of which would fund 10 new teachers.

And then she can talk about who pays taxes and who doesn’t. Donald Trump proudly says he works very hard (and spends lotsa dough on expensive lawyers and accountants) to avoid as much tax as possible. He’s proud that he contributes nothing to your local school or police force. Proud of that.

And for those who think The New York Times is liberal and shilling for Hillary, Thursday’s story about her criticism of Trump’s plan to reduce taxes on the rich ends with her saying that Trump doesn’t need a tax cut, and “I don’t need a tax cut.” The story doesn’t mention that Bill and Hillary paid 31 percent in taxes on their income in 2015. Nor does it mention that we don’t know what — if anything, if anything — Trump paid, because he won’t release his returns.

Keep making the tax point about fairness, Hillary, about who’s paying to support the cops and the teachers and the roads we all use. And who isn’t. Don’t focus on the policies. Focus on the schools.

Years ago, when I was still with Shandwick, the global public relations firm, we helped Minnesota and national Indian tribes fight off an attempt by commercial casinos — including Trump’s — to erode the national law that gave tribes the ability to run casinos. Trump et. al. wanted what the Indians had. (Heck, we’ve taken their land, their languages, their religion, their health, their food source, their hope — why not take the economic development tool that’s working for them?) Part of our campaign was showing a picture of a school and a picture of a yacht. Which should public policy support? Another yacht for the wealthy, or a decent school on a poor reservation? Seems pretty clear. And the tribes won that fight.

— Bruce Benidt


November Surprise: Yes to New Taxes

Here in Pasco County, on the north side of Tampa Bay, taxpayers seem about to commit heresy — again. We may vote for more taxes.

In 2004, county residents said yes to a one-penny county sales tax. Part of the goal was to lower property taxes as housing values here started to wash into the Gulf of Mexico, and the school district agreed to lower its take from local taxes. That penny tax is up for renewal in November’s election. This time backers of the Penny for Pasco tax are saying it could help hold the line on property tax increases, but that’s just a hope — there is no agreement for any lowering or freezing of other taxes.

I haven’t seen any polling on this local issue, but there’s a lot of support for the tax. Partly that’s because people can see exactly what they’re getting — and what they wouldn’t have if taxes remain lower. The tax, since 2004, has bought ambulances, park trails, road improvements, new schools and renovation of old schools, and land for environmental preservation. The extension of the tax would buy sheriff’s cruisers, new fire trucks, buses and bus shelters, renovation of fire stations, more school improvements, a countywide public safety communications system, and economic development efforts, among many other things.

Renewing the penny tax would generate $500 million over ten years, split among the county and school district, 45% each, with the remaining 10 percent going to the cities in the county. The money is to be spent on capital purchases and improvements, not operations.

A household with the county’s median income of $44,000 would spend about $108 each year through the penny tax.

When you see what your money gets you, it’s harder to buy a simplistic statement that taxes are bad, and we should have no new taxes.

I keep wanting President Obama to say that, if the Romney Ryan tax cuts go into effect, there will have to be huge cuts not just in Medicare and Pell grants, but in every single thing that people depend on in their daily lives. There will be fewer cops, fewer schools with bigger classes, fewer firefighters with fewer and worn-out trucks, fewer people to staff libraries and the functions of government people need, like getting drivers licenses. Huge federal cuts mean less money at the state level, and that means less money at the local level. Romney’s not being honest about what the RyanRomney budget would mean. When people see what their tax money provides, they realize that they can’t get something for nothing.

The Penny for Pasco is about “making life better in Pasco County,” backers say. “No new taxes” is just a politician’s glib slogan. The truth, in our lives, is about cops and libraries and schools and roads and sewers and safety and a government that can answer your emergency call.

You can’t cut without pain, no matter what some slick hustler tells you.

We’ll see what the voters of Pasco County decide on Nov. 6. I’m voting to raise my own taxes. Cuz I want more than a fire department that comes to my house on a bike with a bucket.

— Bruce Benidt

What Abstract Tax Policy Means At Street Level

I wrote this piece for the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report, and Dane Smith ran it in the Growth & Justice website as well. It talks about issues at stake in this election — although not much has really been said by either Romney or Obama about what tax policy will mean at street level.

A few weeks ago I stood before the New Port Richey (Florida) City Council and asked the members not to further cut a library budget that had already been eviscerated.

I held up an ancient book — “The Library Book” — which I wrote in 1984 to mark the centennial of the Minneapolis Public Library. In my research, I told the council members, I’d learned that a library is an economic engine for the community. That’s why wealthy people like T.B. Walker and James J. Hill, in the Twin Cities, and Andrew Carnegie, nationally, funded libraries. It’s enlightened self-interest: Libraries and public education help individuals grow and develop knowledge and skills, which in turn helps a community and its businesses grow.

We’ve lived two years now in Florida, a state with a historic aversion to taxes, and one of the few states without any income tax. In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen education cut, local bus service cut, libraries cut, almost all government services cut. All severely.

A state that has always been run by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful is, every day, even more so. The Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s advanced further here than most places. Federal taxes have been cut, lowering federal funding to states. State taxes have been cut, lowering state funding to local governments. And local governments with shrinking budgets have to cut services or raise property taxes.

When we left Minnesota, friends asked how we could go to a regressive, low-tax, low-service state. I said that weather was a huge factor for us, but also, sadly, that Minnesota was fast becoming a regressive anti-tax state like Florida anyway. But it is even worse here, and getting still worse.

My wife, Lisa, volunteers at the New Port Richey library. We live in Port Richey, just across the Pithlachascotee River, and New Port Richey’s library is the closest to us. With budget cuts all across Pasco County, the New Port Richey library is now the only one in the county open on Mondays. It’s packed. With all government services and staffing having been cut, many employees at city and county offices who can no longer serve their constituents tell them to go to the library for help. A library where the staff and hours have already been cut. Catch-22.

I told the council members that my wife sees, every day, people in the library going online to search for jobs. She sees, every day, people using the library to get access to better education. She sees, every day, people using library resources for essentials like filing insurance claims to repair houses damaged by recent floods. If you don’t know where you can turn when your home is damaged, you can’t keep your house up, which erodes the tax base. Maybe you lose your home, which erodes your ability to hold a job and raise your kids, which makes you less able to pay taxes and more likely to need services. It’s in the community’s interest, of course, that people have access to the information and services that can better their lives.

You think everyone has a computer and internet access these days? Come to Pasco County, where unemployment is above 12 percent and 15 percent of the people live in poverty. The library’s computers are precious to people trying to hold on and to people reaching for something better.

Libraries have always been portals to citizenship and participation in the economy. Businesses and careers are started in libraries. Responsible public servants and informed voters get their starts in libraries. As journalist Harrison Salisbury said of the Sumner branch of the Minneapolis Public Library in the neighborhood where he grew up among new immigrants in the early 20th century, “It was their university.”

That university is shrinking, closed on Mondays now, sorry. Shorter hours, less staff, sorry. A portal that’s closing. So sorry.

When the flagging Confederacy lowered its draft age to sweep teenagers into its shrinking armies, Robert E. Lee said, “We are eating the seed corn of our nation.” We’re eating that now. We’re wounding our present and killing our future. Libraries, schools, transportation, public safety, all are endangered by lack of funding. And we’re not even talking about things like ensuring the safety of food or workers or protecting the environment or stopping rapacious speculators from ruining the economy again. The Reagan revolutionaries think that stuff should be left up to local decisions too. Imagine the New Port Richey City Council taking on water and air quality protection or trying to keep mortgage lenders from bilking their citizens when council members can’t even patch the city’s roads or pay the cops.

My plea not to cut the library further was listened to politely by the council. But they face Sophie’s choice. The housing bubble crashed as hard here as anywhere in the country — one out of five houses in New Port Richey is vacant. The tax base is shattered, and middle- and low-income folks can’t afford an increase in the regressive property tax. And so there’s nowhere else to turn.

One brave resident stood up in the council chamber and said he’d be happy to pay higher taxes to keep his community healthy. That was one voice, here at the ragged edge of the Reagan Revolution, speaking truth to sagging power. But the majority, whipped up by short-sighted, self-serving politicians, apparently believes you can get something for nothing. That’s the scam in Florida, that’s the scam increasingly in Minnesota, that’s the scam in November’s election.

And if you still believe that scam — as we’ve said in Florida for a hundred years — I’ve got some swampland to sell you.

— Bruce Benidt

Harry Reid Plays The Lying Game

Like most, I doubt that Harry Reid actually has the goods on Mitt Romney’s taxes. He of course says a source at Romney’s Bain Capital told him Mittens didn’t pay a dime’s worth of taxes for a decade. While a multi-multi-millionaire like Romney avoiding all federal taxation is far from improbable — just look at General Electric — the issue is whether Reid actually knows this, or whether, as most think, he’s bluffing to force Romney to release the tax forms and prove him wrong.

Now, old Harry many not be many things, among them a silky slick media operator. The guy is more dogged than artful. But he must have decided he’ll risk the hit if Romney ever does release his tax information — for a decade, not just an estimate for the past quarter — and proves that, yes, by god, he did pay as much in total taxes as a Target check-out clerk. So take that Harry, you slimy liar!

But of course the controversy over Reid’s claim — which he has shamelessly repeated — is that it is proof of the rancid gutter politics regularly practiced by liberals (Harry Reid raging liberal … ) against righteous defenders of America’s moral core, which is to say entrepreneurial, job-creating patriots like Romney and Karl Rove and … well, you know the suspect line-up as well as I do. Even Jon Stewart ripped Reid, as has every conservative blogger who hasn’t had their electricity turned off for non-payment.

Stewart and other non-echo chamber ideologues were disappointed that so prominent a figure in the dwindling adult caucus of Congress had descended to the same level of well, lying your ass off for headlines and cash, as the … entire GOP presidential field and all their SuperPAC managers. “Liberals”, Stewart implied, are supposed to be playing a more noble game.

This dichotomy of standards is of course germane to us here at The Same Rowdy Crowd as we furiously make notes for Wednesday’s inaugural book club. (Scroll down for details). It will be a (polite and collegial) discussion of “It’s Even Worse Than It looks”, Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann’s unequivocating indictment of the reckless insurgent games today’s conservative movement regularly plays with the truth and the function of government. (Warning: Please arrive on time and with your cell phones off. The Great and Wonderful Austin will deduct full points for tardiness and texting during his lecture.)

The problem that Reid’s ploy creates for anyone who still has some respect for truth, is that it offers ideal cover for journalists — who, in tough economic times, have an aversion to over-playing “the truth thing”. With Reid most likely lying/bullshitting for tactical effect, journalists can exhale and repeat with great confidence that, “You see, both sides are doing it.”

A quick personal story. A few weeks ago an otherwise fine local TV station asked me to come out and regale their audience with my deep thoughts on a matter of grave importance. I forget now what the hook was, but the questioning went immediately to the poisonous atmosphere in politics today with both sides saying so many silly and terrible things about each other. Having been through the punditry thing a time or two I understood that my role was to play some kind of Solomonic Master of Balance, commiserating with the anchor about the squalid state of affairs, decrying the overall debasement of civil discourse and wringing hands over the unlikelihood of anything changing … at least until the asteroid strikes.

But I wasn’t into it that day, and I had just finished reading a chunk of Ornstein and Mann’s book. So, instead of the ritual commiseration, I suggested to the anchor that if journalists’ concern about the corrosive effect of so much lying on American life was as sincere as they made it seem, they held in their hands a fairly simple mitigator … which would be … the truth. Point being, instead of “reporting” the latest asinine tactical attack by one side or the other as though that was the beginning and end of the story, take on as a responsibility, and a journalistic standard, ascertaining what was true and reporting both the facts of any claim AND the name of the person or group filling the airwaves with flagrant falsehoods. I also added, for effect, that while it is true both sides engage in eye-rolling “untruth”, the fact is the modern Republican party engages in it far … far …more often and egregiously than liberals, and until an editorial decision is made to ID the worst perpetrators and make them own their deceits, nothing much is going to change.

The anchor’s response to this was to warn against a descent into “opinion journalism”. Mine to that was that it was the anti-thesis of “opinion” if it was factually accurate.

When the five-minute interview ended I told the young producer, “I’ll be interested to see how much of that makes the final cut”, and of course very little did. Post-editing, I was reduced to another concerned, commiserating hand-wringer lamenting the debased nature of America’s public dialogue. That being the narrative that fits most comfortably with commercial news.

America’s National Pity Party

It’s that time of the year again. The April tax deadline, when Americans come together as one to feel sorry for ourselves about the outrageous tax burden heaped upon us. Ooooh, the agony!

Fueled by corporate-funded anti-tax groups and a malleable news media, the news is once again awash with stories about Americans suffering under heavy and rapidly increasing taxes.

Paying taxes is no one’s joy, but the collective wailing and gnashing is embarassingly out of proportion to reality. I hate to break up the pity party, but our taxes are much lower than Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, France and Ireland. Our taxes are significantly lower than the average for industrialized nations.

Sorry Tea Partiers, Wall Streeters, One Percenters, talk radio callers, and news anchor wise crackers, but relative to the rest of the developed world, you aren’t oppressed. The fact is, almost all of the planet’s citizens who are enjoying a comparable quality-of-life bear more of a tax burden than Americans do.

Take a look at reality, nicely aggregated by the Center for American Progress:

• Our tax revenue is at its lowest level since 1950.
• Today’s top tax rates are historically low.
• Taxes on investments are historically low.
• The tax on large estates has virtually disappeared.
• The wealthy and super wealthy’s tax rates have plunged.
• U.S. corporations are taxed at lower levels than their foreign rivals.

As I’ve written before, the April tax deadline is our day to pay-it-forward in patriotic thanks to past American taxpayers who kindly paid to lift our ancestors into the middle class, and paid for our education, roads, national security, Internet, police, fire, parents’ health coverage and retirement income and many other things.

But if you can’t find it in your heart to be grateful for all that past generations of Americans have done for you, your country and your loved ones, be at least be a tiny bit realistic about what is being asked of you.

President Kennedy challenged us to “ask what you can do for your country.” Right now, Americans are being asked to do damn little. So could we hold the whining down just a little?

– Loveland

Minnesota GOP To Bring Back Fiscal Mullet?

George Orwell called it “Newspeak,” the restriction of disapproved language by a powerful entity. You may also recall that in his dystopian novel 1984, “goodthink” was used to describe an officially sanctioned viewpoint, and “thoughtcrime” was used to describe an illegal type of thought.

So finally I understand why Mrs. Stolles made me read that creepy book. For now I know what is truly going on in the budget negotiations between the GOP-controlled Legislature and DFL Governor Dayton. The biggest sticking point in these negotiations is not really whether DFL legislators can participate in the negotiations, or whether supplying respirators constitutes an essential government service.

No, the show-stopping sticking point is that GOP Newspeak dictates that use of the word “taxes” is a thoughtcrime, because it is not goodthink. No can do. Dayton may as well be requesting Speaker Zellers to commit serial murders on the House floor. Just ask GOP Chair Tony Sutton.

And this presents the Mother of All Sticking Points for budget negotiators.

But have no fear, State Rep. Joe Gimse is here. This clever GOP legislator from Willmar knows that someone who raises revenue but doesn’t call it a “tax” is not technically guilty of a GOP thoughtcrime. Kind of like a robber who only points a fake finger gun through a coat is not guilty of armed robbery, at least on the TV shows I watch.

The PiPress reports today that:

…(Grimes) said he would consider voting for proposals to raise revenue as long as the money doesn’t come from taxes. He said he would consider money from gambling, surcharges or fees.”

Fiscal mullet, Pawlenty style.
Mr. Gimse may be onto something. This looks to be a nifty little thoughtcrime dodge, though far from an unprecedented one. Those of you who hold grudges will recall that then-Governor Tim Pawlenty raised “fees” by 21%, while still aggressively marketing his fidelity to the No New Taxes gods. One cheeky blogger of the day dubbed the maneuver a fiscal mullet — “cosmetic constraint in the front, unrestrained growth in the back.”

So now we have something to negotiate, though we must choose our words very, very carefully. But since I am an infidel who is not governed by GOP Newspeak, I have my own word to describe the potential consideration of, well, you know, “new contributions for the support of a government required of persons, groups, or businesses within the doman of that government.”

I call it “hope.”