HEALTH REFORM: Breaking the (Tax) Code

Fast or slow? Incremental or comprehensive? Right out of the gate or later? Kids or everyone? Those are just some of the questions President-elect Barack Obama needs to ask and answer about the size, pace, breadth and cost of health reform, which has returned to the national agenda with a prominence unmatched since the early 1990s.

Kristen Gerencher of MarketWatch has a good overview of the possible parameters of reform, written for an audience that pays attention to the economics of reform.

Several of the experts quoted in the piece called for a bipartisan approach—the road not taken in 1993-94. And some of the policy wonks argue that, campaign mantras aside, Obama would be wise to take a look at one aspect of Sen. John McCain's proposal: eliminating or perhaps capping (to protect lower income people) or gradually phasing out the employer tax exclusion. Taxing health benefits may not be popular with some Obama backers, and it may not even be popular with Obama himself, but many experts in health policy across the political spectrum think the idea has merit—on the condition that it be done as part of overall reform that extends meaningful and affordable quality coverage to everyone.

Where They Stand: John McCain on Higher Ed

Fifteen months after launching his presidential bid, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) started laying out his higher education policy agenda last month. In a news release, the Senator outlined his policy priorities but provided few details about his proposals.

With the Republican National Convention in full gear this week, Higher Ed Watch decided to take a closer look at McCain's higher education policy plans. He aims to do the following:

Simplify the Federal Financial Aid System

McCain believes that many eligible students do not seek out federal financial aid because they find the aid application process too complex and don't understand their options. He would address these concerns by:

  • Consolidating Programs: McCain proposes combining various federal grant and loan programs as a means to simplify their administration and help students better understand their eligibility for aid. While he doesn't get into specifics, it's likely that he would follow the Bush administration's lead and take aim at the campus-based student aid programs, which primarily supplement Pell Grants for low-income students. Critics say these programs are not serving the neediest students well because a disproportionate share of the funding is going to students at the wealthiest colleges.

The Economy and Education- Will the Budget Crunch Facing States Affect Education Spending

As the economy continues to weaken, many states across the country are starting to face a budget crunch that may affect funding for education. A variety of factors--including the housing market, fuel prices, and a slowdown in tax collections--mean that states are going to see fewer revenue increases than in previous years.

When states face economic downturns, there are real implications for students, teachers, and schools. States often try to protect K-12 spending during tight budget times. But states spend such a large portion of their discretionary spending on education (about 34 percent for K-12 and 11 percent for higher education) that it is difficult to make cuts entirely in other areas. Other large discretionary expenditures include Medicaid (17 percent) and corrections (11percent).

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that during the end of the last recession (2002-2004), 34 states cut real per-pupil aid to school districts. Already this year 10 states have proposed or implemented funding cuts to K-12 education.

The California Budget Loot That Won't Stay Stolen

One of the prime uses of the California initiative process is budget theft: a special interest, unhappy with its cut of state spending, passes a ballot measure to increase or fence off its budget. But sometimes the loot doesn’t stay stolen.

Just ask the road lobby. Alarmed by reports that Republican legislators want to grab dollars from transportation accounts to paper over the state’s budget deficit, it has launched a radio ad campaign to defend its booty.

The loot at issue is the portion of the state’s sales tax revenue derived from the sale of gasoline.
Until this decade, the state, for tax purposes, treated gasoline like any other purchased good. California levied the normal state sales tax on sales at the gas pump and put the money into the general fund, along with the revenue from sales of surfboards, Steely Dan records, and other goods. This money helped pay for schools, health care, and prisons. (The sales tax should not be confused with the separate 18-cents-a-gallon state excise tax on motor fuels, a levy on road users exclusively dedicated to fund road maintenance and improvement.)

Trends as a Guide to Tax Reform

Last week, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that life expectancy has gone up, hitting a "record high in 2006 of 78.1 years."

This kind of trend data is relevant to tax reform discussions, but not often highlighted. Tax reform discussions could be better focused if we spent more time looking at how the world has changed since most of our current rules were enacted and how it will likely continue to change.

Several years ago I started gathering data on trends and using it to show where our tax law was outdated or working contrary to a trend, that is - contrary to reality. A few simple examples:

1. Longevity - this is clearly relevant in considering our Social Security system. When Social Security was created in the 1930s, life expectancy was lower than retirement age. That is clearly not the case today.

2. Who lives in poverty - In 1959, 35.2% of people age 65 and older were in poverty. In 1996, that percentage had dropped to 10.8%. (Leatha Lamison-White, Poverty in the United States: 1996, U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Table C-2, page C-5). The federal tax law (as well as some state income tax laws) include exemptions and credits for being old. Years ago it may have been appropriate to assume that most elderly needed a tax break, but that is not true today.

Guest Post: Six Principles for Financial Aid Reform

By Art Hauptman

There is widespread agreement among financial aid analysts and practitioners that our country's student aid system is not working as effectively as it could be. Many believe that the solution to this problem is to have the federal government substantially increase the amount of money it spends on the existing student aid programs.

I disagree. The federal government currently spends roughly $40 billion for grants, college work study, loan subsidies, and tax breaks for college -- more than enough to achieve the programs' goals if they were operating effectively and efficiently. As I argued last week, the current structure of student financial support in this country needs to be changed in fundamental ways.

The Rich Will Always Be with Us

Like generals who are always fighting the last war, California's pundits are still fighting their way out of the last budget crisis. Latest case in point: George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, who recently complained again that California's income tax "depends too heavily on the wealthy." In Skelton's world, the wealthy are just like those men mothers always warn their daughters about: they'll show you a good time, and then disappear, leaving you heartbroken. "Their incomes rise and fall steeply with the economy," he writes, "and therefore so do state budget deficits."

Except that's not why California has a budget crisis. As the state controller reported on May 9, personal income tax collections for the first nine months of the current budget year are $1.4 billion over the estimate in Gov. Schwarzenegger's January budget and within a whisker of the amount budgeted last summer. Through the first nine months California revenues are up 1.2 percent over a year ago, thanks entirely to the income tax, which has more than made up for the decline in sales tax revenues caused by the housing crash.

A Dollars and Sense Rationale to Deliver Accounts at Tax Time

Each year the U.S. Treasury Department issues over one-hundred million refunds worth billions of dollars to individual tax filers.

Almost half of all refunds are issued via a paper check, with the majority of those checks being mailed to lower-income households. This presents a scaleable opportunity to provide these households with a low-cost transaction and savings account on the tax form.

IRS data show that of the 60 million federal tax refunds that were issued via a paper check in 2005, almost half were mailed to households earning $30,000 or less. These are the very households who typically lack access to reasonably-priced financial services and who are most likely to pay a disproportionate amount of their income to conduct routine financial transactions. They are also less likely to have adequate savings to cover emergency expenses like car repairs or unexpected medical bills, which often leads to payday lenders and other expensive sources of credit.

These households do, however, receive on average about $1,700 in federal tax refunds. And when examined in the aggregate, almost $50 billion is annually refunded to households with AGIs of $30,000 or less, via paper check.

The potential of those refunds as deposits creates a powerful case for financial institutions to make a low-cost transaction and savings product available to lower-income consumers.

Thursday Round Up: A Look at a Petition Firm

DEPARTMENT OF MOON HOWLING: The Las Vegas Review & Journal takes a long look at one of the country's more important signature firms, National Voter Outreach and its CEO Rick Arnold. I've interviewed Arnold in his Carson City home, and found him to be one of the more thoughtful people in the petition trade, critical of its problems and clear-eyed about its limitations. This story is built heavily around criticism from the liberal/progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which is quick to lable signature gathering as corrupt (at least in cases where it opposes the cause in question). There is a "shocked, shocked" quality to this criticism. The signature gathering business has plenty of problem workers, many of them poorly trained folks who, for lifestyle reasons, have taken a job that usually pays them in cash. But BISC and other critics invariably propopse to criminalize the process of gathering signatures, as in Oklahoma. In supporting these restrictions, liberals are hurting themselves, by establishing precedents restricting political speech that can be used by their political opponents. And such restrictions don't stop direct democracy. They merely slow it down, adding to the costs (and thus the influence of interest groups) that progressives love to denounce. The more you regulate, the more firms like National Voter Outreach will benefit.

Spend Your Money on Something REALLY Stimulating, America!

April 15, 2008 - US NewsWire Service - A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service today apologized for the inadvertent release of an unauthorized letter* written to accompany the economic stimulus payments to households across America. The IRS spokesman said that taxpayers should ignore the letter, originally written for review and consideration by the White House. Congressional leaders asked for an investigation into how the letter was released. The document is reproduced below:

Dear U.S. Citizen,

Enclosed is your economic stimulus payment for 2008. The check amount is as follows: $600 for a single person, $1,200 for a married couple, and $300 per child, for families making less than $75,000 ($150,000 for a couple).

Speaking of children, if you have any, you should thank them for loaning you this money. After all, they are the ones who will have to pay it back. If you are blessed with grandchildren, don't forget to thank them too. They'll be paying off the interest.