Monthly Archives: January 2015

Top Vermont Republican still consorting with hatemongers

Susie Hudson is still going to Israel on a trip paid for by the American Family Association, the far-right Christianist organization. She sees nothing wrong here.

Predictable, but disappointing.

Hudson, a resident of Montpelier and newly-elected secretary of the Republican National Committee, is one of many RNC members going on a nine-day trip to Israel paid for by the AFA and guided by AFA leaders. The trip made news when the Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported the many bigoted comments by longtime AFA spokesman Bryan Fischer. In response, AFA fired Fischer as its spokesman — but retained him as a talk-radio host.

Yep, they’re still paying the guy for equating Islam with Ebola, asserting that the First Amendment only applies to Christianity, and that gay Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust because homosexuals are inherently savage.

He may not be their spokesman, but as a talk radio host, he remains their public face. And they’re happy to pay him for that. Plus, his comments were barely outside the usual poisonous stream of AFA demagoguery.

After I revealed Hudson’s travel plans in this space, Seven Days‘ Paul Heintz reached Hudson, and she gave him a heapin’ helpin’ of weaksauce.

“I mean, I know there’s been some stuff that’s been out in the press yesterday, but it’s my understanding that there was an individual who made some inappropriate comments, and I certainly don’t agree with them, and it’s my understanding they are no longer with the organization.”

Okay, stop right there. Fischer is still with the organization, still holds a prominent position. His public statements have arisen from his radio show, not from his duties as AFA spokesman. If they wanted to punish him, they’d take away his media platform.

… Asked whether she was familiar with AFA’s beliefs, Hudson said, “I mean, obviously I’m somewhat familiar with them, yes.”

But, she said, “I did not know that whatever group you said has called them a hate group.”

Wow. Just wow. That’s an almost Palinesque cavalcade of ignorance. Now, I’m sure Ms. Hudson is just acting stupid to avoid taking a stand on the AFA, but I’d expect someone in her position to do a better job than that.

“Somewhat familiar” with the American Family Association, a leading power-broker on the Christian Right? “Whatever group you said”? Yeah, just the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of America’s leading crusaders against hate groups for more than 40 years. “Stuff that’s been out in the press”? In the words of Katie Couric, what newspapers do you read?

To top it all off, “Hudson… repeatedly declined to say what she understood AFA’s beliefs to be.”

Come on. That’s not credible at all. The Republican Party’s top officials have to know the lay of their land. That includes groups like the American Family Association, who have a lot of influence in Republican politics.

There, of course, is the rub. Hudson can’t afford to publicly distance herself from the AFA because it is so influential. And because AFA members and sympathizers form a substantial part of the Republican base, even in liberal old Vermont. She’d rather come across as an uninformed dunderhead than utter a word against the AFA and the extremism it stands for.

Which brings us to the Vermont Republican Party itself. VTGOP leaders like to downplay social issues, but they don’t want to actively contradict the views of the Christian Right. No matter how extreme, hateful, and downright unAmerican those views might be.

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The moral imperative for health care reform, revealed in a handful of statistics

At the January 27 meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee, Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office distributed three fairly simple charts that tell the story of our unfair state income tax system in bold relief. I’ll be examining those charts in an upcoming post, but right now I want to focus on a small slice: the deduction for medical expenses.

The first chart lists the most frequently claimed tax deductions across the top, and income classes down the left side. It tells a fascinating story about who benefits from which deductions, and how much. But today I’m concentrating on the first two columns, shown below:

Medical deduction chart 1

A couple of explanatory points. First, this data is from 2011, predating Vermont Health Connect and the Affordable Care Act. Second, I should explain the rules for deducting medial expenses. You can’t deduct health insurance premiums, just actual medical and dental expenses. You can only deduct medical expenses if they total more than 10% of your gross income, and only the portion above 10% is deductible. It’s a very high standard; you’ve gotta have some serious medical bills and no insurance (or really bad insurance) to qualify.

As you might expect, “Total Medical” is the outlier among deductions; it’s the only one claimed more often by the poor and working poor than by the wealthy. There are two simple reasons for this. The first is that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to have health insurance. The second, obviously, is the lower your income, the fewer bills it takes to qualify.

It’s no giveaway, though; if you’re making $25,000 a year, then medical bills over $2500 are enough to throw you into severe financial difficulties. A tax break on a portion of those bills won’t make you whole.

These columns reveal the hidden cost of our old health care system — the human and social cost, and the actual financial cost. Vermont is foregoing a large amount of potential tax revenue because so many people incur medical bills that eat up a significant portion of their earning power.

I don’t know if these numbers were factored into Gov. Shumlin’s calculations on single-payer. I sure as Hell hope so, because it’s a cost that’s every bit as real as a payroll tax.

As for the human and social costs, the top three lines indicate that more than half the total value of medical deductions was taken by those with incomes under $50,000. These are people who cannot afford a significant unplanned expense, because they’re barely making ends meet in good times.

Here’s the same slice from a second chart that shows the total number of filers in each income class, and the number who took a medical deduction. This shows that more than 50% of those claiming a medical deduction earned less than $50,000, while virtually no wealthy people claimed one.

Medical deduction chart 2

Now look at that top line. More than half the low-income filers qualified for medical expense deductions. That’s nearly 5,000 individual stories of illness and deprivation, of life-changing financial crises, most likely including thousands of bankruptcies. How many people lost their jobs and their homes, and saw their lives go into a tailspin, because of an uncovered illness or injury in 2011 alone?

So far, health care reform has dramatically reduced the ranks of the uninsured in Vermont. These figures show how crucial that progress is, for the stability of our society and the very lives of our most vulnerable.

These figures are also a powerful argument that we need to keep it up. We shouldn’t have thousands of poor and working-class Vermonters qualifying for this deduction. There should be none, or very few at most. That’s the goal of, and the moral imperative for, universal health care.

Searching for revenue in all the right places

Warning: This post is full of public-policy geekery. You should not operate heavy machinery during or immediately after reading. Still, I hope you’ll stick around; you’ll learn some useful stuff.

I spent Tuesday morning at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee, as it conducted an item-by-item overview of tax expenditures and tax deductions. The subtext is the state budget situation, with its projected $100-million-plus gap. Committee members engaged in a lot of poking and prodding, in search of ways to goose income or reduce outgo.

“Tax expenditure,” for those not in the know, is the technical term for a tax exemption. “Expenditure” is a nice insightful term; in granting an exemption, the state is forgoing tax revenue. In essence, it is spending that money without ever receiving it. In granting a sales tax exemption on food, for example, we are “spending” the uncollected revenue for a social purpose — making food more affordable, and limiting the regressive impact of the sales tax. The Earned Income Tax Credit, given to the working poor, is a tax expenditure. It’s the largest one, in fact, accounting for 49% of the foregone revenue from expenditures. (The second-highest, at 32%, is the Capital Gains Exclusion, which almost entirely benefits top earners.)

As for the sales tax exemption on major equipment at ski resorts… Well, you tell me what social purpose that serves. Beefing up resort owners’ profits, is my guess.

I learned a lot of interesting stuff about expenditures and deductions. The most crucial stuff is about deductions, and I will write about them in a subsequent post. For now, some notes on expenditures.

(For those interested in a whole lot of detail, the Joint Fiscal Office’s 91-page report on state tax expenditures is available online.

Sen. Tim Ashe, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has his eyes set on the ski-equipment exemption as part of a broader reconsideration of the financial arrangements between the state and resort operators. Auditor Doug Hoffer recently reported that Vermont’s leases of public land to the resorts are outdated and don’t generate as much revenue as they could.

Ashe agrees. “Circumstances have changed dramatically in the industry,” he told me. “The lease conditions haven’t kept pace.” He sees an opportunity to reopen the leases as part of a “recalibration” of the state/resort relationship. On the government side, that might include more lucrative leases and an end to the equipment exemption. On the resort side, it might include changes in state regulation.

The door seems to be open. But as Sen. Ashe puts it, “Is the legislature interested in recalibrating the relationship?” This, and many other taxation issues, may not be settled until the session’s closing days, when the House, Senate, and Governor try to agree on a balanced budget acceptable to all parties.

Ashe also told me that his committee “went through every tax expenditure in the tax code” last year. Some were eliminated, all others were more clearly defined. This year, Ashe has introduced a bill that would require a determination that each tax expenditure is achieving its intended purpose. That might touch on some of the corporate tax breaks, such as the exemption for research and development. At the Ways and Means hearing, it was said that large corporations can simply assign a portion of their entire R&D expense to Vermont, whether or not the work was actually done here. There was some sentiment on the committee to rein in that exemption — define it more narrowly, or tie it more directly to job growth in Vermont.

Most tax expenditures are relatively uncontroversial. Purchases of home heating supplies — oil, gas, propane, wood — are exempt from sales tax. This is a big item, but who’d want to repeal it?

There was surprise around the table that the sales tax exemption on food is very broadly defined. It includes soda, candy, and nutritional supplements. That’s a lot of foregone revenue for stuff that is either harmful to health, or whose benefits are questionable. And it’s ironic, at a time when we’re considering a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. But it’s difficult to draw a hard and fast line. Is a CLIF Bar “candy”? Pop-Tarts? Yogurt-covered almonds? Kettle corn? Vermont Maple Syrup?

So that’s a can of worms that no one will likely want to open.

One item that might be revisited is the exemption on clothing sales. Vermont used to cap the exemption at purchases of $110 or less. That cap went out the window when the state adopted something called the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, a mutually agreed-upon standard for rules on sales taxes that includes 44 states and the District of Columbia.

At the time Vermont adopted the SSUTA, it did not include limits on clothing purchses. It has since been amended, and Vermont could reimpose a limit so that, say, fur coats would be subject to sales tax.

However, Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office warned the committee that much of the potential revenue would be unrealized because so many clothing purchases are conducted online. And I’m sure brick-and-mortar retailers would scream if lawmakers considered limits on the clothing exemption.

The terms of some tax expenditures are outdated, or in imminent danger of becoming so. For example, there’s a sales tax exemption for newspapers. But does it apply to digital subscriptions? No one in the hearing room had a clue.

There’s an exemption for movie theaters’ purchases of films — on the grounds that ticket sales are taxed, so taxing the film purchases would be a form of double taxation. But these days, virtually all theaters are showing digital movies. They don’t get cans of film; they get a “black box” that contains a playable (but not reproducible) digital copy of the movie. That copy is set to expire and become unplayable at the end of a movie’s run. Can it be said that the theater is actually buying anything?

Mobile and modular homes have a partial tax exemption. But these days, almost all home building includes modular elements, pre-constructed at a factory. Has the tax code kept pace with the industry?

Those were the most interesting tidbits about tax expenditures, at least to my eyes. The JFO’s report includes a wealth of information; for each expenditure, there are figures for the total estimated cost, the number of taxpayers who take advantage, and a short explanation of the reasons for the expenditure.

Coming in the near future: tax deductions — the #1 creator of unfairness in Vermont’s income tax system.  This may become the battleground over how, or whether, to raise additional revenue and limit the scope of necessary budget cuts.

Top Vermont Republican traveling to Israel on hate group’s dime

A big hairy mess exploded today in conservative political circles. One of the most prominent far-right Christian spokesmen was suddenly fired.

Bryan Fischer had been the front man for the American Family Association for years. He holds some very extreme views: he has equated Islam to the Ebola virus and claimed that the Holocaust was conducted by gay Nazis, because gays were the only Nazis vicious enough to take such extreme measures.

He has also said that religions other than Christianity are not protected by the Bill of Rights.

Because of the views held by him and the organization, it’s been named a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Fischer has been saying hateful stuff like this for years. But he suddenly became political poison after the Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported that the AFA was funding an all-expenses paid trip to Israel for top Republicans, and related — for its Israeli and global Jewish readership — Fischer’s incendiary remarks. The group is scheduled leave on Saturday for a nine-day visit, and the AFA is picking up the tab.

It seems the AFA suddenly realized that Fischer might be a colossal embarrassment, and he was let go.

Fischer’s departure doesn’t absolve the group; its new spokesman, David Lane, told Haaretz that “America was founded by Christians for the advancement of the Christian faith.” Which might also prove embarrassing, especially if the Israeli media start questioning the AFA’s representatives and their Republican guests.

Those guests include roughly one-third of the Republican National Committee. And according to the Haaretz report, one of those eager to suck at the AFA teat is one Susie Hudson, prominent Vermont Republican who was just elected Secretary of the RNC.

Which brings us to the question: Ms. Hudson, how do you justify accepting the American Family Association’s hospitality? And do you agree with its views, which include the imposition of its brand of Christianity on American culture and politics, denial of equal rights for the LGBT community, opposition to reproductive rights, and climate change denialism?

I’m sorry, you’re probably too busy packing to answer such impertinent questions. Enjoy your time in the Holy Land and the hospitality of a far-right hate group.

In your absence, perhaps VTGOP Chair David Sunderland or Executive Director Jeff Bartley could take a swing at those questions. Hmm?

A little shameless, and ironic, self-promotion by the Freeploid

Okay, so the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza puts out a list of the best political reporters in each of the 50 states. He describes the list as a combination of reader recommendations and his own knowledge. It’s fair to assume that the farther away he gets from Washington, the more dependent he is on his readers.

Take Vermont, for instance. Cillizza’s list was sadly incomplete and, in two instances, ironically off-target.

He names four reporters. Paul Heintz of Seven Days; no problem there. Kyle Midura of WCAX; he does a fine job by TV standards.

The other two: Mike Donoghue and April Burbank of the Burlington Free Press.

Hahahahaha.

Nothing against either of them; they’re perfectly cromulent reporters. However…

— Neither is primarily a political reporter. Both are on the Freeploid’s vaguely-named Accountability Team. The Free Press draws heavily on the Associated Press for its political coverage.

— It was only a couple months ago that the Free Press jettisoned its political reporters, Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen. Both would be better choices for Cillizza’s list than Donoghue and Burbank.

The thickly-laden irony isn’t stopping the Free Press from celebrating its dubious honor. Three Freeploid functionaries have Tweeted the big news; here’s one of them.

Nice, Aki. I’m sure your former colleagues are sharing a bitter laugh.

As for Cillizza, he clearly doesn’t know much about Vermont media. He completely ignores VTDigger and VPR, two of the three best outlets for state political news. The Digger diss isn’t surprising, since he named it the Best Political Blog in Vermont two years ago. Small problem there: VTDigger isn’t a blog. It’s a professionally staffed news operation.

Cillizza does acknowledge the possible incompleteness of his list, and he has added people to it since he first posted it. I’ve sent him an email with my suggestions, and perhaps he’ll include them.

My top three noms: Anne Galloway of VTDigger, Peter Hirschfeld of VPR, and Neal Goswami of the Vermont Press Bureau. If I expanded things a bit, I’d include Dave Gram of the AP, Stuart Ledbetter of WPTZ, Bob Kinzel of VPR, and Mark Johnson of WDEV. Mark doesn’t report as such, but his daily radio show is the best single platform for discussion of state politcs and policy.

On the subject of Vermont’s true Best Political Blog, modesty forbids me.

More on the motto: true to Vermont’s heritage

(Note: See also this follow-up post on the motto’s approval by a Senate committee.)

Of all the stuff I’ve written about Vermont politics and policy on this blog and earlier on Green Mountain Daily, the single-most-read piece I’ve ever posted was last week’s post about the proposed addition of a Latin state motto. So I thought I’d add some historical information for those still skeptical about the idea.

For those just joining us, Sen. Joe Benning has sponsored a bill designating a new Latin motto — not to displace “Freedom and Unity,” but to exist side-by-side. He did so at the behest of Angela Kubicke, a ninth-grade student at The Riverside School in Lyndonville*, who is apparently way smarter than I was in the ninth grade. Or certainly more dedicated and focused.

*Correction: Kubicke was an eighth-grader at Riverside when she first approached Sen. Benning; she is now a first-year student at St. Johnsbury Academy, and is also a member of the Latin Club at the Lyndon Institute. Credit where credit’s due. 

The motto, Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat, is translated as “May the Fourteenth Star Shine Bright.” It’s a nod to Vermont’s status as the 14th state to join the Union — hence, the 14th star on the flag. My original post had to do with ignorant Facebook commenters who confused Latin with Latin America — basically telling Joe and Angela to take their motto and go back to Mexico.

There were also plenty of comments accusing the Senator of wasting time on such nonsense — when, in fact, bills like this take up very little of anyone’s time. In the opening weeks of the session, most of the work takes place in committees; and while other committees are debating taxes, budget, education, environment, etc., one single committee will spend probably a few minutes on this issue. The entire Senate does not grind to a halt over stuff like this.

There was also a third class of ignorant comments, saying we should stick with our heritage and not drag in some newfangled foreign motto.

StellaQuartaDecimaBut in fact, Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat is a direct tribute to Vermont’s early status as an independent republic. During that time, it was pretty clear that Vermont would eventually join the United States, and the monicker “14th Star” was commonly used. In 1786, the government authorized the minting of Vermont coins; the phrase Stella Quarta Decima was included on the “tails” side of Vermont’s first coin.

So the motto is not new at all; it’s a reflection of Vermont’s early history. As is the use of Latin.

The next step in the odyssey of Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat will take place at 2 pm on Wednesday, February 11, when Angela Kubicke will testify before the Senate Government Operations Committee.  “I suspect she will make a very good impression,” said Sen. Benning in a comment to my previous posting. “I am also willing to lay odds that the tripartisan membership of that committee will vote unanimously in support of the bill, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that legislators still care about the Classics and Vermont’s heritage.”

What started out as a small civics lesson for a single student may well become a big lesson in history — and open-mindedness — for all of us.

Sharks in the water, Vermont papers in the lifeboat

Further developments in the selloff of Digital First Media, the corporation that owns more than a hundred newspapers — sorry, media properties — nationwide, including the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner. And it’s not happy news.

Capital New York is reporting that a couple of slash-and-burn private equity giants have emerged as the front-runners. Apollo Global Management and Cerberus (ooh) Capital Management have similar investment strategies: buy up troubled companies, engage in ruthless cost-cutting, goose the profit margins, and then sell within a few years.

Previous reports had two newspaper chains involved in the bidding: Gannett and Gatehouse, discussed previously. Apollo and Cerberus have an edge, in that they are interested in buying all of DFM’s properties in one go, as DFM would like to do. Other bidders, it’s believed, want to buy bits and pieces.

DFM is the creation of a private equity fund, and has already engaged in round after round of cuts. As Capital New York puts it:

What could a P.E. purchase mean for the papers—and their “digital-first” operations—themselves? By standard practice, Apollo and Cerberus quickly apply reorganizations to find cost-cutting efficiencies. Layers of management and staffing are taken out, centralization of processes are put in place and technology is used to cut the costs of pesky humans.

… All newspaper companies have seen massive cuts… [but] the papers in this deal have seen more than their share of efficiency-wringing. Peer publishers will tell you tell that DFM looks “wrung out.”

Maybe we’ll get to find out if the three-headed helldog has a tighter grip than DFM. Which would be bad news for southern Vermont news readers, who are already underserved.

By the way, DFM itself is less than two years old. Its CEO, John Paton, sought to encourage journalism’s (supposed) next wave by pushing into multimedia digital content. The experiment hasn’t gone well; Paton’s primary backer, Alden Global Capital, has run out of patience with him. So much for the digital future; its only legacy at papers like the Reformer and Banner is shrunken papers and empty newsrooms.

The future: more of the same, at best.

Will somebody please hurry up and invent the future of news already?