Tag Archives: tax

An Education in Education

4 Jun

Speaking of education, here are a few things I learned over the past few weeks. 

1. When Clarence’s school board decided to submit an above-cap budget for 2013-2014, it could only be passed by a 60/40 supermajority. The practical effect of that is that my yes vote is worth only about 5/8th of a no vote. That’s not “one person/one vote” and that’s not fair. There is a bill in the Assembly to right this wrong

2. Elections that are governed by the election law, which includes races for school board, are barely regulated and shadowy groups using untold amounts of money can operate with absolute secrecy. If, for instance, you want to spend more than $25 towards the election of another person who is running for a school board, you’re prohibited from doing so. But the penalty for breaking that law is non-existent. For an ultra-right wing group that wants to take over a school board or defeat a school budget, unlimited people can spend unlimited money to do it. In Clarence, that’s happening right now. 

3. There are no exceptions to the tax -cap legislation to allow for, e.g., paying court orders and school safety.

4. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is based in Maryland and was set up by one of the founders of UPS to, “build better futures for disadvantaged children and their families in the United States. The primary mission of the Foundation is to foster public policies, human service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families.” Frankly, the sort of things a government should be doing. AECF ranks states in terms of the quality of the education children there receive. New York is number 19.  Clearly, there is work to do. 

5. The United States spends over $600 billion on educating its next generation every year. By contrast, our elective war in Iraq cost over $2 trillion.  The difference is that no one got to vote in a referendum on the tax levy for the Iraq war. Using 2007 numbers, the United States spent less than only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries per pupil. 

6. In a recent ranking of education quality, the United States came in as “average”. The top countries are Finland and South Korea. This has an adverse affect on kids’ abilities to compete in a global marketplace where their peers abroad are simply educated better. 

When it comes to education, “rah-rah US is #1” is untrue and just as jejune as allegations that kids can do well in school regardless of the quality of teachers or class sizes if they come from the right home in the right neighborhood with the right family makeup with a nice income. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement; especially if you live in a place like Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, or Nevada. The report which ranks education quality country-by-country comes up with these conclusions

  1. There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

  2. Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

  3. Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

  4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

  5. Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.

Clearly, there is work to be done, and each side in the debate in the US have at least one point, but we’re missing the bigger picture because it’s difficult and time-consuming. Note that American teachers are paid wages below the world average. 

The solution, however, is not to cut teachers or to treat them like fast-food workers. It is not to cut programs that encourage learning, fitness, or creativity. We can work for systemic improvement while not sacrificing the quality of education that kids are receiving now. Testing and more testing isn’t the answer, nor is pitting teachers’ unions against everyone else. 

I don’t know whether Carl Paladino’s baseball bat or AFP’s decimation of public schooling are precisely the right solution.  But one thing I do know – I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having not paid closer attention to these things before, especially as it relates to my own town. 

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Clarence Voters Teach Students a Lesson

22 May

Perhaps we should retain the services of 20 year old Y counselors to “teach” kids at or near minimum wage with no benefits? Is there a way we could outsource teaching to Bangladesh? Should we eliminate music education, art classes, electives, and advanced placement – fire those teachers? Because all of the gloating I’ve seen Clarence school opponents express in the last 7 hours is packed with thinly concealed animus towards the teachers and their labor union.

The teachers. In this country, at this time, we demonize and defile the educators.

Last night, Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed 2013-2014 school budget, and elected two of the so-called “pro-taxpayer” board candidates. A tax that is wholly deductible from federal income taxation is rejected. The curriculum will suffer. Teachers will be put out of work and stop contributing to the local economy. There is no win here, and the school opponents’ gloating is disgusting and unseemly.

The most direct way to personal achievement and success? An education. The key to unlock a better future for WNY? An education. The reason why families have flocked in recent years to Clarence? The schools. A huge source of pride – at least until yesterday – in the town? The schools. First, do no harm.

So why did Clarence families come out in unprecedented numbers expressly to reject a crisis budget that sought to address a fiscal shortfall? I don’t have the answer to that. I’m just really angry and disappointed about it.

I guess I should be amused by the fact that not a single media outlet, except the Bee, picked up on the fact that the tea party astroturf group spent tens of thousands of dollars of outside money to defeat this budget. If AFP was so concerned about the taxpayers, they could have just donated the money to the district or maybe the band boosters to keep the music programs afloat. They could have directed that money to the Advanced Placement programs or electives that will likely be eliminated from the curriculum. But because AFP is about helping people express their frustrations over federal or state taxation at the students of Clarence, it was more important to spend huge sums on slick propaganda.

People complained about the teachers and their union, claiming that they were completely unreasonable and wholly to blame. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the product – look at the outcome. We get (got) what we paid for. Our taxes in WNY are high, but Clarence’s are among the lowest. The proposed levy may have been steep, but the result still would have been a lower payment than the checks families cut in 2003. The overall rate is down even as budgets and property values have gone up.

But the parents of Clarence students didn’t have a massive billionaire-backed lobbying and propaganda group to help them agitate in favor of the budget. The teachers’ union didn’t send 3 slick mailers to every home in Clarence and a 4-page full-color insert in the Bee. Big, bad NYSUT has nothing over the AFP’s access to money.

No, the truly grassroots pro-schools effort was barely funded, relying on Facebook, e-mail, leafletting, and word-of-mouth. There were no big 9′ tall signs on any vacant eyesore properties placed in favor of the budget – only “summer portrait of a lovely grandma” was placed, and defaced.

And I suspect that the budget opponents did the defacing in order to earn free media attention and to portray themselves as victims. WGRZ didn’t report on the mailers that came from Long Island, but they did report on the supposed vandalism. WGRZ didn’t do a story on the consequences of this no vote, but did you see what they did to that sign?!

So, now what? Another $2.4 million in budget reductions will need to be added in order to bring the levy within the tax cap. The revised budget will be submitted to the taxpayers who may very well reject it again, in which case a contingency budget with no increase will be imposed. Either way, kids get shafted.

I’m obviously angry because I have a personal stake – I have two children in the system and we moved here for them. But when they leave the Clarence school system, I understand that it’s important to continue to maintain the system’s excellence (perhaps even to improve it) for future generations. Just because I’ve got mine doesn’t mean I will withhold it from you.

My kids’ – your kids’ – education isn’t some hypothetical or theoretical thing to be used as a pawn in a tea party showdown. It’s their only chance, and they should get the best education possible. Clarence just showed me that it doesn’t really much care. In unprecedented droves. Right now, my decision-making is whether I make this a personal cause or if there’s no point and I should just stop caring, move, and give up. The fact that the value of my property likely plummeted yesterday makes that a difficult decision.

But yesterday near the high school at Gunnville and Main Street, hundreds of students excitedly and hopefully held signs, sang songs, and urged passing motorists to vote yes on the budget. The voters didn’t just vote no – they really showed those kids! Because for all the rhetoric about how the teachers make more than doctors and drive to school in gilded Rolls-Royces and furs, the reality is dramatically different, and it wasn’t the teachers who were taught a lesson.

One of my (Republican) friends on Facebook wrote,

It is a shame that voters took all of their National and State tax frustrations out on the local kids in Clarence with this vote. AND shame on you parents with kids that voted against the budget as well as those of you that have already benifitted from this great school system. I know that their was a lot of you. F…ing selfish and stupid! This is the saying… Be careful what you wish for. Wait until you see what happens to the kids and the school district now. I bet you wish you could do it all over again. For $300-$400 (tax deductible) a year was this worth it.

In another thread, a current Clarence HS student writes,

As a student of Clarence High School I almost can’t stand to see the argument that has ripped this town apart. True, I wholeheartedly support the budget because it is my education and I have worked hard recently to try and get people educated on the actual facts of the budget. As an active member in the school’s music department and an avid participant in the electives and AP courses our school offers I am extremely worried about this budget because I know if this budget doesn’t pass these classes will be cut, my high school education will be highly deprived, the prestige of the Clarence community will go down and the number of colleges that will accept me will decrease. I know that it is now to late to change your minds but I’d like to thank those of you who voted yes and ask those of you who voted no what will happen over the next few years as with out a stabilizing budget this year how will taxes and the schools be affected. Staff cuts will run rampant and our schools will be reduced to teaching only the core concepts required by the state with high class sizes and an increasingly unstable budget so taxes will continue to need to increase.
That is all I have to say

Taxpayers? I’m a taxpayer, too. I’m also someone who knows that you get what you pay for. If frugality was the key to everything, we’d all live in a 500 SF apartment and drive a Smart forTwo. Being frugal isn’t the key – getting quality, value, and a good return on investment is what’s important, and Clarence schools excel at that. For one of the lowest tax levies in WNY, we get one of the best educations in WNY. How much of a school tax abatement did the town IDA give to a German niche car company to build a new dealership across the street from its current dealership? How much in school tax abatements has the IDA given in the past, say, 5 years, further burdening residents and – now – punishing students?

My wife told my kids this morning that the vote failed. “Why?” asked my 1st grader. “There won’t be a musical next year. No show choir, no voce” because the teacher will be laid off, said my 7th grader. They’re surprised and sad.

The huge turnout of no votes taught a lesson, alright. They taught the kids a lesson about lies, propaganda, and punishing them for daring to want to learn. They taught them that it’s better to load up on outside money, cloak it in secrecy, and invest in mailers and signs rather than schools.

The Real Looters

28 Nov

From a New York Times profile of how multibillionaire heir and man-of-leisure Ronald Lauder avoid paying taxes on his income.

The tax burden on the nation’s superelite has steadily declined in recent decades, according to a sliver of data released annually by the I.R.S. The effective federal income tax rate for the 400 wealthiest taxpayers, representing the top 0.000258 percent, fell from about 30 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2008, the most recent data available.

And the economy tanked.

“There’s real truth to the idea that the tax code for the 1 percent is different from the tax code for the 99 percent,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado. “Any taxpayer lucky enough to have appreciated property is usually put to a choice: cash out and pay some tax, or hold the property and risk the vagaries of the market. Only the truly rich can use derivatives to get the best of both worlds — lots of cash and very little risk.”

The story praises Lauder for making charitable donations of money and art to certain causes, the philanthropic way to tax avoidance. However,

“It’s admirable when people back their charitable impulses up with donations,” said Scott Klinger, tax policy director of the group Business for Shared Prosperity. “But the tax code shouldn’t allow the wealthy the kind of loopholes that let them, essentially, force other taxpayers to underwrite donations to their pet causes.”

So when you joke and mock the Occupy protesters for being a bunch of unwashed nouveau hippies with no point or direction, consider for a moment that the system is now rigged in favor of the very rich – especially those who make money from money.  When you look at the taxes withheld from your paycheck each week, or fill out your 1040 on TurboTax, remember that you pay a larger share of your income to the IRS than the superwealthy.

The Campaign for President 2012

20 Oct

I have been neglecting my punditry duties, I suppose, by deliberately and completely ignoring the Republican debates. There have been many, and I’ve watched the news reports summarizing them, and I’ve been following the media focus as it swung from Gingrich to Bachmann to Perry to Cain to Romney (more or less).

I’m not going to be voting for any of these people under any circumstances, so any attention I pay to them is purely academic. The only heartening thing for me is that Jon Huntsman is in the race, and he seems to be the last of the “sane centrist Republican” Mohicans. The last of that Bill Weld, Christie Whitman type Republicans who are fiscally responsible, smart, open to new ideas, and didn’t gay-bait or scare people by screaming “SHARIA LAW” every three secons.

Cain has gained traction with his 9-9-9 tax reform proposal, which would raise taxes on every American except the wealthy. It’s a Republican’s wet dream, that. (They love to remind you that 47% of Americans are too poor to pay federal income taxes – they do, however, pay state sales, income, and other taxes). Except part of that “9” is a federal consumption tax, which would act like the Canadian GST, only 2 points higher. If Cain’s plan became law, we here in Erie County would pay 17 3/4% sales tax, and Cain’s plan.  I can’t imagine a more regressive and punitive tax on the middle class and poor.  Well, maybe the idea that someone making $12,000 per year needs to pay the same tax rate as someone making $120,000 or $1,200,000 per year.  Hell, even Grover Norquist dislikes Cain’s idea.

In any event, I’ll be paying more attention shortly, and here are a couple of videos that I found interesting.

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Class Warfare

20 Sep

Demanding that multimillionaires with offshore accounts pay taxes on their income, just like you or I, is not class warfare.

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Learning Massachusetts’ Lessons

6 Feb
Massachusetts coat of arms.png

We Could Learn a Thing or Two

This is an extraordinarily significant article. Massachusetts, a Northeast liberal bastion if ever there was one, taxes its people far, far less than New York. The Buffalo News’ Tom Precious likens the commonwealth’s Proposition 2 1/2 to Cuomo’s current tax-cap proposal.

How has that shaken things out in the 30 years since Massachusetts property taxes have been limited in growth?

“I can’t remember the last time I talked about anyone’s property taxes,” said Carl Bradford, a retired financial planner whose large colonial home sits a couple miles from the New York border. His property tax bill is at least a third less than that of a comparable home across the border.

Bradford looked a bit confused when asked if property taxes ever made him think about retiring elsewhere.

“It’s never occurred to me,” Bradford said as he cleaned snow off a neighbor’s car one recent day.

His house in western Massachusetts — a mostly rural area but a cultural mecca, especially in the summertime — is worth nearly $600,000. His tax bill is about $4,500.

Just 45 minutes away, in the Albany suburbs, the owner of a house worth half as much is likely to pay nearly twice as much in property taxes.

We can talk about our culturals, preservation of old buildings, and a sense of place all day and night, but the bottom line is that people won’t come here, participate in our economy, and enable us to do all of those wonderful things until and unless the political and taxation climate in New York is fundamentally altered.  Luckily, we’ve just elected a governor who not only promised to do that, but is actually doing so, and has the political capital to get it accomplished.

But how has Massachusetts compensated?  Have services been reduced to something resembling Alabama or New Hampshire?  Do they have a high sales tax?  Nope. They changed their culture.  They adapted.  They learned.

Critics say it reduced services, especially in the early years, in such areas as public education before the state stepped in during the early 1990s with more money for school districts.

But Massachusetts also has undergone a tax attitude change.

Soon after the limit was imposed, more fire agencies and schools merged. Some villages got rid of their local police departments. By the end of the 1990s, county governments — which cannot impose their own separate sales tax — were all but abolished, except for providing a few services such as running jails. Unlike New York, where property owners can receive separate bills for county, municipal and school taxes, Massachusetts residents receive a single bill.

The limit has affected other taxation.

In 1980, Massachusetts had the nation’s second highest state and local tax burden, only slightly behind New York.

By 2008, Massachusetts was number 23 — at $3,600 per capita.

By comparison, New York, at $4,850 per capita, ranked second and was waging a pitched battle against New Jersey for first place, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Tax Foundation.

New York has the sixth highest sales taxes, while Massachusetts is number 31.

Let’s learn from others’ successes, not repeat our own failure.

Vice-Based Economy

19 Mar

Evans & West Seneca Vote Today to Downsize

3 Jun

West Seneca votes today to reduce the size of its town board from 5 to 3, and Evans votes to downsize from 4 to 2. Will this make a significant dent in the tax burden we carry in WNY? It might help Evans and West Seneca in a small, incremental way. Is this going to spark some momentum in communities throughout WNY to do something similar? Somewhat doubtful.

While I agree with Kevin Gaughan’s assessment that we have too many people in government, in an overall, generic sense, this sort of baby-step incremental reduction isn’t going to have any significant impact. Its significance is symbolic – that the people are being consulted to reduce the size of their own government. That is a good thing, and a good precedent to set – it can be done.

The problem isn’t so much personnel as it is layers. We have to many government entities and taxing authorities in New York. Eliminate those, the personnel go with them, and en masse.

The Cost is high, but most people don’t have a problem with their local governmental entity. Except maybe in Amherst, where Ringling couldn’t put on a better circus. If people’s ire was directed more towards the redundant and bloated levels of government and administration we have overall, we’d be making some real progress.

Spending

2 Apr

According to the Empire Center for New York:

Calibrated to the Legislature’s estimate of $131.8 billion in “all funds” spending under the enacted budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, the Empire Center’s “Spend-O-Meter” spins at the following rates:

$4,179 per second
$250,761 per minute
$15,045,662 per hour
$361,095,890 per day
$2,534,615,385 per week
$10,983,333,333 per month

The state motto “Excelsior” does not refer to “spending”.

If You Give Wall Street A Cookie…

27 Jan

Citigroup is trading at $3.33/share this morning. Its 52-week high is $29.73, and between 2004 – 2007, it routinely traded between $45 – $60/share. So, if you’re long on C, you’re probably kind of pissed off now.

Made even more so by the fact that Citigroup is selling a couple of older Dassault business jets, and purchasing a brand-new Dassault 7x for $50 million.

Citigroup just got through receiving $50 billion in taxpayer rescue funding.

It doesn’t really matter whether the two jets on sale will cover the price of the new one. It’s about perception as much as it is about reality.

If your company is on the dole, you don’t need a new jet.

If you don’t need a new jet, you probably don’t need any jet.

If you don’t need any jet, you should frankly be flying commercial. Business class when available, but preferably coach. If it’s good enough for us proles, it’s good enough for you.