Tuesday, July 31, 2007

a nice write-up by David Mann on the WSJ article

in today's (Jeff/NA) News-Tribune

farm subsidies for those who've "bought the farm"

Last week, the GAO released a report detailing taxpayer subsidies to farmers who have been dead for some time. For example, from 1999-2005, the USDA paid $1.1 billion in farm payments in the names of more than 170K dead people (either as an individual or as a member of an entity). Of these, 40% percent went to those who had been dead for at least three years; 19% went to those who had been dead for at least seven years.

For more resources on farm subsidies in general, you can read my article from a local perspective last Spring or a series of articles from a national perspective. And of course, I would encourage you to visit the Environmental Working Group's awesome website where you can figure out the exact amount of subsidies paid to specific individuals from 1995-2005. For example, you can see how much money was taken from taxpayers to prevent former basketball star Scottie Pippen from farming. It's a lot of "fun"...

interesting numbers on local govt

Kudos to the (Jeff/NA) News-Tribune for researching and publishing a wide range of statistics on the local economy and local governance. It was produced in a magazine-like format, entitled Snapshot, and included with Sunday's newspaper. (Additional copies are also available for purchase.)

David Mann contributed a supplemental article to talk about some of the numbers and to point to the larger publication. Talking with him yesterday, he said that they plan to write other articles on some of the more provocative numbers.

Statistics of interest (at least to me):
-2006 net property tax rates within Clark and Floyd County (p. 9)
-revenue generated by local airports in Indiana (p. 11)
-top employers in Clark & Floyd (p. 14)
-top salaries within city/town governments (p. 22)
-public school data, including per student expense and teacher salaries (p. 30)
-the cars we drive in Indiana (p. 37)
-gambling expenditures and winnings by type of game (p. 41 for casino; p. 42-43 for bingo, etc.)

Commenting on a few of those:
-With rare exceptions, the top salaries in our city/town governments are paid to those who provide fire and police services.
-These salaries vary greatly between New Albany, Jeff, and Clarksville: The Top 20 in NA make $77-99K; in Jeff, $60-81K; and in Clarksville, $46-56K.
-Apparently, we now spend more than $10K per student in Southern IN to educate students in our government schools. (The text is not clear on this, but I'd guess that this does not include capital expenditures.)
-The winnings/losses within various gambling ops varies more than one might expect, but I'll spare you the details.

Thanks again to the News-Tribune for providing this service to the community.

tobacco may prevent cancer?

How's this for bizarre?

The headline article in Sunday's (Louisville) Courier-Journal notes that "Tobacco may play key role in fighting cervical cancer
: Kentucky researchers strive to develop inexpensive treatment to combat the deadly disease in India and at home"

Sunday, July 29, 2007

blogging on the Sabbath?

The 4th Commandment is the only one not repeated in the New Testament, and yet...the Sabbath is connected to the Creation-- and in the words of Jesus, the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). So, what should one do with the Sabbath? More specifically, should I blog on the Sabbath? And if so, how so?

At least for now, I am open to blogging on the Sabbath. But when I do so, I will focus exclusively on spiritual topics-- taking a break from the wide range of topics I plan to address on a regular basis. In particular, I'll probably write about moments in worship, our pastor's sermon, and my teaching lessons that day.

Our associate pastor, Kyle, delivered another excellent message this morning, closing out a three-week series on prayer. Within the framework of "the network"-- outgoing calls, incoming calls, and this morning, dropped calls-- he offered a range of helpful suggestions and encouragement to invest more in our relationships with God through prayer.

He spoke at length about the reasons for "unanswered prayer" and came up with seven categories: unconfessed sin, an unforgiving spirit, an unbelieving heart, impure motives, unresolved conflict in marriage, unconvincing effort (in prayer and work), and unwise requests.

In my teaching, I have often talked about the absurdity of asking God for something in an area where we are also engaged in active sin. Kyle used the example of borrowing a lawn mower from a neighbor who just saw us kicking his dog. I've often used my children here-- to note the incoherence of disobeying me and then asking for a treat. Likewise, it's interesting to hear about non-believers and (quite) nominal believers going to God in prayer.

As for unconvincing effort, we can be both unconvinced about the power of prayer and unconvincing in terms of our participation in the same project. I'm sure that I have students who are passionate petitioners of the Almighty-- after they have failed to study much during my courses. In contrast, a strong relationship with God points to both dependence on Him and active participation within His provision. Anything else is testing God-- and ultimately, ridiculous.

In my lesson this morning on Exodus 32:7-14, I was especially struck by the impact of this incident on Moses' ministry-- especially his petition on behalf of the Israelites, despite their gross sin. In seeing/experiencing God's wrath and then His mercy and grace-- and in advocating for people who had been and would continue to be bozos-- this was a pivotal moment in his ministry, one he would often reflect upon.

This is a rich passage, including the remarkably eloquent four-fold intercession of Moses (I thought he said he couldn't speak very well!) and God provocatively portrayed as both never-changing (in His promises and character) and seeming to change His mind.

Two other fascinating questions: why did God allow this to go so far before intervening and why God didn't zap the sinners himself. (And what are the applications for us in terms of intervention and zapping?!) One of those applications takes us into politics, but I won't succumb to the temptation to pursue that tangent! ;-)

Grace and peace to you and yours on this and every Sabbath!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

the editing process at the WSJ

In case you're curious, the editing process was good but thorough-- tied for second with book edits and behind the work I've done with academic journal articles.

My original op-ed piece went out two weeks ago. Craig Ladwig, with Indiana Policy Review, sent it out to the WSJ. The contact person there asked for the article on Tuesday of last week and I got it to them on Thursday afternoon. He held it for a week before we started into a relatively intense back-and-forth editing process. We were finished by noon on Friday. Well...he and I were finished. There was one more round of editing beyond him-- and unfortunately I didn't get to see that version until it was in print this morning.

I'm not sure I would have fought hard to keep any of the deletions. But the head editor dropped my reference to later demonstrations being "in the streets" (instead of in front of the governor's mansion)-- a small point, but now an inaccuracy.

In terms of policy, the head editor also dropped my references to:
--the collective bargaining that was part of the initial 1973 compromise/"solution"
--"Major Moves" as an example of the governor's ability and willingness to go outside the status quo (an important consideration here!).

The editing was thorough-- what you would expect (or at least hope for) from such a high quality publication. Part of the issue was writing a local piece for a national audience-- a somewhat challenging task. Edits (and editorial questions) ranged from the minor (is Indy an abbreviation for Indianapolis or a different city) to making sure that enough context was included so readers could understand what I was trying to communicate.

It was awesome to get something published in the WSJ. Maybe, some other time as well...

my article this morning in the Wall Street Journal on Indiana property taxes

Indiana Tax Fight

July 28, 2007; Page A8

INDIANAPOLIS -- On July 4, hundreds of tax protestors showed up in front of the governor's mansion here. They've been back several times since. As a result, Gov. Mitch Daniels has been scrambling and the city's mayor has ordered a hiring freeze and a 10% cut in his budget. There have even been calls for a special session for the legislature and even a state constitutional convention.

Runaway property taxes are an issue wherever property values have shot up in recent years. But now Indiana may be at the forefront of a homeowner rebellion against a tax system that has come to be seen as arbitrary, unfair and unpredictable. What's driving this angst is the first reassessment of property values in six years. In Marion County (the city of Indianapolis), average property taxes increased by 34%. Across the state, the average increase is 24%. Many homeowners' bills have increased much more.

One thing that is really stirring anger: Marion County businesses mostly avoided an increase this year, while almost all homeowners got nicked. To cool tempers, Mr. Daniels, a Republican, ordered another reassessment. In the meantime, there will be a property tax freeze in Marion County, delaying increases for at least six months. He has also given counties a few months to rethink whether they'd like to increase local income taxes to offset the need for higher property tax revenues. And taxpayers will now be able to pay their property taxes on an installment plan.

All of this is a nice start. But none of what the governor has done so far gets at the underlying problem: Taxing property at a value that periodically increases can stick homeowners with a surprisingly high bill. The system punishes those who made smart (or lucky) decisions with their home purchases and can force people out of the neighborhoods they've raised their families in.

Property taxes also, at the margin, lower property values. Retired Indiana University economist Morton Marcus calculates that for every $1,000 increase in property taxes, the value of a home falls by almost $12,000. Moreover, high and uncertain property taxes make it more difficult to attract workers and capital investment to the state.

Gov. Daniels should not be singled out for hoping that a quick fix will do the trick. House Speaker Patrick Bauer, a Democrat from South Bend, wants to use some of the state's budget surplus to issue qualified homeowners a tax rebate. But the state is already scheduled to implement another band-aid (thanks to Mr. Bauer's leadership last year): paying out some $300 million in property tax abatement. Indy Mayor Bart Peterson, also a Democrat, wants to borrow $75 million to pay for cutting property tax increases. And he has proposed to hike local income taxes by 65%.

Perhaps the most promising short-term fix being considered would accelerate a "circuit breaker" to cap a total property tax bill at 2% of a property's assessed value. The legislature passed this last year, but didn't schedule it to go into effect until next year. Implementing it a year early could mitigate the current crisis.

But politicians may not be able to finesse their way out this time. They've been tinkering with the system since 1973, when lawmakers faced similar problems with property taxes and tried to fix them by, for example, allowing local governments to impose income taxes and doubling the state's sales tax. Indiana's property tax may be so flawed -- and the public sufficiently cynical -- that changes to the system may not gain necessary public support. The best option might be to toss the property tax out the window and replace it with higher income, sales or consumption taxes.

This would dismantle an unwieldy system where some 1,008 town assessors evaluate property values and pass their assessments on to 92 county assessors, who then pass their assessments to state officials. Property taxes are, of course, useful in that they provide a stable and independent revenue source for local government. They are also highly visible, and remind homeowners how big a bite they take, because they are paid only once or twice a year -- unlike income taxes, which are automatically deducted from regular paychecks.

Nevertheless, the public backlash is producing some interesting political results. Mayor Peterson faces voters in the fall, which may explain why he has reacted so swiftly. Speaker Bauer wants to protect a slim majority in the House after next year's elections, which may explain why he's eager to put his name on tax rebates for homeowners.

For his part, Mr. Daniels has called on his staff to brainstorm for ideas, has encouraged them to meet with affected people, and is weighing whether to call the legislature back into town to enact reforms. He has expressed interest in eliminating the property tax. And he seems quite interested in another significant issue -- reducing the number of local governments in the state. Indiana has 2,730 local taxing authorities. Eliminating some of these may improve efficiency and therefore reduce property taxes, but the history of government consolidation is not encouraging.

Mr. Daniels is favored to win a second term as governor next year. But if he's not careful, he could stumble. Eric Miller, Mr. Daniels's 2004 primary opponent and a vociferous property tax opponent, might be tempted to challenge him again. And a set of seemingly weak Democratic challengers could suddenly become competitive against a governor unable to handle such a thorny issue.

Will Mr. Daniels play it safe on property taxes or work for significant change? Now that the public has spoken, will Mr. Daniels listen?

Mr. Schansberg is a professor of economics at Indiana University (New Albany), an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review and the author of "Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian's Guide to Politics and Public Policy" (Alertness Books, 2003).

OK, it's time to get this rolling...

I've had a blog connected to my congressional campaign for some time. But I was putting a bunch of stuff on there-- stuff that would be more appropriate for a separate blog. I plan to write regularly on a relatively wide range of topics-- political and social, private and public, from random musings to op-ed pieces published in newspapers. I also plan to comment (somewhat) on what others have written.

Thanks for joining me in the discussion-- and I hope to see you back here soon!