Things We Read Today (47), Wednesday

Taxes, Sweet Taxes

You may have seen that a familiar crew of liberal legislators in the Rhode Island House has proposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.  H5225 is the handiwork of Edith Ajello (D, Providence), Arthur Handy (D, Cranston), Teresa Tanzi (D, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Maria Cimini (D, Providence), and Larry Valencia (D, Richmond, Exeter, and Hopkinton), and it is doubly objectionable.

The first head-shaking aspect of the bill is the $1.28-per-gallon level of the tax.  Today, I just happened to be reviewing Rhode Island’s various per-gallon taxes on a variety of liquids, and it breaks down as follows:

  • Gasoline: $0.33
  • Beer: $0.11
  • Wine: $0.60
  • Hard liquor: $3.75

On the hit list of sin taxes, our leading liberals apparently find sweet drinks to be nearly twelve times as sinful as beer, twice as sinful as wine, and almost four times as sinful as the evil petrol by which we pollute the atmosphere while driving ourselves around (prior to drinking our gallons of adult beverages). Perhaps they thought it would be too laughable to rate soda as more wicked than drinks that can knock you unconscious in just a few ounces.

Even worse, though, is that the money wouldn’t just go into the General Fund to be wasted on the usual government indulgences.  Rather, it would go into a dedicated fund within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services that would be paid out to organizations in a quest to modify the behavior of Rhode Islanders in a way that the government decides is healthy.  In other words, you’ll be paying them to harangue you about your lifestyle and other personal choices.

Of course, many of you won’t be paying anything, because you’ll just add sugary drinks to the list of things to buy on a quick run across the border.  Not only do neither Connecticut nor Massachusetts have sugar sin taxes, but Massachusetts exempts alcoholic beverages and soda from its sales tax.

I just recently discovered, by the way, that the BJ’s in Seekonk sells beer and wine.  I’ve never seen alcohol in a BJ’s before, but Rhode Island has done quite a bit to make that a valuable bit of Massachusetts real estate.

Getting That Union Thumb Back on the Scale

Meanwhile, a union-backed crew is at its own legislative game. H5219 is another one of those fun bills that hides its real effect from the official description that appears in most places, which says the bill would “eliminate longevity payments for any state employee, as well as, any employees of the Board of Governors of Higher Education, the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, and of quasi public corps. not in a collective bargaining agreement.”

Putting aside the exception for union employees, that sounds like a step in the direction of limiting government payroll spending, no?  Well, no.

What the bill actually does is to repeal the law that ended longevity payments for all state employees beginning in fiscal year 2012. But it leaves the ban in place for those that aren’t union workers, which provides the basis for the spin in the description.

For those of you keeping score, the names on that bill are: Representatives William San Bento (D, Pawtucket), Thomas Palangio (D, Providence), Scott Guthrie (D, Coventry), Robert Jacquard (D, Cranston), and Joseph Almeida (D, Providence).

While you’ve got your pen out, make note of the names on H5221: Representatives John DeSimone (D, Providence), Scott Slater (D, Providence), Guthrie (again), Raymond Johnston (D, Pawtucket), and Peter Palumbo (D, Cranston).

There are two reasons to raise objections to this bill.  What it professes to do is to reinstate 3% cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for low-income pensions, those that pay out less than one-and-a-half times the poverty level.

The first problem is that it doesn’t consider the retiree’s income, just the pension payout.  A state retiree with a lucrative second career would still receive the increases if his pension is relatively small.

And that’s not all: the calculation applies only to the defined-benefit portion of the pension.  So, as the new hybrid plan shifts more and more of retirees’ actual income to the defined-contribution portions of their pensions (to which taxpayers throw in 1% of pay per year), they’ll be more and more likely to qualify for COLAs.

The second problem is that I can only offer the above analysis tentatively because the drafting of the language is so horrible:

In order to receive the annual benefit adjustment, the retiree must provide a certified earnings statement that proves their annual income from the defined benefit plan(s) is one hundred fifty percent (150%) below the federal poverty level to the retirement system.

What does “150% below the federal poverty level” mean?  That the state is taking money away from the retiree?

Highlighting the Unfair Union Pay Regime

Moving away from legislation, but sticking with unions, I spotted an interesting line in a recent Jennifer Jordan article in the Providence Journal:

MaryAnn Snider, who has led the development of the state evaluation system, says the alarm gripping school districts is unwarranted, as the vast majority of teachers will score well enough to keep their jobs.

The intent of the system, she says, is to give teachers and principals feedback so they can improve.

“Prior to this work, essentially everyone was told they were terrific,” Snider said. “So when we move away from that, just the thought that you are less than wonderful in all regards is difficult to accept.”

It’s discouraging, of course, to think how pervasive the cult of self-esteem must be if there’s organized resistance to efforts to shatter professionals’ delusions of perfection.  More important, though, is the thinking that an accurate rating system might encourage.

It doesn’t matter, so much, that very few teachers would score on evaluations low enough (for long enough) to actually lose their jobs.  More importantly, it can become a bitter pill for truly excellent teachers, or even just the better-than-average ones, that every skin-of-her-teeth teacher on the same step receives the same salary.  Worse still would be the stark comparison of step 10 mediocrities to early-career shining stars.

That would help explain why the article emphasizes opposition to making the results public.

All the News That Fits the Agenda

How broadly do Rhode Islanders read?  I mean, among those who make the effort to follow the news, how many look for perspectives from across the opinion-journalism divide as well as across the left-right spectrum?  I suspect a count wouldn’t be overwhelming.

I ask because here’s what I found on the front page, above the fold, of Saturday’s Providence Journal:

Job Market Strengthens

U.S. economy shows signs of health even though unemployment ticked up last month

That is what people who glanced at the top of the paper as they were out and about on Saturday would have seen. The article by the conspicuously named Paul Wiseman begins as follows:

The U.S. job market is proving surprisingly strong and raising hopes that the economy will be resilient enough this year to withstand a budget standoff in Washington and potentially deep cuts in federal spending.

“Surprisingly strong”!  “Resilient”!  “I haven’t laughed like this since Airplane 2!”

Even adjusting for my political bias, I think it’s fair to say that it would be a healthy leaven for the folks who glanced at the Providence Journal’s “news” message also to read the Investors Business Daily editorial “Obama’s Jobless Recovery Continues Unabated“:

So the economy created 157,000 new payroll jobs in January. Wow. At this rate, we might actually get back down to Bush-era unemployment rates sometime, oh, within the next 100 years. …

It took an average of just 24 months to regain all the jobs lost in the previous nine recessions. But at the current Obama job-creation pace, it will take about 80 months to regain those lost jobs.

And this doesn’t factor in the growth in the number of job seekers over the past five years, which makes the real jobs gap more like 9 million.

So what’s the real picture look like?  Or perhaps we should ask first: How many Americans even know to ask the question.

An Emblem of the Civil Rights Movement

Alright.  I’ve debated back and forth whether to mention this, but let me tack one more bill on the end, here.

On the last day of January, the Rhode Island House passed a resolution by unanimous voice vote.  The first part of the resolution is worthy and admirable — namely, to designate December 1 as “Rosa Parks Human Rights Day.”  But the second part is to “urge” the Public Transportation Authority to make all public transportation free on that day every year.

The cost to RIPTA is an open question… although the cost to the legislators of “urging” the expense is clearly minimal.  But my recollection from history class is that Rosa Parks didn’t object to paying her fare.  It was a matter of choosing a place to sit.

Sadly, the legislative impulse strikes me as all too emblematic of what the civil rights movement has done with the heroic actions of its first generation.  If “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has transformed into affirmative action, it may be only fitting that an assertion of equality would be memorialized with a free ride.