Thursday, September 25, 2014

Democrats should support DC Statehood because it's morally right and because it gives them more power

Earlier this month, a Senate panel considered a bill to create a new state out of most of DC, and though the bill is unlikely to pass, or even be voted on, it was in and of itself an accomplishment since it was the first time a congressional committee has considered DC statehood in over 20 years (the last time was a 1994 "informational hearing" in the Senate).

The last, and only, time Congress took a vote on DC statehood was 1993. Similar to the bill now, no one expected it to pass, despite the fact that President Clinton had voiced support for it and Democrats controlled both houses. But even though a majority of Democrats (and one Republican) supported it, more than 100 Democrats voted against it.

Opposition was varied, with some similarities and differences with today. Opponents argued then, as they do now, that statehood is unconstitutional.

Others argued that the new state would not be able to support itself without federal assistance, an argument that DC's balanced budget and full coffers makes less relevant today, even with the nearly $600 million in federal aid the District gets. "Should we be granted long overdue statehood, the District will be prepared to take on any responsibilities and mandates associated with being a state," Mayor Vincent Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy recently stated.

Another argument against statehood came from members like Rep. Tom Delay R-TX, who argued that DC was too mismanaged, "The District hasn't even shown the ability to govern itself as a city, let alone as a state" and added "The District is a liberal bastion of corruption and crime. Let's take it back and clean it up" and while DC's recent corruption issues have not helped, DC is a long way from the days when the control board took over.

Others were concerned that the District was too small, geographically and economically, to make it as a state and a few Republicans were openly worried that DC statehood would only add more Democrats to the House and Senate.

Among Democrats, most of the opposition was of two types. There were Congresspersons from Virginia and Maryland who voted against the bill out of concern that DC would institute a commuter tax, "They would take hundreds of millions of dollars from suburbanites to help the state of New Columbia," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., D-VA. And then there were Democrats from the south, the same group that had opposed home rule in 1973, some of whom, like Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, have since become Republicans.

What if the DC Statehood bill had passed? How would things have been different with New Columbia?

In addition to New Columbia's right to full home rule and the end of Congressional interference in local affairs, the other major difference would have manifested itself, as Republicans feared, in the Senate.

One more Democratic representative would have never changed control of the House from Republican to Democrat and likely would have had little impact elsewhere, and though the Electoral College would have lost one member, that wouldn't have changed the outcome; but in the Senate, adding two, almost surely Democratic seats would have swung the body to the Democrats for one period and changed the outcome on votes on many others.

During Bush's first term, Republicans controlled the Senate from the end of January 2001 to the beginning of June in 2001. With 2 Democratic Senators From New Columbia, Democrats would have controlled the Senate during that time, and that's the time when the first Bush tax cuts passed, which would have significantly strengthened their hand during those negotiations.

Furthermore, throughout Bush's presidency, Vice-President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote on 8 occasions, but with New Columbia's Senators those would have surely not been ties. These votes were not trivial issues either
These are things Democrats widely opposed and represent causes they care deeply about. With DC Statehood, these outcomes or the laws passed, would have been changed.

Finally, during Obama's first term, DC's Senators would have extended the time that Democrats had a super-majority from three scattered periods totaling about 5 months, to one, continuous 10 month period.

Two additional Democratic votes would have even helped during the super-majority period. Concessions made to gain the individual votes of conservative Democrats to break the filibuster for the Affordable Care Act would not have been needed. The public option, for example, was dropped in order to get the vote of Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, and concessions on abortion funding and what was later known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" were made to get the vote of Ben Nelson.  With Senators from New Columbia, one of these deals would not have been needed.

Opposition has been partisan, and so has support, but Democrats need to unite in seeing it that way

Not since the 23rd Amendment was passed in the early 1960's and the DC Home Rule Act passed in 1973 have Republicans shown much support for DC voting rights or home rule, and in most cases they've shown outright opposition. Only Democrats, lukewarm though it may have been at times, have been moved by the cause.

In the last three periods during which Democrats have had full control of the legislative process (House, Senate and Presidency) some sort of DC voting rights legislation has been seriously considered or passed.

In 1978, the DC Voting Rights Amendment was passed by the Democratic House and Senate . But it was only ratified by 16 states before it expired in 1985.

The next opportunity came in 1993-95 when the Statehood vote failed. By that time DC had held a constitutional convention (in 1982), passed a state constitution and chosen the name New Columbia for the proposed state.

The most recent opportunity came in 2009-2011, and this time voting rights proponents were focused on the DC Voting Rights Act. The DC Voting Rights Act would have given DC one representative in the House. After failing three times in Republican-controlled Houses, it first passed in 2007, when Democrats were in control. But it failed in the Senate, despite support from a majority of members, because it could not overcome a Republican filibuster. Finally in 2009, with Democrats again in control, the bill passed in the Senate. Republican Senator John Ensign, however, had successfully attached an amendment that would have gutted DC's gun laws and removing that amendment proved impossible, so it was never submitted to the House.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has said that one thing preventing DC Statehood is that it is "not a national issue," but the chance that New Columbia would have been able to preserve the public option, stop the Bush tax cuts and/or prevent cuts to Medicare makes it very much a national issue.

There are all kinds of moral reasons to support DC voting rights. It is a civil rights issue and those who oppose it are on the wrong side of history. There's even a practical reason to support it, namely that DC Statehood, and the end of the 23rd Amendment, would reduce the chance of a tie-vote for President by changing the number of electoral college votes from an even number to an odd one. But so far those non-partisan reasons have been crushed under the foot of partisan politics by Republicans. Perhaps it's time for advocates to use partisan politics to its advantage.

DC Statehood is good for America and the right thing to do, but it also means that Democrats control the Senate more often. It means Democrats get an extra half seat in the House. DC Statehood means that Democrats pass more of the laws they want, and stop more of the laws they oppose. That's why every Democrat should support DC Statehood.

The upcoming midterms are turning into a battle for control of the Senate, and one would have to suspect that right now Democrats were wishing that they had two DC Senators seated among them. If they should lose control of the Senate, DC voting rights advocates should remind them of the chances they've already squandered and prepare them to vote for DC Statehood the next time they get the chance.

**For those concerned with a Commuter Tax, the solution is simple. DC could earn about $1.2 B from a commuter tax. Currently the federal government pays for DC's criminal justice system at the cost of about $600M. Simply add a line to the DC Statehood law that ends this relationship if DC enacts a commuter tax and then sends the savings to Maryland and Virginia in proportion to their lost tax revenue from a commuter tax. Or increase DC's payment by $600M to make them whole.

***DC Statehood would change the Electoral College from 538 members to 537. In some years, when the state that lost a seat in the House to give one to DC is "Blue" that would hurt Democrats by changing a tie to a loss, in other years it would hurt Republicans when that state is "Red." This is random and it's likely a 50-50 proposition. And it's unclear how a tie would play out. So it's possible that DC Statehood will change the outcome of future presidential elections, but to whose advantage it's impossible to say. It's a coin toss.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tiger Woods and the difficult path to 19 Majors

Tiger Woods set the goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. For 14 years, he has been on track to do just that, with each of his major victories coming earlier than Nicklaus', but late last month Tiger did something he rarely does. He fell behind. If Woods wins his 15th, he'll be older than Nicklaus was when he won his 15th.

Tiger needs four more Major wins to tie Nicklaus, and 5 to pass him. How hard will that be? 5 Major wins alone would give a player the 20th best career total. So, he now needs to have the 20th best Major golf tournament career in golf history - starting at 38. He needs to win more majors from this point than Ernie Els has over his career. Starting now, he needs to have Byron Nelson's entire Majors career. Not easy.

There have been only 10 major winners over the age of 43, and none of them have repeated. If Woods is limited to the same total,  he needs to win 4 majors over the next 5 years. Early in his career that would have been easy, from the time he was 19 until he was 29, there was never a 5 year period where he failed to win 4 majors. But that was 8 years ago. This is the real testament to what Nicklaus did - not that he won 14 by the time he was 38 (though that is still an incredible feat, only matched by one person) but that he then went on to win 4 more. Even if Woods does do that, then he still needs to win one more over the age of 43. The oldest major winner in history was 48. So the window closes in about 10 years.

If Woods can't win 4 over the next 5 years, then he needs 2 wins over 43. That would be a first.

So, in order to break Nicklaus' major record, he will likely have to break other records, like oldest Major winner, most Majors over 40 etc...He's still the tour's top player - last year's Player of the Year with top 5 finishes in two majors, but his injuries and the steady march of time are working against him.

I think 10 years ago I would have bet on Woods to break the record, but now I'd bet against it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DC's Tax Reform still leaves us taxing the wrong people and the wrong things

The tax reform that Council Chair Mendelson rushed through last week represents a very large change in DC's tax code. In addition to being rushed through quickly, it also contains several flaws.

The District of Columbia has perhaps the most progressive tax system in the United States, nonetheless one of the goals of the commission in the authorizing legislation was to make it more progressive as the tax rate for the bottom 20% (6.6% of income) is higher than for the top 1% (6.1% of income). The commission therefore takes several steps to make DC's taxes more progressive, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and reducing the tax on income between $40,000 and $80,000. But other changes, like raising the threshold for the estate tax and lowering the tax rate on high income earners, counteract those changes. DCFPI points out that the cuts for high earners are a "minority" of the total cuts, but what isn't clear - in either the tax commission's proposal or the budget that the council voted for last week - is whether or not it will actually be more progressive once all the changes are considered, and if so, by how much. The chart below is from the commission's report and shows the current DC tax paid by income group, with the middle 20% paying the highest rate. What would such a chart look like under the bill approved last week? That's a question that isn't answered.



Some of the counter-progressive proposals don't even make much sense when the justification is considered. The tax rate on income above $350,000 is lowered to a rate below Maryland's to send "a positive signal about the District's commitment to controlling taxes." That's an expensive signal and not one of the committee's goals.

In addition, the threshold for the estate tax is raised (meaning people inheriting large sums pay less tax) not to keep the wealthy from moving away (it will, after all, lower tax receipts), but to simplify the tax code and make auditing easier - also not a goal. When Congress voted to raise the threshold for the "death tax", DC's lone voice in Congress disagreed with it, but now DC is following Congress' lead, even though a reduced estate tax works against the goal of making the tax code more progressive. Even if cutting taxes for the wealthy is a good idea, an argument for cutting taxes on work is easier to justify than one on inheriting is.

The new budget doesn't even eliminate the exemption for out of state bonds even though the commission admitted that they struggled "to find a policy justification for the exemption," noting that it mostly benefits high-income residents and that, because DC gives a blanket exemption instead of reciprocal exemptions, it "not only represent substantial lost revenue for the District, but such broad relief eliminates an incentive for residents to purchase District bonds over those from other jurisdictions. In other words, it essentially subsidizes investments outside the District."

In addition to the inclusion of these bad ideas there were several ideas that were not considered at all, ones that would make the system more progressive, while also reducing the total federal burden of DC tax payers.

For example, if DC were one taxpayer, their accountant might recommend that they pay as much of their local tax in the form of property tax and either income or sales tax, since that money would then be deductible on federal returns. Instead DC assesses all three taxes on citizens and charges some fees that aren't based on property value, but could be.

DC could reduce or eliminate the sales tax. Many DC residents are unable to deduct this tax, and eliminating it would make the DC tax system more progressive while making DC businesses more competitive. It's at least as positive a signal about the District's commitment to controlling taxes as lowering taxes on the wealthy is. This could be offset with an increase in property and/or income taxes or with a tax on pollution.

DC could replace vehicle registration, license and inspection fees with a revenue-neutral annual vehicle property tax based on the value of the car similar to the excise tax. Such a tax would then be tax deductible, with the added advantage of being more progressive.

A Pivgovian tax on pollution, as referenced earlier, could help make the city cleaner while raising revenue. One way to to that would be to raise the gas tax. Last year, DC modified the gas tax to index it to inflation, but DC's gas tax is still lower than Maryland's and in the bottom half nationwide. Raising the gas tax would do more to capture the negative externalities associated with gasoline use, and make those who use gasoline responsible for paying those costs.

Or DC could tax carbon. Adding carbon to the atmosphere causes global warming and ocean acidification, and a tax on this would pass the cost of these side effects on to polluters. Though DC doesn't have any coal burning power plants left, DC could still join Maryland and eight other states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and use the allowance proceeds to cut the sales tax. For example, Maryland has made $190 million on its proceeds over the last 4 years.

DC could also increase the impervious area charge

Do some councilmembers support such changes and modifications over the ones in the budget? Possibly, but we'll likely never know. Because no one got a chance to discuss it.

DC Tax reform and cuts should not be rushed through without debate

A couple of weeks ago, the DC council held an initial vote on the District's 2015 budget that includes tax reform that was recommended by the District of Columbia Tax Revision Commission.

As part of the fiscal 2012 budget, the District of Columbia created a Tax Revision Commission to analyze the District's tax system and propose innovative approaches to meet future revenue needs. In February the commission completed its work and produced a set of recommendations that it hopes will make taxes more progressive, while attracting more business and ensuring future revenue. After the proposals became public in December, Mayor Gray only supported a few of them and it looked as though the proposals would not become law. But then, starting Memorial Day weekend, Chairman Mendelson announced that he would attempt to implement many of those recommendations.

While the commission's plan has much to admire and gets kudos from outside groups like the Tax Policy Center and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, these reforms are very complex, and Mendelson's attempt to enact them at the last minute has left almost no opportunity to debate them. A final vote on the package is set for June 17, and Mendelson says it will be difficult to make any changes to it before then. I think this is all by design. In fact, I hate to say it, but I agree with Marion Barry. Mendelson is behaving like a “tyrant” for arranging the last-minute vote on the tax package and for limiting debate.

Now, normally the "going to fast" claim is one made by NIMBY's who want to stop a change, and I normally oppose it. But this is different. The equivalent would be for DDOT to put together a committee to redesign 16th street and then after that committee submits its recommendations for DDOT to decide not to implement them, but then for DPW to announce that they were creating a final design based on the recommendations that they would make available for approval the next day (with limited debate) and then implement two weeks later. The committee part went at a normal speed, but the end was rushed. Legislation shouldn't move this fast from recommendation to implementation.

There are three problems here:

1. Once Gray made it clear that he was not going to implement the recommendations of the commission to which he appointed half of the members, everyone quit paying attention. This is why the yoga tax has now become such a big deal. But this budget modifies dozens of taxes, in ways that have not been studied, and people need time to consider that.

2. There might be an argument for moving quickly on this if the Council is just going to rubber stamp the committee's recommendations, but there should still be some time for debate on the actual law proposed, not just the recommendations. Nonetheless, the Council really shouldn't act as a rubber stamp for a commission that most of its members had no say in selecting (only the Mayor and Council Chair picked members).

3. The council isn't even acting as a rubber stamp. They've made several critical diversions from the recommendations, and so this pacing is particularly inappropriate then.

Among the recommendations that Mendelson ignored, this most critical was to make the tax reform into a tax cut. This tax cut is a result of the decision to ignore commission recommendations to raise the sales tax (an increase I oppose) and to levy a "local service fee" on employers that is designed as a proxy to the commuter tax. The only way to fund this cut was to cut future funding for the streetcar.

Mendelson dismissed criticism of the late addition of these changes, and the limits he placed on debate, "saying the recommendations of the tax commission had been public since December." This is true, but he never let it be known that he would pursue these recommendations. If he done that in December, instead of the day before the vote, the public and the council would have had adequate time to consider and debate them. Such a radical change at such a late point is all-too-reminiscent of the District's controversial last-minute settlement with Jeffrey Thompson's company in 2011.

As an example, the yoga tax isn't actually mentioned in the recommendations, and the word yoga is nowhere in the report. Instead it is a tax on health clubs. So it would be reasonable for the public to not realize that yoga is to be taxed. Add to this that a specific function of the commission was:

"To identify economic activities which are either beneficial or detrimental to the District's economy and which should be either encouraged or discouraged through tax policy."

and one can see how yoga enthusiasts were caught off guard, despite the recommendations being out since December.

The tax reform represents some pretty big changes. Ones that I'm sure that many on the council oppose. Such large changes, some submitted at the very last minute, deserve more debate than the council of residents have been afforded.

In my next post, I'll discuss flaws in the proposed tax reform.

ESPN borrows my idea

I actually very much doubt they got the idea from me. But this post on how Mack Brown's leaving Texas rippled through the college coaching world is similar - if broader in scope - to mine.

ESPN's

Mine

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Winning the Show: Malcolm in the Middle

With Godzilla out, I thought I would do Malcolm in the Middle, Bryan Cranston's old show. Cranston is the star of Godzilla, FYI. Anyway, I watched the show and liked it. There a quite a few great jokes from it that I quote and it was a show that did a great job with the call-back (like the gerbil in his plastic ball that would periodically show up). The two-shows-in-one (one about the family and one focused on Francis, with two rarely meeting) was, and still is, unique in television; it isn't talked about as much as one would expect and was never emulated, but I could see how it would make the writing easier.

If you were a fan of the show, then you probably expected Jane Kaczmarek, who played Lois the mom to break out. She got an Emmy nomination every year the show was on. But it hasn't worked out that way. Bryan Cranston landed on Breaking Bad one of the best shows of recent times, for which he won four Emmys and a Golden Globe. He's had steady work and shown up in several hit shows and the movie Argo. Clearly he has won Malcolm in the Middle. How do the rest stack up? It gets tough with child actors, but I'd rank them thus:

1. Bryan Cranston (4 Emmy wins and 3 other nominations, 1 Golden Globe win and 3 other nominations, 1 big hit show, 2 hit movies, and steady work)
2. Jane Kaczmarek (steady work)
3. Frankie Muniz (steady work)
4. Christopher Masterson (sporadic work)
5. Justin Berfield (1 role, some production work)
6. Erik Per Sullivan (4 roles)

It gets tough between Kaczmarek and Muniz, but the former has been on a few series and the latter has not.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Winning the Show: A recurring feature

A friend of mine and I have this stupid game we've played since we were kids called "winning the show". The basic idea is to take a television show that has been off the air for some amount of time and to then decide which of the featured actors on the show has gone on to have the best career. So, for example, if the show were Family Ties, the winner would be Michael J. Fox.

Sometimes it's easy to pick the winner (ER, Moonlighting, Alias). Sometimes it's hard to come up with one (Webster) and sometimes it's hard to pick from a few very solid possibilities (Cheers or The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

The rules are that:

1. The actor has to be featured for at least one year, no guest appearances. So Leonardo DiCaprio can, and does, win Growing Pains, just as Ralph Macchio wins Eight is Enough, but Kurt Russel's one appearance does not win him Gilligan's Island.

2. Anything can be considered in their career. So Ron Howard can win Happy Days, even though he went into directing (whether he does is debatable) and Gopher can win The Love Boat because he went into Congress.

3. But in general, a featured role on a hit TV show (one that lasts more than 2 years, or preferably 5), leading role in a hit movie, or awards are what really seal the deal. Steady work and good guest appearances can also factor in.

4. Only work AFTER they leave the show counts. Katherine Heigl will get no credit for Knocked Up when Grey's Anatomy finally goes off the air.

4. No looking at your phone/the internet. You have to go from memory.

If we really want to push it, we might try to rank the cast from winner to loser. So for Friends, that might look like this (I confess that I went to IMDB to help with this. It's for education):

Jennifer Aniston (Meet the Millers, Marley and Me and one Emmy nomination)
Matt LeBlanc (Episodes, one Golden Globe win, two other Golden Globe nominations, and two Emmy nominations)
Lisa Kudrow (Web Therapy and three Emmy nominations)
Courtney Cox (Cougar Town and one Golden Globe nomination)
Matthew Perry (The Ron Clark Story, one Golden Globe nomination and one Emmy nomination)
David Schwimmer (The Madagascar movies)

It's actually a tough one to rank. LeBlanc and Kudrow haven't worked as much as Cox or Perry, but what they have done has been more successful and they've been noticed for it. Perry and Schwimmer have both landed basically one good role, but Perry gets more work and Schwimmer hasn't been nominated for any awards. Aniston wins because she's still a legitimate leading lady in movies. The whole cast has basically bunched up and more time is needed before someone breaks out from the pack the way Julia Louis-Dreyfus did from her Seinfeld cast mates. Before Episodes, LeBlanc was clearly losing, for example.

Anyway, there you go. You now have a new bar game. Expect to see semi-regular editions of this as I declare who has won certain shows from time to time. The grand-daddy of them all will be SNL (which obviously is still on the air, but I'll make an exception. Spoiler alert: the winner is Robert Downy Jr.)