by Bryan

David comes clean: Why I oppose the 1% of the 1%

April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Occupy Baton Rouge

Originally published in The People’s [Censored], Issue 2.

Recently I proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to clarify the meaning of “Freedom of Speech” as a way to attack the legitimacy of private funding of public elections.

“Whereas Freedom of Speech is the liberty to express one’s own opinions and ideas without hindrance, and does not include the right to amplify the speech of others, nor to dominate the discourse in political contests; and

“Whereas a number of Supreme Court rulings have interpreted Freedom of Speech to protect the right of private entities to fund election campaigns and otherwise to use private funds to influence public perception of candidates and issues in the context of political campaigns,

“Be it Resolved that neither Freedom of Speech, nor the Right to Petition Government, nor any other existing constitutional principle abridges the complete and exclusive right of We the People of these United States, through our legislatures, to control and regulate the financial resources through which messages with political intent are communicated to the electorate in connection with political campaigns at the national, state, and local levels.”

The right of private entities—individuals or corporations—to give money to amplify the voice of a political candidate (i.e., to fund electoral campaigns) is most often defended as the constitutionally protected Free Speech rights of those entities. But the right to express controversial and unpopular opinions without fear of sanction—the true meaning of Freedom of Speech—has nothing to do with amplifying the voices of others. Nor does it entail unlimited freedom to amplify one’s own voice during a political campaign, drowning out the voices of less well-funded candidates. We need to remove this fig leaf of legitimacy in order to expose private funding of electoral campaigns for what it is: a naked power grab, a way for the ultra-wealthy to ensure that politicians work for their special interests rather than in the public interest.

This raises the question of what role should the ultra-wealthy play in our society? It seems the American public is very much enamored of its billionaires, quite convinced that what they give to society by way of national competitive advantage through the businesses and industries they create entitles them to special privileges, perhaps even justifies their being able to run the show—what is in their interest surely must be in our interest. At the base of this sentiment is a sense of the rights of a “ruling class” that probably traces back beyond the origins of American democracy to the class system of English society. Although the rhetoric of revolutionary America rejected the idea of a class system, we need to recognize that class-consciousness floats just below the surface of our national conscience.

The idea of a national subconscious operating below the level of our espoused ideals may be unsettling. Many of my fellow travelers on this road to political reform take their ideals seriously; they don’t want them sullied by talk of subconscious forces reflecting our true, underlying, mindset. But I do not share this hubris of pure ideals. I recognize in myself anxieties related to class consciousness: In a true democracy, one not dominated by the ultra-wealthy, would we fall prey to high ideals like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” and wind up in a totalitarian nightmare? Would we redistribute wealth to the extent that incentives to industriousness erode, and we become a weak nation? Might we not ultimately be better off with a political system controlled by the wealthy, even if the extremes of financial inequality we are experiencing now seem excessive and unfair?

I wish I could say that I have overcome these fears, answered these questions, and now wholeheartedly embrace the ideals of true democracy. But I can’t. I share in class-consciousness. What impels me forward in the quest for fundamental political change is not certainty that true democracy will save us, but a growing recognition that the ways of the ultra-wealthy will surely damn us. For, what has evolved over the past couple of decades of increasing domination by the wealthy is pushing us away from the gains of the Enlightenment toward a new Dark Ages.

The Way of the Wealthy

When you think about it, the ultra-wealthy have an astonishingly difficult challenge posed to them by democracy. ‘How can we maintain an economy of amazing disparity between rich and poor within a political system wherein any schmo who happens to get elected by the rabble can propose a new tax structure that confiscates most of my hard-earned income and gradually reduces me to the norm of an increasingly mediocre society?’ This anxiety of the ultra-wealthy needs to be recognized as a relentless and ongoing dilemma; it is not a problem that ever can be fully solved. In a democracy, the rabble does truly have the power. Keeping them from using it in their own financial self-interest is a never-ending struggle.

The solution that the ultra-wealthy have pursued in recent decades—with amazing success!—has been to exploit the natural fault lines that exist in any society between forces of stasis and forces of change. Societies do not exist in a vacuum, but rather within a physical and social ecology wherein circumstances change, populations grow and shrink, food and energy supplies suffice or are insufficient, neighboring societies are aggressive or peaceful. Societies constantly have to modify themselves, their internal structure, to respond to the changing environment they are part of. Nor is the optimal response evident or even unique. Neither are the impacts of change identical for all sectors of a society. As a result the process of change is one that is fraught with tensions.

An excellent exemplar of such change dates back to the European Renaissance during the middle period of the last millennium. During that time, a scientific mentality was emerging that enabled new technologies that could enhance our utilization of the physical world. However, adapting to these new possibilities required huge changes in the structures of society. Construing the world objectively became a new locus of importance that engaged with individual consciousness. Thus the right to authorize knowledge had to shift from religious institutions governed by subjective matters of faith and observance to secular institutions governed by objective reasoning. This democratization of knowledge was hugely difficult and was met with huge resistance. But undergoing it reshaped European societies as far more viable and competitive, enabling them to grow and thrive in the physical, geopolitical, and economic world of the time. In a similar way, societies always are responding to shifting circumstances which therefore produce internal tensions.

The strategy of the ultra-wealthy for political control centers on forming alliances in relation to social tensions so as to coopt vulnerable sectors of society to support desired fiscal policies. This strategy involves magnifying and exacerbating existing social tensions to create the greatest base of support possible for regressive fiscal policy. That strategy has produced “culture wars” that have become so virulent in the U.S. as to hobble government, and periodically even shut it down.

Although the current crises of government are troubling, the long-term damage to society comes not from decisions made in the heat of the political moment, but from the rebalancing of social strata based on the perceived viability of ideas and policies. Broad shifts in the dominance of ideas and institutions are rarely marked by the elimination of social institutions or the ideas they represent, but by the rebalancing of power in relation to other institutions and ideas. Thus the Renaissance did not see the demise of religious institutions, but rather the shifting of some of their power and authority to secular institutions like universities and governments. These new arrangements of power are not fixed, but remain continually open to revision and refinement as physical, social, and geopolitical circumstances change.

Here is where we can see the destructive nature of the alignment of the ultra-wealthy with religion-based social conservatives. Political victories that support conservative social causes and associated religious perspectives create the illusion that those perspectives are viable and adaptive within the modern world. Thus when the ultra-wealthy move to protect their industrial interests by creating faux-science to raise public doubt about, say, the science of global warming, they not only endanger our planet, they also erode the cultural status that science has achieved over hundreds of years, a status earned owing to the adaptive effects of a scientific perspective; this perspective really does enhance our survival.

That’s where we are now. The stature of scientific knowledge and scientific institutions is in decline. Even though, historically, only a small percentage of the population has understood the culture of scientific objectivity, the institutions of science have enjoyed high status and broad support. But in the current era broad sectors of the public see scientists as serving partisan self-interest, and therefore as untrustworthy and unreliable. The faith that once accrued to science is being redistributed partly to religious institutions, but also to conspiracy theorists, Tarot card readers, and millennialists. The fabric of modernism is fraying as we flirt with resurgent pre-modern sensibilities.

The scale of irresponsibility of the ultra-wealthy in their alliance with pre-modern institutions is too vast to contemplate. If unchecked, what will happen to America is easy to anticipate: we will slip quickly into oblivion as a great world power. We already see tell-tale signs in a 10-year Middle-Eastern war entered into without any rational basis by a president who traded in characteristic American pragmatism and rationality for a delusional confidence in America’s Right and America’s Might. We can’t afford for this mentality to continue to dominate.

Will a true democracy necessarily lead us to a great future? I still don’t know the answer to that one. But I do know that without doing something to break the hold of the ultra-wealthy over our political and cultural life, we will drift into superstition, distrust, and dissension as our standing in the world and our way of life disintegrates.

by Bryan

Louisiana’s Hidden State Budget

April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Louisiana Budget Project

Louisiana Budget Project

This article was originally printed in the second issue of the People’s [Censored]. It contains portions of this blog post written by Jan Moller and a full reproduction of the Louisiana Budget Project’s article “Louisiana’s Hidden State Budget” [PDF].

It didn’t get much attention, but at the end of February Gov. Bobby Jindal made what appears to be a dramatic policy shift. Speaking to WWL-TV in New Orleans on the day that President Obama released a plan to cut corporate taxes, Jindal said:

“The reality is, I’m certainly in favor of taking away all of the different subsidies and loopholes in the tax code, but let’s treat everybody fairly. Let’s do that across the board. I think just picking and choosing industries is not the way to go… and that’s what’s gotten us into the trouble in the first place.”

To which the Louisiana Budget Project says: Welcome to the party, governor! What took you so long?

As governor, there isn’t much Jindal can do to Obama’s plan to lower corporate tax rates while eliminating loopholes. If that was his goal, he could have stayed in Congress and joined the debate.

But there is quite a lot Jindal can do right here in Louisiana to fix a tax code that is riddled with loopholes and special-interest exemptions that are worth a combined $4.8 billion. As luck would have it, there is a document put out each year by Jindal’s own Department of Revenue called the Tax Exemption Budget. The latest version was released just this week.

In Louisiana, this hidden state budget receives little scrutiny from the public or their elected representatives, though you can be sure the interest groups that benefit from these breaks are paying close attention.

And while the governor is now sending positive signals about the need to end loopholes and special-interest giveaways, the record shows the exact opposite has occurred on Jindal’s watch.

Perhaps the most illuminating section of the tax exemption report is the one devoted to corporate taxes. Here, we learn that in 2010-11, companies paid $198 million in state taxes and received exemptions worth $1.459 billion, for a “tax loss” percentage of 88.1 percent.

Compare this to the previous year, when companies paid $435 million in taxes and were exempted from $1.333 billion, for a loss percentage of 75.4 percent. The year before that, corporations paid $586 million, with a loss percentage of 67.8 percent.

The fact is, the percentage of corporate taxes that are actually paid, compared to the revenues lost to the state through exemptions and loopholes, has gone down each of the last four years. Not coincidentally, these years have also seen sharp cuts in what Louisiana invests in education, health care and other services that citizens depend on and help create a prosperous future for everyone.

The following is an article printed by the Louisiana Budget Project in May of 2010 concerning Louisiana’s Hidden State Budget. While some of the numbers have changed—thanks to changes in accounting methodology not any policy reversals on the part of Jindal’s administration—the general message behind the piece remains the same:

Louisiana will spend approximately $8 billion in state revenues next fiscal year through the state
budget. The state also will spend another $7 billion-plus through what might be called the hidden budget.

What is this hidden budget? It’s the total of more than 440 separate pieces of legislation, each of which exempts someone or something from some form of taxation. While the regular state budget is made up of money the state takes in and then sends back out, the hidden budget is money the state decides to forego in the first place. This form of spending is called “tax expenditures,” and in Louisiana it has grown dramatically in recent years, even as regular state revenue has declined.

To more efficiently manage its finances and build a stronger future, Louisiana needs to shed more light on its hidden, tax-side spending.

Why is tax-side spending hidden, and growing?

The regular state budget is proposed each year by the Governor and adopted by legislators who get the chance to scrutinize and debate how every penny is spent. The public, too, has the opportunity to comment on the state budget, and people can go online any time and look up any item in the budget at the Legislature’s website.

But the hidden budget works differently. After a specific tax break is approved, the money flows freely year after year–with little chance that this spending by the state will ever be evaluated. If the cost of a particular hidden budget item soars beyond original estimates, it’s likely no one will even notice. In the hidden budget, there’s no need to set priorities or weigh the value of state spending on one thing compared to another.

And once spending in the hidden budget starts, it’s almost impossible to stop. That’s because, unlike the regular state budget, the hidden budget can’t be reduced by even a penny unless a full two-thirds of legislators vote to save the money. That’s an unrealistically high bar.

Today, with the state in a fiscal crisis, shedding light on Louisiana’s hidden budget is particularly important. As the state is preparing to reduce important services that Louisianans rely on, planning to lay off employees, considering increases in college tuition, and proposing reductions in access to health care in order to make up for declining revenues the hidden budget remains largely untouched and immune to any reductions.

How much is the state spending through the tax code?

In fiscal year 2011, Louisiana projects spending $7 billion through tax expenditures, nearly as much as it will take in from revenue. Since tax expenditures are largely ignored in the regular budget process, this means the legislative policy debate encompasses only about half of the state’s total spending.

And, spending through the tax code is growing. It’s projected that revenue lost to tax expenditures from 2006 through 2011 will have increased 28 percent – to $7.1 billion from $5.6 billion. State revenue, by contrast, is expected to decrease 3 percent.

Are there examples of tax expenditures that deserve more attention?

Some spending from the hidden budget makes sense. For example, Louisiana exempts medicine and groceries from the sales tax. Most Louisianans probably would agree that’s the right thing to do, even if it means the state gives up potential revenue. Louisiana also exempts residential utilities, including electricity, natural gas, and water, from the sales tax. But with 441 tax breaks on the books, and no systematic review process in place, there’s little doubt that some of tax-side spending is overblown, outdated, or otherwise wasteful. If tax-side spending were prioritized alongside regular budget items, it is unlikely that all of the existing tax breaks could be justified.

Here are two examples of tax-side spending that deserve more attention:

• Spending to help energy companies make profits: Louisiana provides a two-year moratorium on severance taxes to encourage the drilling of horizontal oil and natural gas wells. This tax break was enacted in 1994, when the oil and gas industry was economically weaker due to lower product prices and horizontal drilling was in its infancy. Neither is true today. In the Haynesville Shale in north Louisiana, projected to contain one of the largest accumulations of natural gas ever discovered in the U.S., energy companies don’t have to pay severance taxes for two years on wells they drill. But companies don’t need additional incentive to explore and mine in the Haynesville Shale, given the enormous profit potential. In fiscal year 2011, tax exemptions on severance taxes are projected to cost Louisiana $189 million. Drilling in the Haynesville Shale could drive this cost considerably higher when fully developed. That’s money that’s not going to our depleted university or health care systems.

• Spending to increase the incomes of the wealthy: In 2007 and 2008, the state rolled back key portions of the 2002 Stelly Plan that resulted in the largest income tax cuts in the state’s history and left in effect the sales tax exemptions passed in the original bill. In 2007, the Legislature began a phased-in reinstatement of the state deduction for federal itemized deductions, which effectively lowered income taxes for those who itemize their deductions – primarily upper-income taxpayers. This became fully effective in 2009. In the 2008 legislative session, the incometax-bracket changes were repealed, so the top 6-percent income tax rate once again applied only to income over $100,000 for joint filers, not $50,000 as had been the case under Stelly. The total projected cost of these tax cuts by fiscal year 2012 is $2.2 billion, according to estimates by the nonpartisan state Legislative Fiscal Office.

What’s wrong with Louisiana’s annual report on tax-side spending?

Louisiana has taken an important initial step to track tax-side spending. Each year, by statute, the Louisiana Department of Revenue must produce a “tax exemption budget” that estimates the cost of each tax expenditure and assesses its effectiveness.

The tax exemption budget provides useful information, but not enough to get a handle on the revenue being spent through the tax code. For example, even though the law requires it, the Department of Revenue does not provide estimates of the cost of many tax expenditures. The Department says in its tax exemption budget that it lacks the data to estimate these costs accurately, but other states have found ways to make reasonable calculations of lost revenue. Because Louisiana fails to employ these other methods, its tax exemption budget leaves legislators and the public with no idea how much certain tax expenditures are costing the state.

In addition, the Department’s assessments of the effectiveness of tax expenditures lack the depth to inform meaningful legislative decisions or public debate. The law requires the Department to assess who benefits from each tax expenditure and whether each tax expenditure:

(1) Has been successful in meeting the purpose for which it was enacted.

(2) Is the most fiscally effective means of achieving its purpose.

(3) Has unintended or inadvertent effects, including whether it conflicts with other state laws or regulations.

(4) Simplifies or complicates the state tax statutes.

The tax exemption budget provides very minimal, if any, information in answer to these statutory concerns. The budget provides no assessment of the success of each expenditure, no details about the beneficiaries of expenditures (such as a break-out of beneficiaries by income category), no assessment of unintended effects, and no description of whether an expenditure simplifies or complicates state statutes. The budget’s assessment of whether a particular expenditure is the most fiscally effective means of achieving its purpose is so minimal as to be useless. In every case, the budget simply repeats the line, “The purpose of this [tax expenditure] is achieved in a fiscally effective manner.”

What should Louisiana do?

At a time of severe budget crisis, Louisiana can no longer afford to put nearly half of its spending off limits from public scrutiny. To let the public into the debate, the state needs to do three things.

• Improve the tax exemption budget report. The report should follow the requirements of the law. It must estimate the cost of all (or nearly all) tax expenditures and assess each expenditure based on a variety of criteria.

• Incorporate an evaluation of tax-side spending into the regular budget process. Determining precisely how to do this will require legislative and public debate. One step would be to consider increasing the number of tax expenditures that include “sunsets” — end-dates that force the legislature to choose whether or not to extend a particular expenditure in its current form. Only 20 percent of the tax expenditures Louisiana has created in the past 10 years include a sunset.

• Reduce the unrealistically high bar for repealing or reducing tax expenditures. Legislators may cut spending on items in the regular budget by majority vote, but it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses to repeal or reduce a spending item on the tax-side. This disparity makes it difficult for legislators to prioritize state spending. It allows a minority of legislators to continue allocating scarce state resources to a low-priority or even obsolete tax expenditure, at the expense of more important state services.

Every penny Louisiana spends should have a purpose; and every purpose should be scrutinized by the public and elected officials. The needs of the state are too great to allow billions of dollars a year to be spent without any evaluation of whether it is doing the job intended or taking away from a higher priority need.

Jan Moller is Director of LANO’s Louisiana Budget Project, which monitors and reports on state government spending and how it affects Louisiana’s low- to moderate-income families. He is an award-winning journalist formerly with the New Orleans Times-Picayune Capitol Bureau.

by Bryan

Don’t let lil’ Bobby scare you: State classified employees’ rights

April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored] by Bryan

Originally printed in Issue 2 of the People’s [Censored].

Early in February of 2012—in response to a flood of state employee inquiries concerning Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pension legislation—the Louisiana Department of State Civil Service published a document outlining the rights of state classified employees in regards to talking with lawmakers, testifying at legislative hearings, attending public rallies, and otherwise expressing their political views. The following is a reproduction of that document.

Seal of Louisiana

DATE: February 9, 2012
TO: Heads of State Agencies and Human Resources Directors
SUBJECT: State Classified Employees’ Rights to Address Members of the Legislature

As the 2012 Legislative Session approaches, there are many bills that are being filed that may have an impact on state employees, both classified and unclassified. Questions have arisen such as does a state classified employee have the right to address members of the legislature.

Classified employees are prohibited from engaging in efforts to support or oppose a candidate, party or faction in an election. These constitutional restrictions do not prohibit a classified employee from expressing themselves either privately or publicly on issues that may be pending before the legislature or other public body.

However, the Lobbying Act, R.S. 24:56 does prohibit any state employee classified or unclassified “in his official capacity or on behalf of his employer” from communicating with a legislator in an attempt to influence the passage or defeat of legislation. This prohibition does not apply to an elected official or his designee, nor does it prohibit the giving of factual information to the legislature, whether the employee is acting in his official capacity or not.

The act of expressing matters of personal concern in a personal capacity are not prohibited, but if an employee wishes to express these matters during duty hours, it must be done while on annual leave.

Below are a few questions we have recently received from employees and answers that I believe will be helpful.

Do I have to tell my supervisor (appointing authority) why I am requesting annual leave?

No, you do not. However, a supervisor (appointing authority) is not required to approve a request or requests for annual leave. If you do not have approved annual leave in advance of your absence, your appointing authority may place you in a leave without pay status.

Can I go to the legislature or other public body or public official to express my view on matters?

Yes, you can. You must be on approved annual leave status if you want to go and express your views during normal duty hours.

Can I get in trouble for expressing myself publicly?

Maybe. The United States Supreme Court has held that although government employees have a right to free speech like any other citizen, when the government is the employer it (the government) has an interest in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from the interest it has in regulating the speech of the citizenry in general. The standard that the Supreme Court has set to determine if the government can regulate the speech is “If an employee’s speech does not relate to a matter of public concern then the government’s interest in efficiency, work place harmony and satisfactory performance will usually trump the employee’s interest in free speech.” Therefore, when speaking publicly, make sure you are addressing matters that are of public concern and not personal to your particular work environment.

Can I write a letter to the editor of a newspaper to express my views on an issue?

Yes, you can. However, as stated above, make sure your letter concerns a matter of public interest and not your personal work environment.

Can I go to public rallies on issues and carry a sign, cheer and boo?

Yes, you can. But the same standard applies to expressions at rallies as it does before a public body.

Can I contact my legislator, personally, by letter or email?

Yes, you can. As a private citizen you have the right to contact your legislator concerning any issue that is of personal concern to you or concerning any issue before the legislature. Do not use your state issued work equipment to communicate matters of public concern to a member of a public body. Please use your private equipment.

Can I be a member of an organization that lobbies before the legislature?

Yes, you can. You as a state employee cannot lobby before the legislature in your official capacity as a state employee, but that does not prevent you from being a member of an organization that lobbies the legislature on matters of public concern, such as the American Federation of State, County or Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Retired State Employees Association (RSEA), State Employees Association of Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Public Employees’ Retirement Systems.

If the Retired State Employees Association were holding a rally on the steps of the State Capitol, could active state employees who are RSEA members participate?

Yes, you can. However, if the rally is scheduled during normal duty hours, you must be on approved annual leave. Additionally, the standard stated above concerning expressions will apply at rallies.

Would attending a rally be considered lobbying?

No, it would not. A rally is a gathering of people to inspire enthusiasm for a cause.

Can I place a sign in my yard supporting or opposing proposed legislation?

Yes, you can. Proposed legislation that you may support or oppose is an issue and not the support or opposition of a party, candidate, or faction seeking an elected office.

Can I sign a recall petition?

Yes, you can. However, due to the prohibition of supporting or opposing a candidate, party or faction, you cannot start a recall petition, solicit signatures for a recall petition or actively participate in a recall of an elected official.

Can I use my work computer to express my personal opinion on an issue of public concern?

No, you cannot. Your work computer is for work purposes. If you wish to communicate a matter of public concern to a member of a public body via electronic mail, please use your private computer.

If you have any questions about what you can or cannot do, please contact your Human Resource office.

s/Shannon S. Templet