I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. ~Charles Dickens
At this time of the year, these words by Dickens haunt me, especially when considering the Year In Politics and how broad the chasm between the 'haves' and 'have nots' has grown in our society.
You can see and feel it all around you. Indeed, less than five years ago there would be dozens of Christmas parties, companies giving employee's bonus checks rather than pink slips, and overall a much brighter sense of prosperity in the air.
Yet we each do our best to survive, all the while asking, wasn't America supposed to be about more that bare survival? So for better or worse, most of the major political stories for 2011 all focus upon one essential subject: economic malaise and the growing disparity between the rich and poor.
With the United States still recovering from a debilitating recession that has kept unemployment figures hovering around nine percent (probably double that when you factor the people that are dropped from the computations after 18 months) and one in two Americans living at or below the poverty level, without doubt the biggest story of 2011 was the Occupy Wall Street movement and its pervasive call for qualities of fairness, stability, and sanity in government policy.
To give an idea of just how far from 'fair & balanced' the agenda has become in Washington, back in 1985 President Ronald Reagan said “We're going to close unproductive tax loopholes that allow some of the true wealthy to avoid paying their fair share and sometimes make it possible for millionaires to pay nothing.” Billionaires like Warren Buffett issue similar sentiments.
Yet whenever President Barack Obama makes such statements, he gets accused of instigating class warfare. So as we enter the 2012 election cycle, without doubt the big question is whether Republicans can shake their newfound image as the 'Party of the 1 Percent'.
When the TEA Party rose to prominence two years ago on an anti-tax agenda that targeted government waste, boondoggles, and Cadillac-style pension plans for government employees, they grasped one horn of the problem. But since 1997 when Republicans re-directed themselves to slashing taxes for the wealthy, the annual average income of the 400 richest Americans has more than tripled to $345 million, while their share of the tax burden has plunged by 40 percent. And a billionaire in the top 400 pays less than 17 percent of his income in taxes - 5% less than someone earning $26,000 per year.
This is the reality that has shaped, re-defined, and re-focused America in the year 2011. “Most Americans got none of the growth of the preceding dozen years,” notes Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. “All the gains went to the top percentage points.”
Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford all fought for higher taxes and even after the Kennedy tax cuts, the top tax rate stood at 70% - double its current level. What these leaders understood that contemporary politicians have forgotten in their anti-tax jihad is that progressive taxation paid for postwar investments in infrastructure, science and education that allowed average Americans to get ahead. That changed in the 1970s, when high inflation drove up wages and pushed the middle class into higher tax brackets.
One of the big stories this summer was the inability of Congress to agree upon how to handle increasing the debt ceiling; which again, sent the stock markets into a spiral and cost Americans even more of their hard-earned 'rainy-day' funds.
Yet tax breaks for the 'One Percent' not only cost the federal government far more than all discretionary and defense spending, they even exceed the annual income taxes collected from individuals. Discretionary spending accounts for $671 billion, defense spending $744 billion, income taxes garner $1.1 trillion, yet the revenue lost to tax breaks amounts to $1.2 trillion.
Nowhere is the dynamics of the 'War on the Poor' more evident than with the case of Sen. Scott Brown, who replaced the late Ted Kennedy. Brown set about eviscerating the Volcker Rule, which was designed to bar big financial institutions from using their own money to make risky speculative bets on the market. By agreeing to provide Democrats with the crucial 60th vote on finance reform, Brown secured an exemption from the trading ban for mutual funds and insurers and insisted that Wall Street entities like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase who helped create the financial collapse, be allowed to continue using taxpayer-subsidized capital to gamble on hedge funds and private-equity deals. Former Fed Chair Paul Volcker aptly noted: “Allowing a bank to invest in a speculative fund goes against the very intent of the bill.”
In the end, Brown forced Democrats to spike a tax on big banks and hedge funds designed to generate $19 billion to pay for the costs of financial reform, which resulted in consumers and small banks being forced to pick up the tab.
Speaking of the overriding need for Congress to find $1.5 trillion in budget cuts, currently Republicans are insisting that none of the savings come from closing tax loopholes. Currently this includes $690 billion in cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent; $321 billion in itemized deductions for top-bracket taxpayers, $129 billion for subsidies on foreign profits; $44 billion in subsidies for oil & gas companies; $21.4 billion in carried-interest loopholes for hedge-fund managers; and $10 billion on loans for vacation homes & yachts.
On the chopping block for being cut: $650 billion for special ed, student aid, and assistance to poor schools; $310 billion for national institutes of health; $100 billion for Centers for Disease Control and FDA; $98 billion in energy grants to help poor families afford heat; $20 billion job training for the unemployed.
So yes, this is the big reality politically for 2011 and segues into the larger question for 2012: will we gut consumer protections, allow increased pollution to the environment, make education the province solely for the rich, and give whatever cookies we have left in the jar to the rich even if it requires borrowing from China, dismantling Medicare and taxing the middle class in the process
British Petroleum Wins for Being Irresponsible
Two summer's ago British Petroleum's oil began to pour into the Gulf of Mexico. It did not stop for 87 days. Today the economic and environmental devastation remain as thousands of Gulf coast residents cope with massive health problems associated with oil and improperly tested toxic dispersants such as Corexit, which has been ingested into vast levels of the aquatic environment, and hence into the human chain of life.
Sadly, due to an Executive Order media blackout by President Obama, the extent and depth of this devastation is marginalized and not fully explored by corporate mainstream media.
At a time when the Federal Government is claiming itself poor and cutting budgets and support for environmental protection, unlike the residents of the Gulf, BP just scored a nearly $10 billion dollar tax credit by writing off its 'losses' incurred from their negligence in the Gulf.
$10 billion is the entire annual budget of the EPA, by the way, whose funding was recently slashed in the continuing budgetary resolution. Again, can anybody see what is wrong with this picture?
Guns Versus Butter
In a new series entitled Vox Politic, Review contributor Matt deHeus pointed out with the budget battle, 58% of our Discretionary Budget is dedicated to the Department of Defense. With 46.5% of the world's total in military spending, the U.S. now spends roughly the same amount on 'defense' as the rest of the world combined, leading us to wonder how many of you have guns or deadbolts worth more than your home?
On the State Front
On the State level, Governor Rick Snyder navigated a controversial budget overhaul that replaced the Michigan Business Tax with a flat six percent corporate rate. Another controversial component concerned the plan to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit as part of closing the state's $1.8 billion deficit. Again, this credit put more money in the pockets of the middle class and working poor, providing a refund equivalent to 20 percent of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.
Following his one-man attempt to eviscerate Michigan's Medical Marijuana Law, Attorney General Bill Schuette has faced numerous rounds of criticism centered around the hypocrisy pertaining to his position that the voter passed initiative is invalid due to current federal law, while arguing for the primacy of the 10th Amendment and 'States Rights' when it comes to other issues such as Obamacare.
According to a Dec. 1st piece in The Chicago Tribune, “Less than a month after the rare recall of a state lawmaker, Republican leaders in the Michigan Senate proposed a constitutional amendment to limit the reasons for which an elected public official can be recalled. The proposed amendment would limit a recall to reasons such as certain criminal convictions, official misconduct or misuse of public resources. An elected official could not be recalled for the 'discretionary performance of a lawful act or of a prescribed duty.'
The Year In Local Politics
By Mike Thompson
I'm a dud firecracker, I ain't got any fuse
I ain't got no inspiration, since I lost my muse
I'm a table with two legs, I'm a spider with five
I'm going down slow, muse, when will you arrive?
Loudon Wainwright III's "Muse Blues,"
Seriously, I cannot muse upon any major news for Saginaw County and within, We have three new members on the City Council and two on the Saginaw Board of Education, but what do you, the reader, really care? There was only about 10 percent voter turnout in the November election, which could have led to a small countywide property millage to benefit all of the school children, but the 10 percent rejected this. Sad. It seems as though we are becoming so selfish as a society that we don't even care about the kids.
Ruth Ann Knapp will join the Saginaw Board of Education after four decades of serving as a truly brilliant music and arts educator in city schools, but how many among us will recognize this, with our abandonment of local news in favor of the high-tech national junk? Rudy Patterson, a longtime school volunteer sports coach, will make another great addition to the school board. Norm Braddock is making a shift from the school board to the City Council, and the other newcomers include Annie Boensch, a Covenant Neighborhood Association volunteer, and Floyd Kloc, who used to be the assistant city attorney. But continuing my theme, do you the reader even recognize any of these names?
Also defeated in November was $7 million to renovate City Hall, which doesn't seem so negative or selfish, because it seems we should be able to fix up City Hall for less than $7 million, or maybe move City Hall to the next-door Post Office, which the feds seem determined to close, no doubt clawing a huge chunk out of the $14 trillion national debt.
This year a $150 trash fee was added, to replace the service as calibrated via property tax values, without knowing why or how City Hall is paying Waste Management so much more for this service.
The City Council also kicked Al Holiday, the former County Board of Commissioners chairman, off of the Housing Commission, which oversees public housing. Sure, as I digress in the Hunter S. Thompson mode, the Housing Commissioners received some free dinners at their meetings, but the City Council members a few years ago would dine at Treasure Island, in between afternoon committee-of-the-whole sessions and routine evening business meetings.
I should apologize for not having more to share as a former City Hall reporter for The Saginaw News. The infamous Housing Commission purchase of the fairgrounds property on Webber at East Genesee was intended to complement ongoing development in the area, which had led to the intensive Ren-View protests of the early 2000s. We can see in retrospect that this idea was ill advised, but who knew at the time?
I respect the contributions of time and effort that Dan Fitzpatrick and Paul Virciglio gave to revitalizing Hoyt Park, and Amos O'Neal with Parishioners on Patrol, and Amanda Kitterman-Miller for the annual spring cleanups, plus I saw Larry Coulouris working with a crew at Deindorfer Woods near the Vet's Hospital, and my former classmate at Delta College, Mayor Greg Branch, is giving countless civic hours.
But to me, these are citizen volunteer activities. To me, the main purpose of the City Council is to legislate, and I'm not seeing any meaningful legislation in terms of issues such as housing and, above all, public safety. When are we finally going to do something about merging police and fire within today's budget constraints? Do we have to talk about it for another decade?
The City Council passed a dangerous dogs ordinance, but in my neighborhood I see no reduction in dangerous dogs. In fact, during a summer walk to a neighborhood store, a pit bull actually escaped from his or her enclosed fence and barked madly at my feet. Thankfully, he or she was just a puppy and responded to my screams toward the doorway of his or her owner, or I would now be a one-legged writer. Hunter Thompson would have shot the pup with his carbine, in the middle of the mother-loving eyes.
And the City Council allowed Manager Darnell Earley to poop-can the city attorney, Tom Fancher, only to go under a contract with Andre Borrello at Smith Bovill. Nothing against Andre, who was working on unresolved suburban water contracts way back during the era of the departed Cecil Collins, whom Earley despised, and was logging more $100-plus per hour as the water contracts remained unresolved. But this firing of Fancher didn't really make sense, as much as the departed Al Schmid always wanted to get rid of the city attorney's office.
Actually since the federal government has more and more say-so and power over local government, I would have to say that the main local news in my neighborhood is the impact of President Obama's 2009 economic stimulus program.
Saginaw City Hall, to the credit of not-thanked-enough good administrators such as Odail Thorns, John Stemple and Rob Davis, managed to land nearly $20 million for "neighborhood stabilization" out of the $800 billion national pie. City Hall has proceeded to demolish a bunch of abandoned properties behind my home on the near West Side, although rehab costs (such as $110,000 for a $40,000 home) are questionable.
It also seems they are blowing a big chunk of the cash for the Jefferson Apartments on Millard, over near the school board headquarters, but we'll see. Folks from the abandoned truly downtown Bancroft and Eddy complexes may need to move to Jefferson Apartments.
I guess it's sad to say, but the feds seem to be wasting far more money far more blissfully on other endeavors than this.
The Year in Local Politics - Bay City & Midland
By Robert E. Martin
Bay City Mayor Chris Shannon was re-elected to a second term as Mayor of Bay City back in November. In January 2011, the Review did an extensive interview with Shannon where he noted the three key issues facing Bay City as declining property tax revenues, decline in state revenue sharing (since 2000 Bay City has lost more than $2 million in state shared revenues, $535,000 this year alone); and finally, the issue of unfunded liabilities. In citing improvements, Shannon noted that with improved health care plans for retirees, the city managed to save $750,000 annually.
Livestock Veterinarian and first time-author James Crissman of Bay City released his compelling novel, Root Cause, which explored the nature of personal nourishment in the age of the global food industry. “The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were at least partially fueled by rapidly rising food prices due to increasing fuel costs and weather related crop failures,” Crissman told The Review. “It's not hard to connect the dots. We've reached peak oil and peak coal and the earth is getting hotter and the population continues to explode. Plus the majority of the world's people live in huge cities where they have almost no opportunity to grow their own food. It's like a Hummer in a swamp. Our all-wheel drive oil dependence will get us stuck in deeper mud. Some have estimated the post-oil sustainable carrying capacity of earth at one to two billion. Those figures seem about right to me.”
As for local communities in the Great Lakes Bay Area, Midland, Michigan faired quite well, thank you. Forbes magazine ranked Midland 4th in the country for 'Best Places to Raise Family' based on affordability, education and jobs; and they also ranked the city third in the nation for 'economic growth potential and 10th in the nation for 'Top 10 Alternative Energy Producers'.
Snyder & Congress Navigate Potentially Unconstitutional Tax Hikes on Homesteads and Retirement Pensions
Just received prior to our deadline is the news that on Dec. 15th, $630 million in new taxes are scheduled to start in Michigan on January 1st, 2012, despite not being approved by statewide voters. This while the State has just disclosed $700 million in surplus revenues for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2011.
“Grassroots taxpayers in Michigan are being double-crossed by Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and the Republican Party majority of State Senators and State House Representatives who just last January took the oath of office to uphold our Michigan Constitution,” charged Bill McMaster, State Chairman (Volunteer) of Taxpayers United Michigan Foundation.
“Instead of limiting the tax burden on grassroot families still residing in Michigan, and instead of reducing the size of state government and the number of liberty-depriving regulations, Gov. Snyder and his Republican 'Reinventing Michigan leadership' have ambushed us with still higher new and expanded taxes causing loss of more jobs and unjustifiable growth of intrusive State government control into our daily lives,” McMaster reported, as state legislators adjourned and went home until next year. State Senators met for 100 session days this year, the House of Representatives for 102 session days.
Tax & Spending Up 5% Since Republicans Began Reinventing Michigan
“Total State Revenues (from all sources) for fiscal year 2010 under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm were $45.7 billion. The latest figures from the Legislative Fiscal Agencies report Total State Revenues for the current fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011 will increase to $48 billion.
“Who'd have thought trusting voters giving the Republican Party control of all three Branches of Michigan Government would result in Gov. Snyder's 'leadership' collecting and spending $2.3 billion, or 5%, more in Total State Revenues during his first year than Gov. Jennifer Granholm did in her last year?
Grassroots taxpayers have a problem with the lack of transparency and accuracy of government-issued accounting, which involves manipulation of the Total State Revenue figure after the Sept. 30, 2011 fiscal year end. The $1.4 billion deficit that Gov. Snyder said he inherited from Gov. Granholm was wiped out before June.
The amount of Gov. Snyder's surplus inherent in Total State Revenues was being changed retroactively as Legislators continued until today to convert “surplus” funds to “expenses” to cover such things as the costs of increased contribution rates of $470 thousand for retirement for the Legislative Council. Additional millions were taken from the “surplus” and added as a sop for Michigan Education Association priorities. Legislators did refuse yesterday to make an extra revenue sharing payment of $220 million from surplus as demanded by Detroit officials to help reduce Detroit's debt.
“Our 1978 Headlee Tax Limitation Amendment in our Michigan Constitution guarantees NO NEW OR INCREASED TAXES WITHOUT STATEWIDE VOTER APPROVAL. That means Gov. Snyder is also prohibited from establishing new units of government called 'Authorities' or Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs) without a vote of grassroots taxpayers,” asserts McMaster.
"But Gov. Snyder and similarly inclined politicians in state, county, city, village and township governments are willfully attempting to violate the Constitutional Right of Michigan grassroots taxpayers to vote Yes or No on any and all new or increased tax proposals. Without a statewide vote of the people, their tax increases cannot be legally imposed AND ARE AUTOMATICALLY NULL AND VOID.”
“All of the provisions of the 1978 Headlee Tax Limitation Amendment can be found under 'Headlee Tax Limitation Amendment'. Michigan Constitution, Article IX, Sections 6 and 25-33.
“According to Michigan Election Law, grassroots taxpayers must be given 70 days advance notice of Gov. Snyder/legislators' proposed ballot language before residents can exercise our Constitutional Right to vote Yes or No on Republican double crossing tax hikes,” he concludes.
Stay tuned in 2012 for more details.