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When ‘cut, cut, cut’ doesn’t work PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010 15:44

Spending freezes like the one county officials want can punish taxpayers by eroding services in the quest for a no-tax-increase budget

In their dreams.

That’s where tax freezes work—in the dreams of elected officials who indulge the fantasy that refusing to raise taxes regardless of need is a responsible way to manage the delivery of services to taxpayers.

In reality, arbitrary limits on the tax levy diminish or deny needed services and can actually work against frugality in government by punishing efficiently run departments, where there is no waste to eliminate or fat to cut, and rewarding those not making the best use of their funding by locking in the status quo. Moreover, tax freezes defer rather than eliminate tax increases, which can be shocking when it’s time to catch up.

Proponents may think that tax freezes earn the undying love of taxpayers, but that may be wishful thinking. Thoughtful citizens understand that balancing the need for government services with the burden to be borne by taxpayers is not as simple as declaring no more tax increases. They expect their elected representatives to do the hard work of discerning which services are adequately funded, or over funded, and which need more tax money to provide essential services.

Ozaukee County officials got a wake-up call from their tax-freeze dream last week when Sheriff Maury Straub pointed out the consequences of the county edict requiring departments to submit budgets that will not increase the tax levy.

Straub called the 0% increase mandate, which amounts to a tax freeze, short sighted and called on the County Board to “do the right thing and find revenue to run county business properly so I can do my job of ensuring public safety in Ozaukee County.”

To do that job, he said, his department needs an increase of $266,823—about 3%.

Did County Board members hear this? If not, they must be closing their ears, because Straub speaks with a louder voice than other county department heads, by virtue of his department’s role as not only the county’s law enforcement agency, but as a significant producer of county revenue through the prisoner boarding program.

Straub’s frustration is rooted not just in the current no-budget-increase mandate, but in years of budget squeezes. “Over the years we have been asked to eliminate excess spending, provide only those services that are mandated, defer needed projects and maximize our revenues,” Straub said. “We have done that. We are squeezing every last drop of blood from the turnip.”

Another county department head put it this way: “Every year it’s cut, cut, cut so we can have the lowest levy in the state. You just knew that was going to come back to bite them one day.
Well, guess what, that day has come.”

Ozaukee County has indeed had the lowest county tax rate in the state, but that is a meaningless distinction if services are compromised as a result.

A strong distrust of growth in the size of government is frequently evident on the County Board. That’s fine as a philosophy, but in practice it ill serves the public to limit spending regardless of need on ideological grounds.

No one wants higher taxes, especially when many taxpayers are feeling the effects of a poorly performing economy and, yes, this is a time for spending restraint and efficiency. But when
legitimate need for services increases, it’s the duty of elected officials to try to supply the wherewithal to meet the need.

Arbitrary tax freezes and spending limits are no way to do that.

An air of incivility PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 25 August 2010 17:09

Unlike the bad-behaving flight attendant and passenger, most of the public politely endures the affronts of airline incivility

While the flight attendant who deployed and slid down an airliner evacuation slide after broadcasting an obscenity-laced rant over the plane’s public address system basked in his celebrity, pundits weighed in with their interpretations of the true meaning of his act.

Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, well regarded enough in his craft that he once won a Pulitzer prize, opined that the airline employee’s actions were a protest against “the growing incivility of our daily lives.”

And here we thought it was just a prank. Steve Slater, the flight attendant, later told reporters he had been wanting to ride down one of those inflatable slides for a long time. He probably also had long harbored a wish to lift a beer from the plane’s service cart ($5 for passengers) and take it down the slide with him, which he did.

Pitts didn’t anoint Slater as a folk hero, as did a number of Internet bloggers, but he did suggest that his act was a principled protest against the growing impoliteness of the public.

Slater said he was moved to commit his outrageous act by a woman passenger who cursed at him after he told her not to stand up to open an overhead baggage bin while the plane was taxiing. His attorney said the woman hit him on the head with the door of the bin when she closed it.

That certainly sounds uncivil, but the flight attendant trumped it with something nastier even before he inflated the slide. In his snit, he broadcast his foul language for all 100-plus passengers, no doubt including a number of children, to hear. Welcome to the friendly skies.

There was obviously plenty of incivility on display, but the root of the problem was a more pernicious incivility than that exhibited by the two bad-behaving players in this farcical affair—the incivility toward the public displayed daily by airline companies.

Pitts writes about incivility as though it’s a growing defect in the American character, but in fact the public in general seems to exhibit admirable patience and politeness in the face of the shoddy treatment that is the standard for service by most airlines. Were it otherwise, the routine provocations of overbooked flights, cancelled flights, passengers stranded on the tarmac for
hours in stifling planes and the refusal to communicate with passengers about flight delays would have by now fueled a revolution.

The grin-and-bear-it approach is now being further tested by the airlines’ latest affronts, which involve luggage, the trigger for the evacuation-slide flap.   

With the nearly universal practice of charging fees to handle baggage, airline companies have created a powerful disincentive to check bags and a strong incentive to tote luggage aboard and stuff it into the overhead bins.

The result is multiple layers of aggravation. It’s hard to squeeze through narrow aisles with suitcases. It’s difficult for many passengers to lift them in and out of bins. Some bags don’t fit. On full flights, there aren’t enough bins for all the carry-on luggage. The awkward logistics cause delays in boarding and getting off planes and can make the rush to reach connecting flights hell.

There is no defensible rationale for any of this. Airline companies want to make more money. That’s understandable, so raise fares. But don’t create more misery for flyers with fees that force them to clog passenger compartments with bags instead of using the baggage compartments with which airplanes were designed and the elaborate airport baggage handling systems
provided at airports, in many cases at taxpayer expense.

It happens that JetBlue, the carrier on which the escape-slide episode occurred, has one of the more liberal baggage policies—one bag checked free, hefty fees for additional bags—but the carry-on culture is now so pervasive that passengers probably don’t notice.

Think airline insensitivity can’t get any worse? Think again. Spirit Airlines has begun charging fees of up to $45 a bag for carry-on luggage. Next time a slide is inflated, it might be by passengers trying to escape the incivility institutionalized by airline companies.
The privatizers are back PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 18 August 2010 16:46

Even after the Great Recession proved the folly of entrusting Social Security to the markets, a new attack on a government program that works is launched

It turns out that the Great Recession didn’t drive a stake in the heart of the campaign to privatize Social Security after all.

Despite the near financial collapse caused in part by the excesses of Wall Street and the devastating effect it had on the stock market investments of Americans across the economic spectrum, the idea that Social Security payroll deductions and employer contributions should be invested in stocks and other private investments is back.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is proposing changes to Social Security that would result in part of the Social Security taxes paid by people younger than 55 being put into private investments.

The proposal is breathtaking in its denial of reality. Had Americans’ Social Security accounts been invested in the stock market when the bottom dropped out of the economy, the ranks of the elderly impoverished would have increased significantly.

Even after recovery, an average stock market investment today is worth less than it was 10 years ago.

Social Security served as the safety net it was intended to be through the near depression of this decade, giving the retired Americans who had little other income not a high standard of living, but at least a modicum of comfort and, yes, security.

The Social Security program emerged from the recession in surprisingly good shape, considering that contributions were reduced by high unemployment. Its annual report projects that it will be solvent through 2037.

It is true that starting this year Social Security will pay out more than it takes in—a demographic consequence of the Baby Boom generation reaching retirement age—but the surplus accumulated over the years is projected to sustain the program at current rates of contribution and benefits for another quarter century.

The eventual insolvency of Social Security will have to be addressed, of course, but the problem does not justify radical change, nor does it need to be a priority at this time. The U.S. has plenty of higher ranking problems to deal with, including high unemployment, a stagnant economy, the unsustainability of Medicare and a growing deficit that, while not an imminent threat, could cause economic problems down the road.

Social Security is funded by taxes paid by employers and employees and does not add to the deficit. Its future solvency will likely be addressed by adjustments in benefits and payroll taxes.

The American people and Congress made it clear when President George Bush proposed it that they don’t want Social Security to be privatized. And all but a few current Republican members of Congress are keeping their distance from Ryan’s proposal.

Yet Social Security remains an irresistible target for those who insist that government is not the answer to America’s social challenges. Maybe that’s because Social Security is such a persuasive advertisement for the fact that big government programs can actually work.
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