Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lies Lies LIES!!

“There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We don’t have any ability with dumb cuts like this to figure out what the right thing to do is. It just means that a lot more children will not get the kinds of services and opportunities they need,” Duncan said.

On Wednesday, when pressed for more details, Sec. Duncan named a county in West Virginia that was getting dealt a deck of pink slips. Turns out, not only was this part of a sequester deal, it wasn't even true. There was some shuffling of teachers that may be occurring in West Virginia next year, but a far cry from a man with a hand written card board sign draped over his shoulders crying about the apocalyptic image that he was trying to paint. 

There are going to be some tough times coming with these sudden cuts, so why does the White House feel it necessary to act like the sky is falling? Well, lets break down the math a bit and find out how this is going to hurt me, or more specifically, since I have very minimal direct reliance on the federal government, how this sequester will harm my local school district, Linn-Mar school district in Iowa. 

The Sequester for the remainder of this fiscal year is about $85,000,000,000.00 to the federal budget, 

half of this goes to defense, leaving $42,500,000,000.00 for domestic programs.

The Department of Education state allocations is getting hit with about $712,500,000.00, or 1.67% of domestic cuts.

according to the White House, Iowa's education hit will be $6,400,000.00, or 0.89% of the education cuts. 

In 2011, Iowa received around $506,900,000.00 from the federal government for education

Iowa's cut from the fed is about 1.3% of federal education funding to the state.

Total enrollment in K-12 for Iowa is over 473,000 students

so the cuts equal about $13.50 per student. 

Linn-Mar school district is responsible for a bit over 6600 students, 1.4% of Iowa enrollment. 

Linn-Mar school district is responsible for a decrease of roughly $89,000

Linn-Mar's budget for 2012 was $113,266,000.00 dollars

My School's budget chart shows 3% of funds come from Fed.
This cut is less then one tenth of one percent for my school district, and this assumes that all cuts will be rolled over directly to the district budgets, the direct impact will probably be much less. That's it, we could potentially lose one position, obviously no one wants to let a teacher or aide go, but if you follow the school budget link above, you may have noticed something. The school's budget has been dropping, by a lot, in 2011, the budget was $20 million more, in 2010, there was $47 million more budgeted. Iowa's been through a way more dramatic, sudden cuts, before, so maybe it's a bit of a thick skin that I've grown in the face of budget cuts that makes me scoff at the idea that we may be out of what amounts to peanuts, because even with cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts to education, our school district, on top of being one of the largest school districts in Iowa that does not have a income sir-tax. Our school district was able to drop it's tax levy. That's right, our taxes are falling. 

Try again Mr. Duncan, you're lying, your exaggerating, and quite frankly, I think this whole issue is going to show how little we really need a Federal Department of Education.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Gambling on a Casino

On March 5th, Linn county residents will take to the polls for yet another special election. Seems like every year there is a vote that comes up for a local tax, or a local tax extension, or another extension for a local tax, but this time the vote is a different kind of tax, some people may call it a tax on people who can't do math. Others an entertainment tax. On March 5th, voters will cast ballots to give their blessing to allow a developer to proceed with building a casino here in Linn County, Iowa. 

The ten second summary of the case is that Steve Gray, part of a McLeod dealing that wound one person in jail on accounts of insider trading and bribery charges, wants to build a $100,000,000.00 casino in the flood ravaged west side of Downtown Cedar Rapids. This is meeting a lot of opposition for three main reasons;

Steve Gray pointing out his ideal build site
1. People are suspicious towards this Gray character and perceive him as just trying to make a buck with little regard for the community, pointing to his agreement to contribute the state minimum 3% towards a county organization for the next twenty years while a similar deal for the most recent regional casino, the Isle in Waterloo, pays out 5.75%.

2. This side of the state is already quite saturated with casinos, with 4 casinos within an hour drive in pretty much any given direction. All of which are larger then the proposed one for Cedar Rapids, little out of state revenue would be generated at it could have a negative impact in our neighboring cities.

3. The main reason why casinos are typically considered a community decision is that there are inherent impacts the neighborhood that are unwelcome. People cite what happened in Dubuque, IA with Diamond Jo, there is a generally acknowledged 'bad neighborhood' that formed in that part of town. However, measuring such impacts is a tricky job. Several studies actually show Dubuque as being fairly satisfied with it's casinos.

Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque
Personally, I'm torn. I believe that if a group of investors wants to gamble their money on a casino, that as long as there isn't some underhanded land deals or some under the table pay offs to get it done, that we live in a capitalist economy where they should have the ability to do so. However, to ignore the extreme economic impact that casinos have historically had on existing businesses, for better or worse, would be unwise. Plus, I'm pretty sure some sort of an arrangement where the City will front a lot of initial expense for a venture that is all but guaranteed to be profitable. The stink grows when you consider a lot of the land the developers are looking at is already City owned and our council appears to be ready to offer the land as pretty much free using the argument that right now we get no tax revenue from this property and a casino. 

I feel downtown Cedar Rapids is roaring back, a few instances of local businesses bouncing back strong after our devastating floods of '08. There are a lot of things to see and do and I really don't feel we need a big investment like this. On the other hand, the neighborhood the casino is talking about building in has next to nothing in it. it was wiped out in the flood and most of the businesses have relocated and dang near all the housing in that neighborhood was brought out by the city and turned into green space, which also adds to the general stink that there is land changing hands via our local government that is exploiting the circumstances. 

So what would sway my vote? Here is my list of demands;

No free land - I don't care if it is a rotting empty lot. If I came along and wanted to open a petting zoo, the odds of me of getting the land free would be next to nil. If we want to drop the price with considerations to flood protection that extends beyond their property, or calculate the amount of infrastructure damage that needs to be repaired, fine, but none of this 'we have nothing better to do with this land' argument. Businesses have thrived there before and that land is not worthless.

Downtown District contributions - Downtown Cedar Rapids is roaring back, and I think a casino has the potential to be a big boost, but I could also see them spurring a new growth spot and try to make them the heart of down town, franchising along 1st avenue or becoming a source of political pressure when street repair dollars are being allocated could split the downtown area, we already have a great downtown, and I would like to see something that acknowledges and strengthens that with a promised annual donation to the downtown district. (It's worth noting that this group supports a Linn County casino.)

Riverside's Buffet
An Awesome Buffet - I'm serious, Other casinos have major amenities that give them nice appeal, Riverside's Golf Course or the Isles' Vegas style shows. I understand this casino will be quit small by comparison, but having a nice Sunday brunch spread might actually give me, and many other non-gamblers, something to enjoy.

The waters of this debate have been muddied, shockingly, with people resorting to finger pointing and following the money to realize opposition groups are being funded by the aforementioned area casinos, and local politicians failing to provide their correspondence with the developers. Typical political warfare items that really become background noise since they are either hard to prove or easy to assume. One thing is for sure, the vote is going to be close, and I will be very interested in seeing which side comes out on top in a town that has had successful grassroots opposition to plans that have been supported by local movers and shakers before.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ice Cream

You may have to be familiar with me on a level that has not shown it's way through this blog over the past several months, but I found out a piece of news the other day that completely changes my life. Parlor City has just opened a new location in my town that Google Maps plots as a 16 minute walk from my house. 

Goodbye waistline, goodbye low(ish) cholesterol. Hello hours of time well spent trying their menu of crazy dairy concoctions and justifying to my wife that this is what makes me happy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My State of the Union Reactions

What part about the President's speech last night made you roll your eyes, made you snicker worse then Joe Biden at a debate. Or gawk worse then a former GOP chairman at the use of the word wizard. I thought I would share a few of those moments that I had.

My State of the Union Reactions

"Our work must begin by making some basic decisions about our budget – decisions that will have a huge impact on the strength of our recovery"

Didn't the recovery end when our economy contracted last quarter. Not saying that we are in another recession yet, but don't you stop "bouncing back" when you are no longer bouncing upward.

"Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion – mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances." 

Back in '09, the deficit was $1.412 trillion, the biggest ever by a mile, this year it is $1.326 Trillion, at what point did we save these trillions of dollars? Receipts have risen by $350 Billion in the meantime, even if you span $2.5 trillion over 10 years, wouldn't you expect the deficient to fall a couple hundred billion? It goes to that old adage of stating that I'm going to buy a sports car for $100,000 next year, I don't 'save' $100,000 because I didn't buy one. It's sad that the sequester is what will finally force these numbers to drop and congress is scrambling to stop it.

"Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs."

I always get a kick out of the phrasing 'slow the growth of...'. Note that healthcare rates are still high and still going up.

"Tonight, I’ll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget
framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago. Let me repeat – nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime."

Last year when he proposed a plan to avert the fiscal cliff, his bill proposed more taxes, more spending and terms like 'to be determined' as far as how this was all going to be paid for. Me thinks this deficit neutral plan works in simular ways.

“Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged."

Interesting that he should point to this fact since last year was one of the worst years when it came to wage disparity. this in the wake of healthcare and fair wage reform that was supposed to help combat these very things. Fueling an argument that he may mean well, he's just incompetent.

"I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year"

Wait, didn't we already do this in '63? Didn't we strengthen it a few years ago? Isn't Sex discrimination in the work place already illegal? I know the math is still unfavorable but isn't that an enforcement issue, oh wait, that's right.

"Even with the tax relief we've put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line... Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour"

I agree having a static rate makes little sense, at the same time, according to an MIT study, $9/hr would be 10 percent higher then the cost of living... for an individual. If he is using a single person raising two kids as the benchmark, then for my little corner of paradise in Iowa, he's short of the mark by about $16.50 an hour. It's an unrealistic mark, let's set minimum wage to CPI and/or inflation and let states decide what is best for them, as so many of them already have.

"In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people."

Stable transitions that are messy, insist by not dictate. From a grammatical sense I'm not a fan of this statement, but then you through in the acknowledgement of issues with the way Egypt is going, yet we are handing over advanced military equipment and cash at alarming rates and it just makes my head spin.

"All this work depends on the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk – our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. As long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad"

Do I need to say anything about this line?

Obviously, there is more, but overall I actually thought it was a pretty modest speech. He usually tones it down a bit when a lot of Republicans are in the room. You know, say a few subtle things to unnerve them and then act like they have a lot in common. So his supporters at home see Republicans sitting there with their arms folded when Obama says we've never imported less oil from the middle east, leaving them to think he's a moderate and the GOP just doesn't like him for all the right reasons. Perhaps this is what they felt under Bush when he would talk about education standards and improving air quality. Maybe it's just another indicator that the letter after your name isn't what determines if you are a successful president. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

You Can't Spend Your Way Out of This

This past Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report that says that the budget deficit will grow through 2023 and it states that it will eventually require the government to raise taxes, reduce benefits and services, or undertake some sort of combination of the two. Here is the kicker, these steps will be needed just to cover the interest payments.

You know that point when you have a mortgage or student loans, you've been making your payments, painful as they may be from month to month, then look at your end of the year statement and realize the principal isn't going down. That all the money you've put into these payments are just for the interest. The country is starting to get that way.

The CBO projects that interest rates on the Ten-Year Treasury Note will rise from 2.1 percent currently, to 5.2 percent in 2017. A mix of every bond ratings declining and the fed continuing to eat most of the free market action on bonds has helped keep this rate artificially low for some time, but the CBO is projecting that these rates will not stand over the next 5 years. Since the government usually pays no more then the interest in it's debt anyway, and is still borrowing at ridiculous levels, our payments to service the debt, a topic getting not nearly enough explanation during the fiscal cliff crisis, will go up... by a lot.

In December, the Treasury Department reported that total interest bearing debt owed by the government carried an interest rate of 2.5 percent. FY2012’s interest payments on our debt was in the neighborhood of $360 billion. If interest rates overall reflect the CBO’s forecast for the benchmark, these interest payments alone will clear the $1 Trillion mark by 2017. At which point we will be spending more on debt then on education, or welfare, or even national defense. It would also equal about the amount of money we have to borrow now to just make it though a fiscal year.

What an odd coincidence that Obama will be out of office at the end of 2016. But, like a first divorcee of a gold digger, we get stuck paying off the bill for this multi-year shopping spree. Leaving us with the choice of paying our obligations to our debt, or spending money on frivolous things like Social Security or Medicare. 

Couple this very predictable crisis with the possibility of dipping into another recession if the can-kicked sequester on defense spending proceeds and the economy doesn't see a turn around in the next, oh, lets say, three to five hours. Another recession and more spending could also push us into more bond rating trouble, which could push the 5.2 percent guesstimation of the CBO even higher, causing even higher payments, well, you can see how this can go from horrible to downright cataclysmic if everything doesn't go according to plan.

Or, the more likely route, the fed will continue to buy up bonds with this magical invisible stockpile of money they have. Shoring up Social Security and Medicare as they start to pay out more then they take in in the trillions. All the while this is used as an excuse to raise tax rates and come up with new things to pay tax on, (Internet Tax?) while never addressing the real problem, that this government (note that I'm not singling out the president) has a significant spending problem.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Tale of 2 Kids

How many children went to Avengers, to Batman, or even Harry Potter? Many. How many parents put their children down in front of the evening news during the chaos of the Sandy Hook shooting? Not nearly as many. Do we think that our children are smart enough to know the difference of when something is real, and when something is make believe? Most of us must think that they are, they know that when people are shooting at Iron Man that it is not real, that it is fake.

The question then is why is it when a child knows something is not real, that they are smart enough to know that something poses no danger, that we as adults can not react the way that reflects that knowledge?

The first story is of a child who did a bad thing, and will pay the consequences of it. At seven years old he came across his grandfathers weapon and brought it to school, loaded. The police, rightfully so, were called and the child, who's name is being withheld from the media, was suspended from school. There was no lock down, there where no criminal charges filed. The authorities came and secured the weapon, and everyone breathed a collected sigh of relief as it appears to all be just some big misunderstanding. A good lesson to be learned from this would be about securing your weapon from a child, or anyone who would consider stealing it. The punishment for this event had to be real as the risk was very high as the weapon was loaded, making the threat, also, very real.

The new face of gun violence
The second story, is of a six year old girl bringing what is described as a 'little clear plastic gun" and was also described as having the orange tip that denotes the Airsoft brand. Once again, the authorities where called, the toy was collected, the parents were called, but what continues to happen, and the fact that there is little deviation from the first story is what is bothering me. This six year old girl is not suspended, she was expelled, and can be subject to criminal charges if she violates that suspension, from school and all school related activities. She know what she had, and simply thought it would make for a neat show and tell. Much like how a child may bring their Asgardian hammer Mjolnir toy, knowing that it could in no way summon a blow capable of crushing a mere mortal.

So this is our new reality, that all threats, be they real or perceived, be they understood for what they are or not, are not only responded to the same, which makes perfect sense, but also criminalized the same way. What values does this enact on our kids? I could understand sending the kid home for the day and maybe even confiscating the toy, but to instill the idea that even make believe has serious consequences. The idea that the actual threat doesn't come into the picture, then how am I suppose to explain why watching Superman is acceptable because it's fantasy, when kids have to live with such dire consequences of their imaginations. Now running around a corner too fast and bumping into someone is on the same level as intentionally tackling someone. I agree, tell the kid who was running too fast 'no, that is unacceptable'. But I could not label them as a bully and kick them out of school after one accident.

The only way to unravel this logic for me is to assume that the child had evil in her heart and in her mind when she brought what she knew was a toy to school. You'd have an easier time explaining to me how the parents of this kid are supposed to tell their 6 year old that what she did was wrong. "Sweetie Pie, I know it was show and tell and you thought it would be fun to show your brothers toy, but only evil people have guns, period. Which makes you and your brother evil. Mommy and Daddy are sorry that we raised you all wrong to think that playing with toy weapons is ok, cause you see, Mommy and Daddy were raised in the brutal 80's where GI Joe cartoons where ok, but only because our parents grew up in an age where the Lone Ranger was ok, because his parents were raised in a world where playing cops and robbers was ok, because their parents, your great-great-great-grandparents, thought that cowboys and Indians while going 'Bang!' with wooden rifle cut outs, was ok."

Kids don't bring guns don't belong in the schools, I get that, but there was no danger here. Usually when I make a mistake that noone got hurt, and that no one really was at risk for getting hurt, that I apologize and move on.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why a Democrat Voted 'Nay'

Dear Chris:

Thank you for contacting me regarding legislation recently enacted by Congress to address the automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as the "Fiscal Cliff" that were scheduled to take place on January 1, 2013. I appreciate hearing from you about this important topic.

Over the last few decades, middle class families have seen their jobs become more insecure, their wages stagnate, their savings and pensions shrink, and the cost of education skyrocket. At the same time, the wealthiest among us and the largest corporations have grown ever richer.

Our economy is out of balance, and this lack of balance threatens the very fabric of our entire economy. That's because the economy is driven forward by middle class families with money in their pockets. We need to start to put our economy back in balance with an economic policy that will help to rebuild the middle class, providing good jobs now and in the long term.

Over the course of the debate on the fiscal cliff, I repeatedly stated that I would evaluate any legislation to avert our economic and fiscal challenges based upon the impact it would have on middle-class families. Unfortunately, I did not feel that the final agreement reached would help to strengthen the middle class, and as a result I voted against the measure. While I fully understand the economic impacts that would follow if the tax increases and spending cuts were allowed to take effect as scheduled, I do not believe that the legislation put forward was the appropriate or the only response to our present challenges. Specifically, I have three concerns about the legislation.

First, this legislation does not address our number one priority - creating well-paying, middle-class jobs immediately. While the economy has improved considerably since the depths of the Great Recession, millions of Americans are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not pay adequate incomes to allow them to support their families. Short-term job creation and long-term deficit reduction are both critical, and I was disappointed that the bill failed to provide the direct investments in immediate job creation measures that our country desperately needs.

Second, I am concerned that the legislation does not raise enough revenue to put our country on a path to fiscal sustainability while still allowing us to make the important investments in important areas that support a strong middle class, especially job training and education. Under the agreement, individuals and families earning less than $400,000 and $450,000 per year respectively will see their tax rates permanently extended at 2012 levels.

While I was pleased that middle class families did not experience a tax increase, extending tax rates for many wealthy individuals will reduce revenues by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. By not allowing tax rates on wealthy households earning between $250,000 and $450,000 to revert back to Clinton-era levels - a time when economic growth was robust and job creation was at all-time highs - we increase the risk to important benefits for the middle class. With government spending dropping and deficits remaining high, every dollar of sacrifice that the wealthy forgo in this deal is a sacrifice that we will later be asking middle class Americans to give up in earned benefits such as Social Security and Medicare.

Finally, I am concerned that the changes made to the tax code will make our system of taxation less progressive and over time provide fewer benefits to those with modest incomes. While the legislation made permanent tax benefits for wealthy Americans, such as the income tax rates on upper income earners and the estate tax, tax measures targeted at the middle class families - especially those with children - are only extended for five years. This includes the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides families $2,500 annually to help pay for college. It also includes an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, an effective tool for helping working families escape poverty, and the Child Tax Credit. The temporary extension of the tax benefits for middle class Americans will make it much more difficult to renew them in the future.

Sometime in February, Congress will likely consider legislation to reduce the deficit, raise the debt ceiling, and avoid automatic across the board spending cuts called sequestration. Throughout that process, I will continue to advocate for a balanced approach that will raise revenue from those who can afford to contribute and decrease spending in ways that minimize the adverse impact on the middle class and those of more modest incomes.

As I continue my work here in the Senate, I will continue to place the highest priority on rebuilding the middle class and promoting economic security among working families. Thank you for writing to me.


Tom Harkin
United States Senator