Friday, January 29, 2016

Sales Tax in North Carolina

The Radical Republican General Assembly enacted another round of tax reforms in the 2015 session, reducing some income tax rates, while expanding the state's 6.75% sales tax to include "repair, maintenance, and installation services." This is on top of the 2014 reforms, that added sales tax to admission fees for entertainment and lots of other taxes and fees.

While the income tax rate reductions will reduce the personal income tax for a family with $30,000 annual income by about $50, the expanded sales taxes will result in a greater tax burden for low income families in our state.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the "revenue enhancements":

  • Increase on the sales tax on electricity and natural gas from 3% to 7%
  • Sales tax on admissions charges to entertainment activities (more about that below)
  • Increases in DMV fees, including driver's license fees and vehicle registration fees
  • Community college tuition increases
The sales tax on admissions charges to entertainment activities is really interesting. The tax applies to admission tickets to movies, concerts, museums and cultural sites, guided tours at such sites, and sporting events. Exceptions include payments for "the right to participate in sporting activities." That includes greens fees and gym memberships. Also excluded is a "charge for lifetime seat rights, lease, or rental of a suite or box for an entertainment activity." So, working stiffs have to pay sales tax on the ticket to the Panthers game, but the corporation doesn't have to pay sales tax on renting the luxury box, or for the PSL to have the right to have a seat. (

Seems like the General Assembly is going out of its way to stick it to working class North Carolinians.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Presidents and Umbrellas

There's a picture making it's rounds on the internet of President Obama standing under an umbrella held by a Marine, adjacent to a picture of Queen Elizabeth holding an umbrella. The caption is something like: "England's Queen can hold her own umbrella, our little queen cannot."

This is an example of the kind of fake, manufactured outrage that so often floods our facebook timeliness and email inboxes. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do an image search on google to find images of Presidents from Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan (yes, even the sainted Ronnie Raygun) to Bush I to Clinton to Bush II to, yes Obama under an umbrella held by a soldier or Marine or aide or assistant. And for every image showing someone else holding a President's umbrella, there are images of each of these Presidents holding their own umbrellas.

There are plenty of things to get worked up over, even to spark outrage. I'm outraged that it is easier to purchase a firearm than it is to vote. I'm outraged that tax and regulatory policies lead to huge increases in the numbers of working poor and non-working rich. I'm outraged that America is number 1 in the world in the percentage of our citizens that are in jail. I'm outraged that legal fictions called corporations, which enjoy immortality, are accorded the same rights as natural persons, meaning that they can spend billions of dollars to control the levers of government. I'm outraged at the entire concept of supply side economics, where large bank bailouts and agribusiness subsidies and "free trade" are deemed good policy, but helping people who lost their jobs because of large bank bailouts and agribusiness subsidies and "free trade" is called welfare for the unworthy. I'm outraged that "Christians" spend much of their time justifying their own behavior, because they are better than "those people."

I'm outraged that charities exist to take care of our veterans who are homeless and jobless, recovering from severe head trauma and amputations and PTSD. And I'm even more outraged that a former President of the United States, who sent those men and women off to war, collected a $200,000 speaking fee from one of those charities. I'm outraged that chickenhawks lie to Congress and the American people to send those young men and women off to fight a war of choice, and then cut taxes. And I'm outraged that those same chickenhawks then blame the next President for the deficits and the power vacuum that they created in Iraq.

I'm outraged that the CEO/owner of a truck stop chain and an NFL franchise, along with his brother/state Governor, bilked truck drivers out of tens of millions of dollars without having to go to jail, while a young kid selling a few untaxed cigarettes on a street corner is choked to death by police. (Look up Pilot/Flying J and Jimmy Haslam).

And I'm outraged that it took 50 years, and the deaths of 9 peaceful worshipers in a church to remove a symbol of segregation, Jim Crow, and racial violence from the property of the cradle of secession.

So there's plenty to be outraged about. Who's carrying the umbrella doesn't seem to be that much of a deal.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Final Thoughts on the Confederate Flag

I'm afraid that I have offended some of my friends with my strident language in recent days about the flag. I apologize to those who have taken offense. So let me explain my thinking in a less strident way.

For many South Carolinians, the stars-and-bars is a symbol of honorable men defending their homeland and their way of life. But for about one-third of South Carolina citizens, the flag also speaks to the experience of their ancestors. These forebears were ripped from their homes and their way of life, shackled and chained in the holds of ships. Those who survived the 6-week voyage across the Atlantic arrived in places like Charleston, and were auctioned off like livestock. That history is a stain on our nation, and that flag symbolizes for them the stain of slavery, the stain of lynchings, the stain of Jim Crow laws and segregation, and the stain of institutional racism that still exists.

As an American, we pledge our allegiance to a different flag, and the Republic that exists as "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The flag of the confederacy stands in clear and direct opposition to the notion of liberty and justice for all. Its waving on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia celebrates nullification and secession, rather than one indivisible nation and liberty for everyone. It is an affront to justice for all.

Its flying at full mast, while the flag of the United States flew this week at half mast in remembrance of those massacred in Charleston, violated Federal law. Those images sent another message, that of indifference to the suffering of generations described above, and to the tragedy on Wednesday night. Many excuses have been offered to rationalize not lowering that flag, but each of them rings hollow.

As humans, we have the unique capacity to recognize and understand the feelings of our fellow humans, all created in the image of God. Not only that, we have the unique capacity for reconciliation. State Rep. Doug Brannon, a Republican from Spartanburg County, will file a bill to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds. I hope that South Carolinians of goodwill will support Rep. Brannon's bill. Let's hope that is a first step toward understanding and reconciliation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Industrial Ecology and Theology

We are just getting started in the new semester in my MS in Sustainability Studies program, and I'm taking SUS 529 - Industrial Ecology.

One of the definitions or models of industrial ecology is the notion that industrial/manufacturing processes should mimic that of natural processes. In the natural world, there is little, if any, waste, with the waste or remains of one life becoming the basic fuel of another organism. Organic matter (even our human body) decomposes, providing nutrients for plants, and carrion for scavengers. We exhale carbon dioxide, which plants "inhale" and produce, through photosynthesis, oxygen, which we then inhale. There is a nitrogen cycle and a water cycle, in addition to the oxygen cycle.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of this "circle of life," in the words "From dust you were formed, to dust you shall return." Physical and chemical processes, bordering on the supernatural (especially photosynthesis), are part of a creation that, at the end of sixth day, the Creator described as "very good." It would follow logically that such a very good creation, using such very good processes, would be the very model of how we should design our own processes to extract raw materials, process them, manufacture useful tools and items, and dispose of them. The goal would be to transform byproducts of the process, and the end of life of the item itself, into the beginning of a new cycle, rather than throwing that stuff "away."

Yet very few of our manufacturing and industrial processes consider even where "away" is, and even fewer consider that many of these waste byproducts are indeed useful as inputs in other processes. Perhaps it is seen as too costly or too much trouble to recover these waste byproducts, and transform them into a suitable input for other processes. Perhaps we fail at connecting the dots, because we fail to communicate or fail to establish the framework within which to connect those dots. Or perhaps we just don't really care, as the circle of life extends beyond our individual, and our generational, interest.

Anyway, this is going to be fun!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Common Core Standards and the Right Wing

Right wing reaction to the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education is an almost instinctive rejection of anything aimed to the "common good." Perhaps this "reject instinct" hearkens back to the Cold War, where communism, which sounds like "common" and shares etymology tracing back to the Old French "comun."

In various social media exchanges, one of the things I have been instructed on is the notion that "parents should be trusted with decisions regarding their children, not bureaucrats." As a parent myself, with what most people would consider a reasonable level of education, I certainly want to be trusted with decisions regarding my children. But if pressed, I would not be able to come up with a list of skills and knowledge in math a 5th grader should be expected to understand and demonstrate, compared to the skills and knowledge that child should have learned in 4th grade. I suspect that, when pressed on the issue, most parents would be equally clueless on the matter.

But that is exactly what the Common Core State Standards establish - a list of expected skills and knowledge students should master at each grade level in the specific areas of mathematics and English language arts. For example, one of the specific standards for grades 11-12 states:

Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Similarly, here is one of the specific standards for high school math:   Distinguish between situations that can be modeled with linear functions and with exponential functions.

Now, apparently these types of standards are somehow controversial, yet the basis for controversy is unclear. In my mind, these sound like perfectly normal and acceptable expectations for an 11th or 12th grade public high school student.

And while these standards seem perfectly reasonable and appropriate, I would be hard pressed as a parent to develop such standards or proficiency targets for my children or anyone else's children, and I challenge any other parent who is not a professional educator to do the same.

REF: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards2010

Friday, September 6, 2013

My Letter to my Legislators

To: Sen. Jim Davis (R-Macon) and Rep. Joe Sam Queen (D-Haywood)

Gentlemen: Care to comment on yesterday's report in the Raleigh News & Observer that one Joe Hauck was paid $228,000 over 8 months as a consultant to DHHS Secretary Alana Wos?

DHHS Spokesman Ricky Diaz defended the consulting contract in a statement. This is the same Ricky Diaz who, at 24 years of age and with absolutely zero public health policy experience, enjoys a taxpayer-funded salary of $85,000, including a $23,000 raise after a few months on the job.

What kind of racket is DHHS running? Is this agency's budget being used as a slush fund to reward campaign aides and big-money contributors?  Meanwhile, working class North Carolina residents, school teachers, firefighters, police, state troopers, and others are being told to sit down, shut up, and be thankful you have a job at any wage. Hospitals are closing down, teachers are paying for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, and the courts are bogging down in a backlog of cases.

This came after the Governor and his business executive Budget Director "found" $10 million in a blatant attempt to pander to teachers. Isn't the Budget Director the state's model of the ideal businessman - selling cheap imported goods to low wage workers who can't afford anything else? How does a competent business executive "find" $10 million after months of budget negotiations and legislative action?

Who's in charge? Who's minding the store? Who's allowing these shenanigans? Someone's obviously doing a heckuva job.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Response to Syria

I've given much thought to, and read as much as i could about, Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people and President Obama's proposal to respond. I don't claim to understand all the intelligence, don't pretend to know our military capabilities to attack appropriate targets, and certainly don't have a crystal ball to see which of many possible responses might yield the best possible outcome. Despite the failures of intelligence and our administration's use of the intelligence in the run-up to our invasion/occupation of Iraq, I trust that our intelligence agents and analysts, acting in good faith today, have given our Commander-in-Chief and the chain of command the best intelligence, and our civilian and military leadership have presented those estimates in good faith to the appropriate parties in Congress.

Now we can only trust that our elected Senators and Members of Congress come to this issue with the same good faith and professionalism that the intelligence community, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the White House have demonstrated. Each one of our elected legislators must answer for him or herself one simple, yet profound question. Would I send my son or my daughter, my niece or my nephew, my next-door-neighbor's child, into battle as a pilot, as a sailor, as a Marine, against the Syrian regime?

On that question rests all the preliminaries, all the intelligence, all the nuances of international law, all the ramifications of moral obligation. To ignore that question is to stoop to the lowest form of political gamesmanship, to abrogate one's duty as the Constitutional declarer of war, and to abandon any pretense to humanity.

I don't know how I would answer the key question, and I don't presume to suggest how anyone else, including our Senators and Representatives, should answer the question. But I pray they will search their consciences as they consider this matter.