Saturday, August 02, 2008

Shouting into the void?

(Talking to the multitudes at Utah State)

When a politician pounds a podium when the cameras are turned off, did it make a difference?
he House officially adjourned, Rep. Rob Bishop scuttled back to his rented Washington apartment Friday afternoon to finish laundry and prepare for his trip back to Utah for the August break.
He didn't get too far.
Called back to the floor by colleagues, the Utah Republican, wearing flip-flops, khaki cargo shorts and a collared shirt, joined other Republicans on the darkened House floor for rotating speeches pleading with the Democratic leadership to return to session.
The C-SPAN cameras were off and the television lights shuttered, but that didn't stop Bishop and about 40 cohorts from complaining that the Democrats had skipped town without offering any help to an American public suffering from high gasline prices.
Rep. Bishop is willing to do pretty much anything for his party, including showing up the House floor in attire unfit for a country club rambling on to no one.

However, on Friday afternoon, Obama expressed a willingness to consider offshore drilling if Republicans would vote for increased fuel standards etc. I am sure Bishop and his colleagues believe Obama caved (as do I) and they will therefore be even less willing to compromise with Democrats on their ideas--solar, wind, fuel standards, efficient appliances/windows/doors, etc.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

I am not spam

Google is trying to ward out spam blogs. I did not know there was such a thing. And who would read it? But in any case, how did I become a suspect spammer? By being a blogger before Google owned blogger?

This post will be delayed until I am deemed a human being/non-robot and my muzzel is removed. Thanks Google.

people don't want to give props

The other day, property tax notices went out in Salt Lake County. And people at work in my office were mad and in shock. "$900 more?" One exclaimed, "I will have to sell my home!"
Some proposed increases are huge. The biggest is a 293 percent hike for Clarkston, Cache County. It would cost an extra $465 a year on a $250,000 home there, if approved. (Town leaders did not return numerous phone calls seeking reasons for that increase.)

Some proposed hikes are tiny. For example, Payson is proposing a 0.2 percent hike that would cost just 27 cents a year on a $250,000 home.

News of the hikes come in big, required-by-law newspaper ads and notices mailed to homeowners this month showing the assessed value of their property. (The notices and ads also include the time and place of hearings about those proposed hikes.) A list of all proposed hikes is also on (click on graphic "Truth in taxation, 2008").

Utah's "Truth in Taxation" laws require public hearings and newspaper ads any time local governments propose to raise overall property tax revenues (not rates) beyond what they collected the previous year (not counting money coming from new growth).

The State Tax Commission compiled a list of 85 governments going through that Truth in Taxation process for hikes this year, all of which will be holding hearings during the next month or so as they decide whether to impose the proposed increases.
This is one of the "ironies" of this economic downturn. Prices on fuel and food are rising rapidly (and others gaining more slowly) while home prices tumble and wages stagnate. Yet property taxes are increasing.

This story helps make my case the other day for keeping earmarks around, albeit in a more transparent form. If people go nuts about the rate hikes now, imagine if you got rid of earmarks and reduced federal income tax accordingly (which would have a relatively minor impact on filers' bottom line) but jacked up property taxes to make up the difference in each locality. People would go ballistic. And maybe they should, but it just shows how impractical such a proposal is to implement.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

the modernizing of Utah's liquor laws

(Utah State Liquor Store hours, by Don Nunn.)

[Note: there is a bill in the state senate to end the election day ban of liquor sales, as well as a push to end the ban on Sunday far, neither has been successful.]

When my college friends came out to Utah for my wedding (or any other time out of staters come to visit me), I had to sit them down and explain to them that a "private club" was really just a bar and that a "temporary membership fee" was just a mandatory cover charge, as well as the near impossibility of bar hopping. I also had to give them a summary of the "sidecar" rule and about Utah's falsely labeled "weak" beer. They looked at me with confusion and disbelief. Could it really be so Byzantine, they wondered? What a farce, some said. Others compared it to South Carolina's mandatory mini-bottle rule. Our state's laws with regards to alcohol are so counter-intuitive that the tourism office has a whole page dedicated to explaining the particularities of the Beehive State's liquor laws on their website.

First, the legislature did away with the sidecar last session, simultaneously making a Utah shot the same as a shot anywhere else in the world.

Second, it seems that "private clubs" might soon become bars and the usual meaning of word will return to Utah.
The state moved slightly closer to eliminating private club memberships, with members of the liquor commission requesting that legislation be drafted that would do away with the applications and fees now required of patrons.
But there was division among the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission members over whether the change sought by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is needed to accommodate drinkers, especially those just visiting the state.
Huntsman hopes to persuade the 2009 Legislature to eliminate private clubs. The LDS Church, which counsels its members to avoid alcohol, has yet to weigh in on the issue.
The Church's opinion on such matters is key. If the Church is persuaded that changing the rule is wise, then it will pass. If they oppose, the bill is dead in the water. But if they remain neutral, my bet is that teh proposal will be kicked down the road again.

Gov. Huntsman also wants to get rid of the "Zion Curtain" --the rule that there must be a physical barrier (these days, a piece of fogged glass usually does the trick) between the dining and drinking portions of a restaurant that wishes to have a bar inside. But that one, he agrees, must take a back seat to the private club fight, and will be shelved for another year.

Huntsman's push for ending private clubs means of all of the proposed reforms, this one stands the greatest chance of passage. The election day bill is sponsored by Sen. Scott McCoy, who is a Democrat from the Avenues who is openly gay...which means he has a tough time getting bills passed. And the Utah Restaurant Association is pushing Sunday sales as well as the private club bill, but they will need to wine and dine the mostly non-drinking legislators more to get these changes through (pun intended).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

operation keep it close

Some of my Democratic friends are worried. Despite all of John McCain's screw-ups, he seems to be still within striking distance of winning. And if he taps Romney, they fear, Michigan and a few other Kerry states might fall into GOP hands. And so goes the presidency. But lets look at the facts.

  1. Of the top ten best-funded House candidates who are challenging incumbents, nine of them are Democrats. The better funded the challenger is, the greater the likelihood that they will defeat an incumbent. And I am not even counting open seats, where 27 of the 29 House open seats were vacated by a Republican, and the top 15 contests feature 1 Republican with more money than the Democrat. In other words, the House is not only going to stay Democratic, but also the Dems will likely gain 10-20 seats, some of which will come from the following swing states: NC, PA, VA, OH, NM, MN, WA, MI, MO, FL and yes AK. With the large money advantage that the Democratic cogressional campaign committees hold over their GOP rivals, this means more money spend on turning out Dems and Dem-leaning independents all over the map, which can only help Obama.

  2. The number and type of swing states favors Democrats. The most recent poll says Obama trails McCain in North Carolina by a mere 4 points (the margin of error was 3.4 percent). And PPP was pretty accurate on NC during the primaries...the average for this state is a mere two point McCain lead. On to Alaska, where McCain leads by less than 8 points according to Pollster. Or North Dakota, where McCain's lead is less than 3 points. Ditto for Montana. Two points in Colorado according to Pollster, but, who got the most accurate results estimates in the primaries, thinks Obama is still narrowly ahead. Even narrower leads for McCain in these states: .8 in Florida, .7 in Missouri, and .6 in Indiana. Obama has an eight point lead in New Mexico, an 6.5 point lead in Iowa, and 6.1 point lead in New Hampshire. What do all of these states have in common? They all went for Bush in either 2000 or 2004 (or both). I didn't even mention the tight races in Nevada, Virginia, and McCain's "home" state of Arizona, or the Alaska-like closeness in Georgia. The only Kerry state--other than New Hampshire--Obama has to watch closely is Michigan, where he is up 7 points (or if you believe the conspiracy theories, Ohio, where Obama has a 3.5 percent lead). In other words, McCain is forced to defend many more states than Bush ever worried about in 2000 or 2004, and McCain's offense is limited to NH and MI because Obama has shored up the previously shaky states like OR, WA, PA, WI, and ME. There lots of ways Obama can get to 270+ electoral votes, but McCain can't without holding onto Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, and Nevada, as well as pulling Michigan AND either Iowa or New Hamsphire back into the fold (or add Missouri to McCain's collum and you need Colorado and New Mexico instead of Iowa or New Hampshire). Try out the scenerios for yourself at Why do I mention states like Alaska and Georgia? Because Obama can afford to spread the field wide and keep lots of states close (which helps lots of down ticket House and Senate races in places like Alaska), rather than hunkering down on a few states and working on his triple bank shot like Democrats mised in 2000 and 2004.

  3. Obama's trip went well. If politics is watching TV with the sound turned off, then the images of him looking tough with Gen. Patreaus, talking and talking with various important heads of state, as well as a crowd of 200,000 Germans with people waiving US flags certainly trumps McCain standing in front of a German House or spilling apple sauce in a grocery store. And the polling confirms it: his lead has jumped back up to its highest levels against McCain since Obama came home.

  4. The enthusaism gap. Here's how the Hotline explains the latest Pew poll:
    John McCain's supporters believe Barack Obama is the candidate with new ideas (58% to McCain's 24%). McCain voters also say Obama is more likable (45% to 34%).

    [...] Just a quarter of [GOPers who backed another Republican for President] supports McCain strongly, compared with 57% who support him only moderately. Herein lies the chief quandary for McCain. How does he generate enthusiasm from his base and court the precious swing voters he needs to win?

All in all, Obama is still rightfully the odds on favorite to be the next President, but it is by no means a lock.

Monday, July 28, 2008

in defense of earmarks

[The imfamous Bridge to Nowhere, artist's rendering courtesy of Anchorage Daily News]

With news that apparant Congressman-to-be Jason Chaffetz is against all earmarks, I wanted to point out that earmarks in and of themselves are not bad, only the Congress critters that exploit them are (I am looking at you, Alaska delegation).
An after-school learning program in West Valley City, transportation projects in Provo and a nursing program at Utah Valley University are all recipients of federal earmarks that Jason Chaffetz says should have never been funded.
The earmarks are among $9.4 million U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, helped secure for local projects that were slipped into appropriations bills through an earmark process that's frequently criticized as pork barrel spending.

Chaffetz defeated Cannon in a June Republican primary and says he doesn't care if the money would benefit his district or the state — he wants no part of earmarks.

"Until there's reform, I will not ask for them. They're a cancer within the system, and I want to extract them," Chaffetz said by telephone from Washington, D.C.
I suppose if one is going to crusade against earmark abuse and for earmark reform, one has to forego earmarks in one's own district. Yet I don't think kids in West Valley should have to suffer for this cause.
Those earmarks are for fine projects, Chaffetz said, but they shouldn't circumvent the executive branch's competitive-based selection process.

"I think there are ways to get appropriations done for worthwhile projects. It shouldn't be done through the cloak of darkness," he said.
This of course assumes that those in the executive branch in charge of the selection process don't make backroom deals or play favorativism with requests from members of Congress from their political party. And given this Administration's illegally partisan hiring and promotion practices at the DOJ, the conviction of a guy in charge of purchasing policy for the entire government for obstruction of justice and lying to protect his Abramoff-connected buddies (the conviction was overturned on proceedural grounds a month ago), I wouldn't place as much confidence in the executive branch to do the right thing as Chaffetz does.

Earmarks can be a sign of a members power and ability to horse trade, but they can also be a sign of projects that need to be funded at a certain level lest kids in West Valley decide to join gangs rather than shoot pool at an after-school center, for instance. And let's remember this chart as well, and also remember who was in charge of Congress from 1994 until 2006.

(Graphic by the Washington Post, based on Congressional Research Service data)
The first step to curbing Congress' addiction is not to cut off cold turkey, but to reign in abuses and have the people kick out the biggest abusers. If polls are to be believed, Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens (Rs-AK)--two of the biggest offenders--will not be a part of the 111th Congress. As long as Congressman/woman's names are attached to their earmarks, and they aren't jammed into phone-book-sized bills at the last minute, we have a good shot at stopping the insanity.