API conference call on energy companies and pension funds

April 30, 2011 · Posted in Business and industry, National politics, Politics · Comments Off on API conference call on energy companies and pension funds 

I’ll admit it – to some a discussion of pension funds would rank behind watching paint dry on a list of favorite topics, particularly on a weekend where so much is going on locally. But the authors of a study on that subject wanted to make the point that over the last several years energy stocks have outperformed for these funds, and on Wednesday I participated in a blogger conference call on the topic.

My question was first out of the chute and asked, in essence, whether the same social do-gooders who were trying to get various pension funds to divest from politically incorrect companies and industries were succeeding in driving state pension funds away from these investments. It appears not, which to me is a good sign. (Granted, this is based on pension funds from just four states – Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. While they are expanding the study to 13 more states later this summer; alas, Maryland is not one.)

Presumably the goal would be to encourage more investment in this group of stocks, and while – as they always say – part performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of future results, perhaps these state pension funds should look into expanding their portfolio. Of course, there’s always the risk that government policy would dampen stock performance and other callers broached that subject.

Some may ask why this is important. Well, given the recent uproar about state pensions in general and employee contributions to same in particular, obviously API felt that it was an appropriate topic for their membership and wanted to state the case that the increased returns could conceivably assist in keeping these funds solvent.

You can check out the audio here at the Energy Tomorrow blog (as I said, I’m the first question) and transcript here. Thanks to Jane Van Ryan of API for the invitation!

Radio days volume 16

Once again, it’s been awhile since I was featured on a radio program – my last edition of “Radio Days” was in 2009. (I was a guest a few times on Melody’s show in 2010 as well.)

But, out of the blue on Wednesday I was invited to go national for the first time as a guest on the Thom Hartmann program. Ironically enough, one would gather he’s the liberal answer to Rush because he occupies the same time slot during the day. But they wanted to discuss my Pajamas Media piece on regulation, and I received a message from Danielle Howe (who works for Black Rock – they handle PJM promotional appearances) asking me if I’d do the show and warning me that I could be ambushed since Thom is a ‘progressive.’ Didn’t faze me any.

So now you have the background – how did it really go?

Well, first of all, the people I worked with at Hartmann’s show were as nice as they could be, and, to be honest, so was Thom. We had a relatively civil conversation and I worked to get my points across. It wasn’t exactly how I’d have scripted it but I thought I was decently effective fighting behind enemy lines, as it were.

Something much different about this experience was working the Skype video in. I have used Skype audio before for a writing client of mine, but in this case I had to drag out an old webcam of mine and hook it up to my laptop. Well, I got that figured out but then they didn’t like the fact I had a window in the background so I had to turn the camera (and place my chair) at a more awkward angle – I was squished up against my bookshelf. At least my closet door provided a darker background.

Then, I had assumed that I would need a remote microphone but instead the call was on my cel. So Skype provided the video feed but my phone the audio. Hopefully that was in sync for the viewing audience.

So once the logistics worked out, they called me twice – once to test the Skype and the other to go on the air. That was about 1:00, so I was treated to Thom’s top-of-the-hour reading and remarks on the news of the day. Yes, it was a Republican-bashing festival, and if I have one thing to say about how Thom reacts – well, he’s exceptionally hyperbolic. Everything is a disaster to him. It’s why I started right out, right after he introduced the piece with his lengthy contention about the bad old days when there was no regulation whatsoever, saying he’s occupying an “extreme” position that’s not reflective of a normal view of costs vs. benefits.

One case in point was when we were speaking about the offshore wind turbines. (I thought it funny how he misunderstood me to say “windows” – is my diction that bad?) Thom was all up in arms about oil, coal, nuclear, and natural gas and the health maladies they allegedly caused. I understand the principle behind fracking, and obviously there is a slight amount of risk behind the technology. But that risk can be easily mitigated, while the benefits of clean-burning natural gas to create electricity (at a far cheaper cost than wind power) are much greater. Had I thought quickly enough I could have ticked off a number of drawbacks to wind turbines – they’re noisy, bad for aviary life, and not nearly as reliable as other forms of power generation because the wind has to blow AND it has to blow within a certain speed range.

And what was that about the 5% more moisture in the atmosphere causing storms and brought on by global warming? (Maybe that was on the news.) Since we all know there have been other warm periods in Earth’s history (well before the invention of the SUV) can we establish if those periods were overly moist as well? Or is Thom and his listeners just looking for any port in a storm (pun intended)?

But the final point was the one where I wished we had a few more minutes, because I was making the argument that Thom and I were essentially on the same side but had a completely different idea about the solution. Thom would get rid of the lobbyists (I think he said “arrest” or “imprison” them?) through a particular means but I would take care of the problem in another fashion by draining the money swamp. If there’s less money and power to be given out, then there’s less need for lobbyists and they can return to making a more honest living. My contention wasn’t completely addressed, and perhaps that’s my fault for not steering in that direction more quickly. (Hey, ten to twelve minutes on the radio flies by in a heartbeat.)

Still, I would imagine that opening that door will give me a better opportunity at round 2 at some future date. As I said in my wrapup thanking the staff, I’ll just have to keep writing good stuff and surely they’ll want me back.

Like I said to them, I had fun. I guess that’s what counts.

Shorebird of the Week – April 28, 2011

April 28, 2011 · Posted in Delmarva items, Delmarva Shorebirds, Sports · Comments Off on Shorebird of the Week – April 28, 2011 

David Walters is instructed by catcher Michael Ohlman before taking the mound and earning the save against Savannah April 27.

David Walters gets set to face Savannah in an April 27 game. He would toss a scoreless ninth.

During the six game winning streak Delmarva currently enjoys, we’ve seen a few close games. The man Ryan Minor counts on to put out the fire is closer David Walters, who is tied for the South Atlantic League lead with six saves racked up thus far.

Overall, his numbers may not look all that impressive – in eight appearances Walters is 0-2 with a 5.59 ERA and a WHIP of 1.45. But when you have the game on the line, a bad inning will generally accrue entirely against your stats; either you get the save or the loss. Walters has been the last Delmarva pitcher used in seven of his eight games; that eighth game added 4 earned runs to his totals in just 2 innings pitched. So as a true closer he’s 0-1 with a much more respectable 2.35 ERA, saving 6 out of 7 chances.

David, a product of Francis Marion University and Mariottsville, Maryland, is one of those who was passed over in the 2009 draft and signed as a minor-league free agent by the Orioles. (However, he could have been a Atlanta Braves prospect since they drafted him in the 47th round in 2008.) Nevertheless, he moved up through the Orioles system quickly enough that the 23-year-old landed in Delmarva for the tail end of the 2010 campaign. For the Shorebirds he was 2-1 with a 4.91 ERA in 22 games, covering 25 2/3 innings. Walters finished third among ‘Bird pitchers with 4 saves as well.

Perhaps the biggest asset David has is the heavy sinker which makes him a ground ball machine – his current 3.17 ratio of ground outs to fly outs means he’s as likely to induce a double play ball as strike out a batter. He’s only struck out 21 batters in 35 1/3 Shorebird innings over the last two seasons so David pitches more to contact.

Because he wasn’t a high draft pick, David may not move up the organizational ladder as quickly as, say, a Manny Machado or Trent Mummey. This means he has a chance to set a Shorebird save record as long as we keep winning. (The best save mark I’ve found in quick research is 33, by Derek Brown in 1998.) And since that ’98 team won 81 games, that gave Brown plenty of opportunities – let’s hope David can be as successful.

By the way, the Daily Times also did a profile on David on Sunday so the word must be out.

 

Self-promotion

Well, my Pajamas Media article was noticed by some interesting people.

So today (since I assume most will read this Thursday morning) at 2 p.m. (1 p.m. – I was bumped up) I’m scheduled as a guest on the Thom Hartmann radio program. I’ve been on radio before as a guest – which will help me in this instance – but this is the first time I’ve been invited to a program of such a scale and it’s to discuss this Pajamas Media post. This should be interesting since Hartmann is considered the cream of the crop among liberal radio hosts, and you can guess where I stand politically.

Of course, since this region tends to favor conservative talk, there’s no local station which carries Thom’s program but you can listen here.

So, since this will likely by the top post seen by any who stumble onto my website thanks to this appearance (as happened previously with my Rushalanche in 2007) I invite you to read, ponder, and comment on what I have to say. The local liberals know that I am fair with my comments.

Besides, if you don’t like my politics, wait a few hours or until tomorrow – no, my political stripes aren’t going to change, but I do a regular feature on our local minor league baseball team (the Delmarva Shorebirds) Thursday evenings and Friday night I put up local music videos. If I did wall-to-wall politics I would have been fried four years ago – still, I do my share of discussion on local, state, and national issues.

But I look forward to getting this opportunity to speak out on overregulation – hopefully I can vocalize as well as I place pixels on a computer screen or words on a printed page.

Not taxed enough already?

April 27, 2011 · Posted in All politics is local, Delmarva items, Politics · 6 Comments 

And to think I voted for this guy?

Perhaps Joe Ollinger doesn’t explain his case very well in a recent Letter to the Editor published in the Daily Times, but his contention is that we should gladly pay the nickel per $100 increase in property taxes here because, “in those years that property values decrease, such as this year, to maintain a revenue flow that keeps pace with inflation and population growth, the tax rate must increase by the maximum allowed by the cap.”

But it didn’t last year because his opponent, incumbent County Executive Rick Pollitt, was fretting over his re-election chances. So where was Joe then? Certainly he wasn’t advocating that Rick bleed local property owners dry! Remember, Pollitt was the one who complained for the entire first three years of his term about the cap and threatened to create a “shadow budget” with items he had to cut because revenues weren’t to his liking.

Yet even after the piece in the Daily Times, Joe was at the Republican Club meeting last night handing out a flyer which claimed Pollitt’s proposal to zero out the homestead credit has several “shortcomings.” These are directly from the flyer:

  • It is unfair. One group will benefit at the expense of other groups (renters, commercial property owners, future homebuyers, our own children and/or grandchildren)
  • It is a subsidy, and as with all subsidies, one group receives an economic benefit to the detriment of others.
  • It is not the “American independent – I’ll pay my own way” conservative attitude. Instead, it is a liberal socialist idea that expects a faceless society to pay for a portion of your expenses.
  • It will artificially increase the real property tax rate.
  • It will artificially increase the personal property rate.
  • It is bad for business and economic development.
  • It will decrease residential real estate activity.
  • It will increase the complexity of the tax code.

I suppose the best way to look at this is point by point. Joe has some good arguments, and some clunkers.

First of all, I don’t care a lot for the emotional appeal of calling something unfair; that sounds like something an eight-year-old would do. While it’s indeed true that the government is using the tax code to promote a certain behavior, I don’t think that a family or a homeowning couple is going to let a tax break of a few hundred dollars over time stop them if they want to move to a better school district, buy a larger (or smaller) home, or pursue a better economic opportunity. Unfortunately, our modern society is littered with these cases where one group has an advantage over other groups; case in point – the home mortgage interest deduction, which is a much larger incentive to buy a home than a minor property tax break.

My thought on point number two (the “subsidy” point) is much along the line of the first item.

But I don’t see where that tax break is such a “liberal socialist” idea – after all, we all want lower taxes. Right now, we have two options on the table: a 10% homestead exemption or a zero homestead exemption. So far, given Joe’s track record of questioning the opposition to a nickel property tax increase (even one which falls within the revenue cap) I wonder why he’s chosen this hill to fight on. No one has yet justified why we couldn’t cut another three percent from our overall budget, which is approximately the amount being discussed.

Since I don’t know whether our current homestead exemption is factored into the existing rates for either property tax or personal property tax (better known as the inventory tax; a tax Wicomico County is alone among Maryland jurisdictions in charging) I can’t rebut or agree with Joe’s fourth and fifth points.

But I do think it’s a stretch to say that a homestead tax exemption change would be “bad for business and economic development.” Perhaps I need some examples of counties which have tried this and how they fared. My guess is that there were a number of much larger factors which had to do with other overtaxation, red tape, and regulation that sent them spiraling downward economically.

I’d also like to see proof of point number seven (“decrease residential real estate activity”) with examples. We’re pretty much at the bottom of the barrel now.

I can agree with Joe’s final point, though. But then again, we should already have a pretty complex system based on the rates in effect when a home was purchased and then increased by the maximum amount when times were good and assessments shot through the roof. Does the 10% increase now in effect take into account all the money “lost” to the county when a property’s value shot up 40 percent but taxes only increased 10 percent? Is there a “catch-up” provision?

For example, take a mythical home assessed at $100,000 in a particular tax year and taxed at $1 per hundred dollars of valuation; their annual tax would be $1,000. The way I figure it, raising the assessed value a year later to $150,000 (assuming the same tax rate) would increase taxes to $1,500 – but under the 10% rule they could only go up to $1,100 because your taxable assessed value only can go up to $110,000. Does the county lose out on that $400 entirely or is that worked into the next year’s tax rate?

The whole idea behind the zero homestead exemption is to have a tradeoff; as Pollitt notes in his budget presentation:

“(I)n return for a slightly higher tax rate, I’m proposing to make sure our home-owning citizens get a permanent tax break starting in fiscal year 2013 to go with the increase.”

Beginning in FY2013, Pollitt wants the amount you’re assessed on to never go up – if your FY2013 assessment is $100,000 that’s where it will stay. But (and this is a BIG but,) that doesn’t mean your taxes wouldn’t increase. Whatever the state determines for “constant yield” and can be slid under the revenue cap, that rate increase will still hit you. Next year it may be a nickel again – or it could be a dime.

Of course, there’s a corollary to this as well – what if assessed values continue to plummet? Does this provision allow you to have a lower assessed value and remain there? We don’t know the answer to that, but there’s a very real possibility we haven’t weathered the real estate storm yet and that this scenario could apply.

The proposal needs to be explained in terms a layman can understand, with real-life examples from counties which have taken the lead in this area.

Julie Brewington has her take on the situation as well.

WCRC meeting – April 2011

We went back to the future last night, as former WCRC president Marc Kilmer was again pressed into service to run the meeting. It was one of the lengthier meetings in memory; not because of Kilmer’s administration but because our featured speaker had a LOT to say. (Plus it took me a little extra time to read the minutes – the Lord’s Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance were done in an average amount of time, as was the treasurer’s report. I can tell faithful attendees that I condensed the minutes for this meeting due to a lack of reports so next month will move more quickly.)

Anyway, this meeting was devoted to our annual Legislative Update, presented by Delegate Mike McDermott. Anyone who’s heard him knows Mike is an animated and quoteworthy sort, and I had plenty of notes from last night.

Flanked by fellow Delegate Charles Otto, who chimed in occasionally, McDermott described a session where, “by the middle of the session, we’re telling people to get out of the state.” He divided his presentation into three parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Those things he deemed good were primarily distilled from “killing as much (bad legislation) as we could.” But he also spent time discussing the origin of his “field notes,” originally notes for self-reference that he eventually thought could become a means of communication with his constituents. Deemed too lengthy for use by the Daily Times, Mike turned to the alternative media in order to get the word out. (I’ve used them on occasion as background information, but will really need them later on.) He hoped that we “felt connected” with Annapolis through that unvarnished filter.

(It’s worthy of stating that I also get communications from other Delegates, but Mike’s and fellow freshman Delegate Justin Ready’s seem to be the most in-depth.)

“You do make a difference,” he said. For example, same-sex marriage “was going to happen,” but “the people who were concerned got active” and support among wavering Democrats from moderate-to-conservative districts eventually eroded. Mike recalled how the pro-gay marriage forces celebrated their victory in getting the bill out of committee, figuring the hard work was over. But as time went on, votes in their favor were siphoned off and the measure was recommitted rather than face a negative floor vote that “could have killed it for a couple years.”

The proposed septic ban, which “would have killed the economy on the Shore,” was thwarted for the session as well – McDermott scored that as a victory.

Mike discussed the difference in approach Democrats have to energy bills at some length. For example, the offshore wind “boondoggle” was no problem to General Assembly Democrats despite the cost it would saddle Maryland ratepayers with. On the other hand, drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation under western Maryland would be dangerous. While I think Mike was a little hyperbolic in claiming the Marcellus natural gas would “make Maryland akin to Saudi Arabia,” there is a sizable deposit in that formation which would assist Maryland’s quest to not be a net energy importer. (Pennsylvania and New York are more fortunate in that regard, as the formation mainly lies within their borders.)

Annapolis liberals “did not care about the cost” of their pet items, Mike continued, as their “philosophy of government trumps everything else.”

Another aspect of the session McDermott praised (and was echoed by Otto) was the “cohesiveness” of the House GOP. The freshmen “weren’t quite what (the leadership) had in mind” but instead tended to serve as the “spine of the Republican caucus.” It gave the House GOP “solidarity and purpose” – for example, they had never voted en masse against a budget before but 42 of the 43 members said no to Governor O’Malley and the Democrats this time. (The one holdout, Delegate Wendell Beitzel, likely voted yes because of coal subsidies for his far-western district, said Mike.)

Other victories Mike claimed were getting rid of all but the most common-sense gun regulations and enhancing ignition interlock laws.

Leading off the list of the bad was in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. “It’s so illogical it defies the imagination,” said Mike. Part of the reason was that their slots would come out of the more lucrative out-of-state student population, but McDermott lamented the cost of the whole deal to taxpayers – not just in Montgomery County, but affecting Wor-Wic as well.

He also castigated the handling of the “bungled” Wicomico County straw vote to allow voters to determine whether they wanted an elected school board. As amended, the questions became “confusing,” but the good news is that Mike promised to prefile the bill for next year – obviously as a member newly sworn in this year he didn’t have the right to do so before.

That led to another comment from Mike where he said that “they (meaning the Democrats who run the House) take full advantage of the first year of a new term” by browbeating the freshman members of their caucus. They threaten to change committee assignments or not pass their pet bills if they don’t vote the proper way on “leadership votes.” Perhaps we can “take advantage of (those) displaced” in future sessions, opined Mike.

With all the General Assembly did, though, they failed to address the pension problem. Yet Democrats moved forward on adopting provisions of Obamacare – even though it could be overturned by the courts – to the tune of “tens of millions.” They’ve “written checks with inpunity” against not just us, but our children and grandchildren too.

Much of the ugly centered around two issues: the budget, and the process used to enact the 50% jump in the alcohol sales tax. That was a last-minute measure rushed through without proper debate and despite numerous heroic attempts by Republicans to amend the bill.

Mike’s biggest lament on the budget was that we were borrowing to fund projects which used to be paid in cash, meanwhile drawing down a number of trust funds to dangerous levels. The tax regimen was installed in order to replenish the trust funds.

But he saved his ire for the passage of the alcohol surtax, which Mike claimed would have a trickledown effect on local businesses once jobs in the bar and restaurant industry are lost. “Democrats like to use sin taxes (because it) divides the population,” Mike said, using the example of an appliance salesman he spoke to who didn’t mind the tax because he didn’t drink. Mike pointed out that it would still affect his bottom line if those laid off didn’t buy a new washer or two.

“If there’s anything that enraged me about Annapolis, it was the process…is it frustrating to be up there?” asked Mike. “Damn straight it is.”

Mike also was chagrined at his fellow Delegate, Norm Conway, regarding the state’s budget. While Conway claimed the budget was “morally responsible and fiscally prudent,” McDermott thought otherwise. It was “morally reprehensible” that we saddle ourselves with more debt like bond bills. Mike also chided Conway for the number of bills he chose not to vote on, likely fearing a backlash from either his district or Democratic leadership. (I’ve noted this trend for some time.)

In answering a question about “how do we make them pay for their votes?” Mike felt that, once redistricting was complete, we could get the word out about how vulnerable Democrats were really voting. As an example, Mike pointed out that there were three amendments presented to the bond bill.

Democrats wouldn’t vote for a 5 percent across-the-board cut.

Nor would they vote for a 3 percent cut.

They wouldn’t even go for a measly ONE PERCENT cut, which was at best symbolic. “Is that really unreasonable?” And when pressed about how that would affect his district, Mike had a ready answer: “apparently there’s not a lot of mayors in this place.” He would be thrilled to take a portion of the money and increase the local match because he understands the state’s financial shape.

McDermott also thought it interesting that he received a lot of attention from the Baltimore media as opposed to local news. Yet he got kudos, even from the opposition, for standing up for his district when we were being slighted. (Guess where that alcohol tax millions is going? We get $156,000 while other counties get millions.)

With all that said, the other reports were brief.

Speaking for the Central Committee, Dave Parker thanked the Delegates for their work and invited those at the WCRC meeting to come back in a week for the Central Committee meeting as well as the party’s Spring Convention in Ocean City on May 6-7. Dave also spoke about the national debt ceiling – rather than a crisis, it would simply force President Obama to live within his means for the first time.

I gave a quick update on the postcard situation, while Ann Suthowski filled us in on the topic of a future meeting. Joe Ollinger chimed in with a few words on the “zero homestead exemption” and why we should oppose it, and Gail Bartkovich alerted us to a county budget hearing at 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday at the Civic Center.

Clocking in at nearly 1 3/4 hours, it was a long but informative meeting. We reconvene next month on May 23 – a rare fourth Monday in May which wouldn’t conflict with Memorial Day. It’s the last May meeting until 2016, so let’s enjoy it.

 

The hidden tax

April 26, 2011 · Posted in Pajamas Media · 1 Comment 

My latest for PJM:

We all know what last Monday was. As many of us paid Uncle Sam’s toll – mine was almost a wash, which worked out about how I wanted it – one had either a sour mood in knowing that Fedzilla took more of our hard-earned salary or, conversely, that giddy feeling of having absconded with free money because a refund was due. (In many cases, though, that was just the money loaned to Beltway bureaucrats – interest free! Try finding a bank who will give you those terms!)

Yet we forget there’s a hidden tax which gnaws at our pocketbooks and the economy at large every day. It was pointed out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in a report timed for release last Monday called ‘Ten Thousand Commandments.’

(Continued at Pajamas Media…)

Unsurprisingly uninspired

Whether it’s because we have over eighteen months to go until the presidential election and about nine until the first real votes are cast, or if it’s a field which draws little but yawns, there’s just not a lot of buzz going in about the Republican presidential field. I had a poll up for a week and drew a small response – less than 5% of my readership had an opinion.

I set it up for two questions: preference for those already in the field and a wish list of those one would like to see enter. If the primary were held today, the top votegetters among my readership would be:

  • Ron Paul (35.48%)
  • Tim Pawlenty (25.81%)
  • Herman Cain (16.13%)
  • Rick Santorum (12.9%)
  • Newt Gingrich (6.45%)
  • Mitt Romney (3.23%)

In the category of zero support were Fred Karger, Roy Moore, and Buddy Roemer. That’s no surprise.

I was a bit surprised with the results of poll number 2, which asked who respondents would prefer to see jump into the field.

  • Michele Bachmann (25.0%)
  • Donald Trump (13.89%)
  • Gary Johnson (11.11%)
  • Rudy Giuliani (8.33%)
  • Haley Barbour, John Bolton, Mitch Daniels, George Pataki, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan (5.56% apiece)
  • Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin (2.78% apiece)

Paul Ryan was a write-in, as was Herman Cain. Somebody didn’t pay attention to my first poll.

And no one wants Jon Huntsman in the race. You would think since I allowed multiple answers on the wish list poll that someone would back him, but I guess not.

The biggest shock to me was just how quickly Sarah Palin has fallen out of favor. Had I asked the question a few months back I’m betting that she would be the top vote-getter, or at least right up there with perennial libertarian darling Ron Paul.

But it seems to me that her outspoken populist angle is being usurped by – of all people – Donald Trump. It’s surprising that a guy who has donated thousands to Democrats is being considered as a conservative darling, but he has name recognition to spare and isn’t partaking in the political doublespeak many other candidates engage in.

Honestly, I think she may have missed the boat on 2012. Whether Sarah would prefer to bide her time and wait for 2016 (which assumes an Obama victory and an open seat) or simply decided a position as a political outsider and spokesperson for conservative causes – one who can still draw a crowd – better suits her situation, well, that I don’t know. And there may be a cagey reason for her to let Trump take all the slings and arrows for awhile, since he seems to relish the spotlight regardless of how harsh it may be.

In a way, it’s great to have so many choices and not have someone considered a frontrunner at the moment. This is a time where we need a contest for the Republican nomination because it serves as a placeholder for a contest for the soul of the party itself. While the TEA Party can help elect a candidate, there’s still a faction of establishment Republicans who need to be eradicated from the levers of power before a takeover is possible. That faction is the one calculating just who would be the ‘safe’ choice acceptable to the American people yet malleable enough to control once in office.

Assuming President Obama is a one-term president, the new Republican president becomes the de facto leader of the party. It will take a strong conservative to fight not just Democrats but the establishment Republicans fighting the rear-guard action to bring the party to the center – in other words, the “No Labels” types. (Someone like Senator Jim DeMint comes to mind, but I doubt he’s running.)

I know my readership has a political compass pointing somewhere between conservative and libertarian, as it likely reflects my personal opinion. So it’s interesting to see just what kind of push that Ron Paul (and Gary Johnson, who announced shortly after I created the poll) have here as opposed to the nation at large.

In the next couple weeks I’ll begin to compile the Presidential campaign widget along with ones for the Maryland U.S. Senate seat and First District Congressional seat. (In that case I think the key question is whether we’ll see a Harris-Kratovil threepeat.) I know things slow down around here for the summer (who wants to sit inside reading blogs? Heck, I’m composing this outside in the summerlike breeze) but there’s a lot of political events going on.

Now is the time to really pay attention, since those in power know summer is a political siesta. That’s when they try and get away with the most damaging stuff.

The tax calculation

April 24, 2011 · Posted in All politics is local, Delmarva items, Politics · 2 Comments 

It’s a handy-dandy way to figure out just how much more the county will take out of your pocket.

On Thursday Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt announced through his spokesman Jim Fineran that county property owners now have a calculator to figure out how much more they’ll pay in property taxes next year.

In presenting the proposed Fiscal Year 2012 Budget to the Wicomico County Council on April 19th, County Executive Richard M. Pollitt, Jr., promised that a “tax calculator” to measure the suggested nickel tax increase would be on the county website “as soon as possible.” Mr. Pollitt announced today that, “It is up and running.”

The Wicomico County website is http://www.wicomicocounty.org/. On the homepage, there is a column on the right called “What’s New?” At the top of that column is a link titled “Proposed Tax Rate Comparison Calculator.” Users are advised to click on that link to go to the calculator.

There are two steps. If you do not know your most recent assessment value, the first is a link to the State of Maryland Real Property Database where users can access that information. County officials urge users to follow the directions carefully when they reach the link. The second is the calculator. Users may simply enter their assessment value, click on “calculate” and the device will provide specific numbers of the impact of the proposed nickel increase on the user.

In announcing the calculator, Mr. Pollitt said that, “I want to take the guess work out of this for our tax payers. I have proposed a nickel tax increase to maintain vital county services. I want the property owner to know exactly how much this is going to cost.”

The calculator does not take into effect changes in assessment from year-to-year or effects of the Homestead Credit. It is intended merely to define the effect of a nickel tax increase.

Actually, I can do the math pretty easily – for every $10,000 your property is worth, it’s going to cost you an extra $5. Someone with a modest $100,000 house will be on the hook for an extra $50, while a residence in Nithsdale or Tony Tank might see a $200 per year jump.

But, more importantly, the key question is where the extra money would be going. Pollitt claims that we’re just staying in place because assessed value in the county dropped by $300 million from last year to this year. Obviously those who were reassessed this year saw a decline of up to 1/3 in their rates, so a nickel increase may not necessarily hurt them but instead just cut into their savings.

(For example, a house assessed at $150,000 under the old rate would pay $1,138.50 in taxes, but dropping the assessment to $100,000 at the new rate makes the taxation $809.00. That’s over $300 in the homeowner’s pocket despite the increase.)

But those who didn’t get the benefit of the changes yet will have to bear the increase described above. And the increase stayed ahead of what would be considered constant yield, which is a departure from Pollitt’s previous practices. Of the five-cent increase, about 3.8 cents is constant yield while the other 1.2 cents is allowed under the revenue cap – and thank goodness for that, because otherwise we could have seen rates go up a full dime or 15 cents per hundred dollars of valuation.

Pollitt also promises to change the homestead exemption from 10 percent to zero, beginning next fiscal year. Of course, I’m not sure if that enables the tax paid to go down if an assessment is lower. Since those who were last assessed in 2009, just before the bottom really dropped out of the local housing maket, have their turn next year, will that affect them adversely? And how much more will Pollitt raise rates next year to make up for the change in homestead exemption? These questions won’t be addressed in this year’s budget – unlike the federal government, we don’t make long-term projections.

Yet if you look at the new operating budget, the largest increases seem to be in the personnel benefits, along with $200,000 devoted to a ‘time and motion study’ in the ‘Administration/Executive Function’ budget. Even without that, the executive branch didn’t suffer the cuts much of the remaining budget was forced to endure.

According to Pollitt’s budget guide, each penny in property tax brings in roughly $750,000. So in order to simply maintain the constant yield rate increase of 3.8 cents per $100 of assessed value, the County Council would have to shave about $1 million from the budget. It’s probably doable, but look for everyone potentially affected to scream bloody murder when the public hearing is held. Out of a budget of a little over $110 million, we’re actually talking about less than 1 percent cuts.

But, as I mentioned, cuts are just fine when they come out of someone else’s hide. Look for the victim card to be played early and often over the next couple months. In the end, the victims may be those homeowners who haven’t seen their assessments retreat downward to reflect the market just yet.

Maybe that will make you choke on your Easter ham, but it’s an upcoming fight we need to gird for.

Update: I wrote this last night, before Greg Latshaw at the Daily Times had his take.

Odds and ends number 28

Have you ever wondered where the phrase ‘odds and ends’ comes from? Me neither, but I use it to describe posts where I have a number of little items which only need a paragraph or two.

Last week I told you about the drive to send SB167 (in-state tuition for illegal immigrants) to referendum. Well, the battle has another supporter in Delegate Justin Ready, a fellow freshman Republican to Delegate Neil Parrott. In an e-mail to supporters, Ready reminded us that:

Perhaps the worst piece of legislation that passed the General Assembly in the just-concluded session was SB 167: The Dream Act, which gives in-state tuition rates (taxpayer funded benefits) to illegal immigrants. It allows them to attend community colleges and the University System at the in-county and in-state rates.

(snip)

We do have an alternative! The Maryland constitution provides for citizens to petition a passed bill to referendum by obtaining signatures. Several of us in the General Assembly have gotten together, led by Del. Neil Parrott from Washington County, to form a petition drive with dozens of pro-rule of law activists around Maryland. In order to put this measure on the ballot in the 2012 election, we must obtain 55,000 signatures from Maryland registered voters by the end of July. We have to obtain about 20,000 by May 31st. However, these petition drives are extremely tricky because the State Board of Elections looks for any excuse to void or disqualify a signature so we estimate that we’ll need about 35,000 by May 31st and probably closer to 100,000 overall.

I think Ready is right on the money insofar as signatures go, but even if they are received the uphill battle really begins as liberals dig out all the so-called “victims” of this heartless TEA Party initiative. Of course, that can be countered by considering who could be aced out of a spot – perhaps a poor minority youth trying to escape poverty? That angle can play well in PG County and Baltimore City.

Speaking of poor legislation, Maryland continues to play Don Quixote tilting at windmills (well, they’re actually turbines) to be built just a few miles off Ocean City. (Oil platforms will spoil the view, but wind turbines won’t? Get real.) In part, this legislation stemmed from a drive to combat so-called global warming just as another push to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative did.

Well, New Jersey may be rethinking its position on RGGI, and a key Senator in that state made it a bipartisan push. Americans for Prosperity shared this news:

When the original legislation paving the way for New Jersey’s entry into RGGI was passed in 2008, it was done so on a bi-partisan basis. Likewise, dismantling RGGI will require support from members of both political parties.

By joining the movement to repeal RGGI, Senator (Paul) Sarlo became the first Democrat to back the effort to kill this Cap & Trade tax and opened the door for more of his Democrat colleagues in the Legislature to do the same. In fact, at (Thursday’s) press conference Senator Sarlo urged his fellow Democrats today to do just that.

Senator Sarlo did not arrive at this decision lightly. But when presented with the indisputable facts about the RGGI scheme — including its lack of transparency, exploitation by “insiders” looking to speculate and profit
on the backs of ratepayers, as well as the devastating consequences for New Jersey’s economy and jobs — the senator made the call to stand up for New Jersey’s economic future.

Now, I’m not sure if New Jersey leaving RGGI would lead to any other states rethinking their position, although one would suspect newly-installed GOP governors and legislators in Pennsylvania and Maine may be most likely to do so. Unfortunately, Maryland has neither a GOP governor or legislature so utility ratepayers will continue to take it in the shorts for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of Maryland politics, we are now less than a year away from the 2012 primary. (At least we will be when this takes effect.) Hopefully they change the 2014 date to the last week in July because late June is too damn early to me. I like the date as it is in September but federal law changes make that impossible. Nothing like Fedzilla sticking its nose into state’s affairs.

Anyway, I got an e-mail from one of the early U.S. Senate candidates on the GOP side (to face presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator Ben Cardin) offering to do a blog interview with me. So I asked the other two candidates that I’m aware of to match that offer – one is already on the ballot while the other will announce around the first of May.

This doesn’t include Eric Wargotz yet, although my suspicion is that he’ll jump into the race before summer. Hey, I’ll interview him too. He knows I always have plenty of questions.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m giving short shrift to two Democratic hopefuls. But the contest for both Raymond Levi Blagmon and perennial candidate Lih Young will be to manage to get one percent of the vote.

I think that’s enough grist for the mill. I bet you all thought I was taking another long weekend off from the political but you have to admit we’re in the silly season now. The only real big news seems to be the growing GOP Presidental field but no one is really going to be paying much attention to that until at least the Ames Straw Poll and more likely after Labor Day when things start getting serious. By then we’ll have a decent idea of the contenders and the pretenders.

Friday night videos – episode 64

April 22, 2011 · Posted in Delmarva items, Local Music · Comments Off on Friday night videos – episode 64 

Sponsored by…well, no one just yet. But I’m working on it.

In the meantime, I’ll bring you some of the highlights of the local and regional music scene. I’m seeing a lot more bands out and about now, which can only mean one thing: summer is coming.

How about beginning with a duo who will be part of next weekend’s Salisbury Festival: alex&shiloh. This was their appearance on Ocean 98’s Live Lixx back in October.

Another band playing around the area frequently is Not My Own, which has become a staple of FNV. Here they check in with ‘Believer.’

Man, did they crunch that one out. Maybe you can see why they’re played here so often.

I also played this group last week, but here Gravitate performs an original called ’40 Hours.’ It’s from the same Spring Luau performance I used before.

Today would make its debut since I uploaded the clip specifically for this edition of FNV.

One of my favorite new discoveries is the ReverbNation website, simply because it’s a clearinghouse I can use to find local bands and more video for this fun-filled weekly excursion into local music.

I’ve become familiar with this band through a different song that gets heavy rotation on 93.5’s ‘Local Produce’ show. (That’s must-listen radio around here on Sunday nights.) I didn’t know until last week that this band is from Pocomoke way, called 14-5. It’s definitely a raw version of ‘Another Chance.’

While David Andrew Smith isn’t from here, the Baltimore-based singer-songwriter is familiar with the area. This comes from an event called the New York City Songwriter Circle.

I’ll wrap up by digging into my archives to find another band who’s become quite popular around these parts. It’s not hard to come across a Petting Hendrix show, and here they do a version of Hendrix (Jimi, that is) which they truly made their own.

As long as I can keep finding good stuff, I’ll keep doing this. These videos are much more fun than that political you-know-what.

Shorebird of the Week – April 21, 2011

April 21, 2011 · Posted in Delmarva items, Delmarva Shorebirds, Sports · 1 Comment 

So far Schoop has been holding down third base in Ryan Minor's lineup.

Jonathan Schoop gets ready for a plate appearance in an April game.

It all started a generation ago with a guy named Hensley Meulens. A career minor leaguer who spent time in the big leagues with the Yankees, Expos, and Diamondbacks, he was the first player from the island of Curacao (at least according to www.Baseball-Almanac.com) to make his major league debut in 1989, with the more renowned Andruw Jones coming up with the Braves a few years later.

While players from Curacao are not strangers to the Orioles organization (as one example, we had outfielder Quincy Ascension a few years back) they’re still pretty rare. The latest native of that land to chase his dream through Delmarva is this week’s Shorebird of the Week honoree, Jonathan Schoop. First of all, the last name isn’t pronounced “scoop” or “shoop”, but “scope.”

However you say it, though, the guy is raking so far. While there’s some 18-year old phenom bonus baby playing a few strides to Schoop’s left every night, the 19-year old is killing lefties so far (admittedly, 6-for-8 with a home run and 5 RBI is a small sample, but it bodes well) and leads the team (or is tied for the top spot) in several offensive categories: games played (13), at-bats (52), triples (2), and home runs (2).

Schoop got his start when he was signed by the Orioles (at the age of 16) and sent to play in the Dominican Summer League in 2009. There he hit .239/0/35 in 68 games, but the scouts were impressed enough to send him stateside to debut in the Gulf Coast League last summer. Jonathan did well enough there to move along to Bluefield and eventually Frederick – overall he hit .290/5/35 between the three stops (although he was only 5-for-21 in 6 Frederick contests.)

If he keeps hitting this way (18-for-52 so far, with the two homers and 9 RBI) Jonathan may be back in Frederick to finish out the year. Considering a lot of players his age are either playing college ball or playing at rookie league, the Orioles may have found a diamond in the rough among the nearly 150,000 citizens living on that baseball outpost.

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