Monday, July 28, 2008

Wildlife property tax reduction

A bill that recently passed the NC General Assembly will change the property tax classification for certain land that benefits wildlife.
The new tax classification for wildlife conservation land can reduce the pressure to sell land caused by increasing property taxes. The bill, HB 1889, introduced by Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, would help protect some landowners from increased taxes. These tax increases are caused by higher potential value of land that could be developed. An existing law protects land that is actively farmed.

However, the bill was amended in the Senate to apply only to 20-acre or larger properties, rather than the 10-acre minimum the House passed. There is a 10-acre minimum in existing law for farmland.

I hope the General Assembly will reduce the minimum size for wildlife land. The minimum for farmland and wildlife land should be set to five acres.

John Shaw

Monday, June 30, 2008

We must conserve water, but will it save us money?

We must conserve water. If we do not conserve during a drought, we could run out of water, or have cloudy water as the water systems pump from the bottom of the lake.

We do conserve water so, of course, we should be saving money on our water bills. But now we find out that our per unit rates may go up. That’s horrible! Why should we be paying more per gallon when we use fewer gallons?

What people must understand–but many do not understand–is that the water rate, or price per gallon, must go up as we conserve water and use fewer gallons.

The cost of the water services is based on the cost of facilities–the reservoir, treatment facility, and pipes to our homes–and the maintenance of these facilities. Only a small part is based on the amount of water used. As we conserve water we use fewer gallons per month. The cost of maintaining existing facilities and building new facilities remains the same, so the cost per gallon will increase.

The bottom line: Households who conserve the same as the average household will eventually find that their monthly bills are the same as previous bills. Those who conserve more than the average will see decreasing bills; those who conserve less than the average will see increasing bills.

When it comes to water pipes, “we must pay the piper.”

John A. Shaw
Cary, NC

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Transfer Tax

The Realtors are at it again. They intend to spend millions to repeal a law that allows county commissions to, with the approval of the voters, impose a 0.4% transfer tax on the sale of property.

The transfer tax will, if adopted, will provide funds to help build new schools and infrastructure for growth. The cost will fall primarily on commercial property and real estate bought for investment purposes. About one third will fall on residential owners.

In spite of the fact that the tax affects commercial property more than residential property, the Realtors and homebuilders are calling the tax a “home tax”. They have spent millions to defeat referenda in 19 counties by convincing people that this 0.4% cost on the sale will make it difficult to sell a home and that it “taxes the American dream”. Now the NC Association of Realtors has made a commitment to add $10 million to an advocacy fund to continue their efforts to defeat the transfer tax.

Fast growing counties will have to find a way to pay for new school construction. The only way that does not require a referendum is an increase to the property tax. This tax will be paid by all property owners, not just those who are selling property.

The bills to repeal the transfer tax option do not repeal the sales tax option. The sales tax is a very regressive tax, hitting a much larger percentage of the income of a low income person than that of a higher income person.

The Realtors and homebuilders must recognize that the growth in Wake County will force the school district to buy property and to build school buildings. These new buildings and land will come at a much higher cost than existing buildings and land. The county commissions and voters should have the option of placing that tax burden on the growth rather than on the backs of all citizens, including those who do not benefit from the growth. This burden will come in the form of higher sales tax or higher property tax–the real home tax.

John Shaw

Cary, NC

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Not a year for increased state and local tax?

Some people say that, with the current economic problems, this year is not one to raise taxes.

Yes, many people’s finances are tight at this time. Families are having to tighten their belts and do without many things they would like to have. Vacation travel, meals in restaurants, and many other things are being cut back. Many families will have to make the decision every time they spend money: must we have this expense?

However, the needs of municipalities, counties, and states continue. School districts have to buy more land and build more schools to handle the increased school population. The construction and land acquisition costs are far higher than they were for existing schools. Streets have to be improved to handle the increased traffic. A larger population will require more services.

A family may be able to do without many things, but we cannot ask them to do without classrooms for their children or roads to drive on. These things must be paid for, and they are paid for with our tax money.

I realize that times are tough for many people. Many people cannot pay higher property tax or higher sales tax on their necessities. However, beer and cigarettes are not necessities. Those who cannot afford or do not want to pay a higher tax can do without them. The legislature should consider these tax increases before they cut needed services.

Transfer taxes affect only those people who have just sold a home or other property, and at the time that they are receiving income from the sale of property. They have been rejected by voters who were led to believe that enactment of the transfer tax would result in a tax increase for everyone. Perhaps they will reconsider when they find out that defeat of a transfer tax will only mean a higher property tax – the real home tax – for everyone.

There are many who, in spite of the current economy, can pay more to provide the schools and services that we need. Shouldn’t we consider an increase of tax for the highest earning taxpayers? Perhaps an additional tax on luxury cars or on heavy gas guzzling cars could be used.

No one wants to pay higher taxes. But the schools, roads, and other services that we depend on must be paid for.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Scientists: no exceptions to seawall ban needed

North Carolina has a law banning the use of “groins” (often known as jetties), man-made devices that reach out into the ocean from the beach. These are often used to prevent erosion of beach sand. However, they are very destructive to beaches “down drift”, that is, further down the beach in the direction of the prevailing current.

Because of the destructive nature of groins the General Assembly prohibited their use (G.S 113A-115.1). However, Ocean Isle Beach and Figure Eight Island homeowners are trying to change the law that would allow exceptions to be made. They claim the exception would be experimental and would establish a “pilot project” to study the use of groins.

A bill (SB 599) has passed the NC Senate to allow exceptions to be made by the Coastal Resources Commission to the anti-groin rule. This would allow, with conditions, groins to be built to protect some beach areas from erosion. The bill will be considered by the House in this year’s “short session”.

A report recently issued by a scientific study group argues against the change. According to the report, there is nothing experimental about groins. The proposed change would require that groins be monitored and removed if damage results from the groin. The report points out that it may take many years for groin impacts to become apparent. By the time they become apparent, removal of the groin will be too late to prevent damage to other areas.

The report, signed by 43 academic and other scientists, can be found at:

John Shaw

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is Stam Against or For Naming Buildings for Living People

Paul Stam, a Republican NC House member from Wake County, and Republican leader in the NC House, had the following comment about the naming of a new NC State library for former Governor Jim Hunt”

“Normally to get your name on a government building, you have to be dead. But I’m not on a crusade about this.”

But he must have forgotten about the Holshouser building at the state fair, named for the still alive former Republican governor and the Reagan National Airport, renamed for the former Republican president before his death.

The above is from Gary Pearce in the Talking About Politics blog.

There is also the George H. W. Bush Intercontinental airport in Houston and the ironically named George Bush Center for Intelligence (CIA HQ), appropriately near the Turkey Run park on the Virginia side of the Potomac river.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

North Carolina’s Tough Lending Laws Get Business Week Attention

According to a recent Business Week article, North Carolina’s progressive protection laws for borrowers may become a nationwide model.

Looking over a past issue of Business Week today, an article about North Carolina and our attorney general, Roy Cooper, and the tough lending laws adopted by the state. Cooper introduced the1999 law when he was a state senator.

According to the article, critics of the 1999 law argued that it would harm the housing market in the state. However, studies have found that it did not. The recent economic problems have not affected North Carolina as much as other states. The foreclosure rate has not risen as much as in the rest of the nation while the median home prices rose much faster than in the rest of the nation.

For more, read the article:

John Shaw

Cary, NC

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Ban Possible on New Water Tie-Ins

From 12/5/07 Raleigh (NC) News and Observer:
Ban Possible on new water tie-ins
“With water supplies drying up in Raleigh and Durham [NC], elected leaders in the Triangle’s two biggest cities are considering tough new restrictions that could include a ban on new water customers.

“Development in Raleigh and Durham effectively could be frozen until the region’s severe drought lifts, because new homes and businesses wouldn’t be allowed to tap into city water.”

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Most Urgent Environmental Problem

On November 9 I posted a poll on Blue NC asking “What is the most urgent environment problem facing North Carolina?” I promised to give my opinion later. It is now later.

The choices in the poll were:
Global warming and lack of water,
Water pollution,
Loss of farm land, and
Air pollution.

The results were very close. All four of these environmental problems are very serious and must be addressed by members of the public and by elected officials.

It is my opinion that the most significant environment problem is the loss of natural land-farm land and forest-to development. The significance is that this cannot be reversed. If we pollute the air or water, and then stop the pollution, the air and water eventually will be cleaned up. However, once a farm or forest is destroyed to build a shopping center or subdivision, the natural land is lost.

it is my opinion
John Shaw

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Chatham County, N.C. has reacted to the defeat of the transfer tax and it does not involve sales tax.

The Chatham County N.C. Board of Commissioners has addressed the need for more money for schools by increasing the school impact fees from $2,900 to $3,500, the maximum amount allowed. The Board also approved a new impact fee study, which will be underway within the next few weeks. The new study will likely result in a maximum level well above the present $3,500 limit.

According to Board Vice Chairman George Lucier, it is the commissions’ responsibility to “put fees and regulations in place to assure that the county is not overwhelmed by growth.” He also stated that the board has very limited options to pay for schools. According to a press release, “an increase in annual property taxes is the only other option currently available to county commissioners.”

John Shaw

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

GOP House Minimum Wage Bill Attacks Worker Tips, States Rights

Most workers are covered by two minimum wage laws, the federal law and their state law. The minimum wage that applies is the higher of the two. (The exception is the small number of workers whose employer is not engaged in interstate commerce). Twenty-three states (and D.C.) have enacted minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage.

A special case involves tips. Both the federal minimum wage and most state minimum wages allow employers to reduce the wages of workers who receive tips so that the total of wages and tips are equal to the minimum wage. Seven states do not reduce the minimum wage by the amount of tips. That is, for the state minimum, the tips are on top of the minimum.

The federal minimum wage is now $5.15/hr. California, for example, has a minimum wage of $6.75/hr. and does not reduce that minimum for tips. So a waitress in California must receive an hourly wage of $6.75 plus tips she receives.

The House passed a bill (H. R. 5970, now before the Senate) that increases the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour. However, a provision in that bill, Sec. 402, called Tipped Wage Fairness, will force states such as California to reduce the states minimum wage by the amount of the tips received. This section of the act would take effect immediately, even though the federal minimum wage will not take effect until January 1, 2007 and will not be higher than the California minimum wage until June 1, 2009. After June 1, 2009, a waitress in California may be paid less than she is now paid.

This provision, to actually reduce the pay of some minimum wage employees was supported by the National Restaurant Association and other business groups. It was passed in the House with Republican support. These are the same people who support "states rights", the ability of states to make their own laws. In this case, they want the federal government to override the state governments.

Harold Meyerson Op Ed Column in the Washington Post

Tips at Issue in Minimum Wage Bill, Erica Werner (AP) Washington Post, 8/2/06

An Estate Tax Twist Reverses Party Roles On Minimum Wage, Jeffrey Birnmaum, Washington Post, 8/3/06

Friday, July 07, 2006

Stopping Misuse of Social Security Numbers

There have been too many recent reports of Social Security numbers being stolen and possibility falling into the hands of identity thieves. While most of the Social Security numbers that have been stolen have not been used by identity thieves to open fraudulent accounts, that possibility is present.

(see Washington Post story 7/12/06)

Given the number of people who have access to our Social Security numbers, there is always the possibility that someone will gain access to the number and use it fraudulently. I doubt if it is really possible to completely protect the numbers if they can be used by criminals to open accounts and borrow money in other people's names.

The Social Security number was originally intended to be an identification used to keep social security accounts and income tax accounts. It was to be the same as a name, only without duplications. However, the social security number has become an identifier for many purposes, including credit reporting and credit accounts. Some businesses even use the social security number as a form of a password--if you know a person’s “social” you must be that person.

Attempts to keep fraudsters from learning of people's Social Security number are probably futile. The number of cases of fraudulent uses may be reduced, but not eliminated.

Apparently it is now possible to apply for and receive a credit card account on-line or by phone with only a name, address, and Social Security number. With the SSN and other publicly available information one person can obtain credit in another person’s name. The victim is then left with a bad credit record and difficulty obtaining loans or even jobs.

Perhaps a better approach would be to eliminate the use of the Social Security number as a confidential identifier for credit applications. If this is done, there would not be a need to keep the SSN confidential. We could carry social security cards in our billfolds, and we could stop worrying about theft of the numbers.

A credit application may still require the SSN to allow the credit of the applicant to be checked, but it would be no different from the applicant's name, address, phone number, and other non-confidential information. There should be no assumption that knowledge of this number is proof that a person is the person he says he is.

If a credit granter wanted to protect against fraudsters pretending to be other persons, then he could keep photographs, fingerprints, or even DNA to assist in the arrest of the applicant if the application later turned out to be fraudulent.

If a lender is liable to the victim for the cost resulting from credit card fraud, certainly the lender will be more careful to be sure that a borrower is who he says he is.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Priorities of Congress Revealed by Penalty Limits

Two items, when taken together, show the priorities of the present Congress. As noted in the blog Confined Spaces, Congress passed two increases of fines that may be levied by regulatory agencies.

In a reaction to the recent mine accidents that have killed 33 coal miners this year, Congress increased the maximum civil penalty for violations of safety regulations from $60,000 to $220,000.

Responding to Janet Jackson’s 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl and other incidences, Congress increased the maximum fine that the FCC may impose for indecent conduct from $32,500 to $325,000.

So a mine safety violation that may kill minors is now worth less that a breast exposure.

New York Times articles on the mine safety fine increase and on the indecent conduct fine increase.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

State Secrets Doctrine

An article in the on-line magazine Slate by Henry Lanman reports that the US Government has used the concept of state secrets to shield the government from law suits.

Lanman discusses the federal government's use of the doctrine of state secrets to shield itself from embarassment, examining the case of Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen who apparently was grabbed under "extraordinary rendition", held for months, and released only after the government decided they had the wrong guy. Mr. el-Masri's suit was dismissed under the state secrets doctrine.

See also this article in the Washington Post.

Other blogs:
Out of the Jungle: State Secrets Doctrine

Political Animal: State Secrets Revisited

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Is Bush Preparing for War in Iran?

According to a story in the Washington Post today (Sunday, April 9), the administration is considering its options for military strikes against Iran. This is all part of "coercive diplomacy", pressure on Iran to abandon any nuclear development programs they may have.

According to the Post, no attacks appear likely in the short term. There are also doubts about whether military methods would be effective against Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. But, according to the Washington Post, "administration officials are preparing for it as a possible option and using the threat 'to convince them this is more and more serious,' as a senior official put it."

The possibility that Iran may develop nuclear weapons, particularly small weapons that could be sold to terrorist organizations and smuggled into the US is serious. Deterring Iran by being prepared for military action may be a useful strategy. However, with our military stretched to the limit by the war in Iraq, and with the growing opposition to Bush’s war, it is not likely that the president could obtain permission of Congress or support of the American people to strike Iran.

One of the consequences of the Iraq war is that our ability to pressure other countries with the threat of military action is greatly diminished, or eliminated.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Congress May Eliminate State Privacy Protection Rules

The Congress is at it again. In a previous post I pointed out that a bill had passed the U. S. House of Representatives that would preempt, or override, state regulations on feed safety that were more restrictive than Federal law.

Now a bill has been adopted by the House Financial Services Committee that would eliminate many state laws that allow consumers to place a freeze on their credit records to prevent unauthorized access.

The bill, H.R. 3997, introduced by Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) would eliminate state laws that are stricter than the federal law on consumer notification on security breeches and allowing consumers to freeze their credit files.

According to critics Susanna Montezemolo of Consumers Union and Ed Mierzwinski of US PIRG, eleven states have stricter notification standards than the federal bill, and eight states have freeze laws stronger than those in the bill: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, and North Carolina. All of these laws would be eliminated under the measure.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Chertoff and Chemical Plant Security

An editorial in today’s New York Times criticized Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, for his lack of leadership in the area of chemical plant security. Chemical plants are one of the ways terrorists can attack the U. S. For example, an attack on a chlorine plant, releasing significant amounts of poison gas, could endanger thousands.

OSHA has regulations designed to reduce the chance of an accidental release of hazardous chemicals or of an explosion. However, these regulations are designed to protect against accidents, not deliberate acts. Many chemical plants have security plans and methods to protect against deliberate acts that would endanger the public. However, many plants do not have such protections, and the federal government has been slow to issue regulations to require them.

In a speech to leaders of the chemical industry, Mr. Chertoff supported the concept of federal preemption of state regulations of chemical plants if the federal regulations were weaker.

According to the New York Times, "Mr. Chertoff seemed perfectly content to defer on key security matters to an industry that contributes heavily to Republican campaigns but has proved to be dangerously unwilling to take public safety seriously."

Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, a Republican and a Democrat, have introduced a bill that would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop safety standards that would be mandatory for all chemical plants. This legislation is needed. But action will still be required by Homeland Security to write and enforce the regulations.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Corporate Offenders Not Paying Fines

The government regulatory agencies enforce regulations by imposing fines on those who violate the regulations. This ability to fine violators puts teeth into the rules.

Therefore if the violators can escape the fines, the regulations have no teeth. According to an Associate Press story in the Washington Post Sunday, corporations are stiffing the government on fines. Some examples: A $3 million fine to a pipeline company after a deadly fire was reduced by 92 percent. Coal firms were charged more than $1.3 million for deadly violations. The penalties are largely unpaid.

According to the AP, criminals and civil offenders owe the government more than $35 billion in fines, based on Justice Department figures, more than five times the amount owed a decade ago. This is enough to cover the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security.

The ability to impose penalties is the heart of the ability of the government to protect workers and other citizens. When the government does not effectively collect the money owed, it is not only cheating taxpayers but is giving up its ability to protect us.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

U. S. House Passes Bill to Prevent States from Regulating Food Safety Labels

Usually Republicans support the concept of Federalism, the reliance of states to make decisions about the welfare of their residents. Sometimes known as "states rights", the idea is that individual states should make their own rules based on the preferences of their citizens rather than rely on the Federal government.

That is, unless the Republicans in Congress don’t like the actions states are taking.

A bill passed by the U. S. House of Representatives, H.R. 4167, introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) would "preempt", or overrule, all state regulations about food safety, including labeling requirements to warn consumers of about dangers to the food supply, including carcinogenic and toxic substances in food.

The bill passed the House on Wednesday on a largely party line vote (92% of Republicans, 35% of Democrats voting for the bill)

Not only does Congressman Rogers want to limit the federal government’s food safety labeling regulations, he does not want any state to require food safety warnings not approved by the federal government.

Story in Washington Post

Monday, March 06, 2006

AT&T, BellSouth Tout Competition and then Announce Merger

On March 1, 2006, both AT&T and BellSouth submitted their comments to the FCC's rulemaking proceeding concerning consumer protection for broadband customers. As in the earlier round of comments, both companies opposed broadband consumer protection regulations because, they said, the competition would prevent any need for the protection. (I submitted comments on the same day in favor of consumer protection regulations).

AT&T commented that "In light of this robust, head-to-head competition, the Commission should stand firmly by its well-established policy of letting 'the marketplace, not the government, pick the winners and losers among new services.'"

BellSouth commented that "The BIA [Broadband Internet Access] services market is competitive; it adequately protects consumers from the concerns contemplated in the Notice [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking]".

Four days after the two companies told the FCC about robust competition, they announced their intent to merge. This merger would create a massive telecommunications company that would supply long distance, local telephone, cell phone, and broadband wireless (DSL) service. Cingular Wireless, which will be part of the new company, had recently acquired the wireless business of AT&T.

Not only will the new company be the largest provider of broadband Internet service and the largest cell phone carrier, it will provide nearly half of all telephone lines.

Will we still have "robust, head-to-head competition"?