Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Wyoming Tax Revolt Complete

The Wyoming City Council received the results of the tax vote recount today. Guess what. The people actually, really, truly, voted no.

See our previous two postings on this subject here and here for analysis of the tax vote.

Where do they go from here? Perhaps it's time to prioritize spending instead of always asking for more. Michigan's unemployment rate is significantly higher than the nation's average. Government should learn to live on less like the rest of us during this recession.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Mandatory Community Service

The state education bureaucracy is now in the business of mandating community service for public high school students. The Michigan Department of Education announced yesterday that, starting in 2006, all students who are eligible for the Michigan Merit scholarship must complete 40 hours of community service before they can receive the scholarship. Previously, simply doing well on the state's MEAP test was all the qualification needed to get the scholarship.

Should it really be up to the state to require volunteering? And isn't that a contradiction in terms?

It creates a murky situation because the state isn't mandating the community service for graduation - just for a scholarship that not everyone qualifies for anyways.

But this just goes to show that with government money comes government strings. Local school districts will be forced to add even more bureaucracy to their plate - exactly what they need.

Instead of focusing on more bureaucrats to administer forced voluntarism, why not focus on the basics? A lot of good volunteering will do when fewer than half of Grand Rapids Public Schools high school students are reading at grade level.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Medical Insurance Progress

We may be seeing the biggest change in the medical insurance industry in decades. In an interesting story from yesterday, Blue Cross of Michigan announced that they will be offering Health Savings Account (HSA) plans beginning in January.

HSAs are a result of last year's Medicare bill. Although most of the bill was just another gigantic government handout, there was one little gem, and that's the HSA. A health savings account is similar to a retirement IRA where money can be saved in a tax-free way to pay for health costs. In fact, this money can be invested in the same way it can be in an IRA.

The HSA needs to be linked with a high deductible health plan. Generally the deductible is around $2500. When a person then has a medical expense, the cost is paid out of the HSA and not by the insurance company. If medical costs rise above $2500 in a year, then the insurance kicks in.

What's the advantage of this? It creates a consumer-driven medical market. Insurance premiums are much lower with HSAs and suddenly we're going to become interested parties in the costs involved. The doctor wants to give you that tetanus booster? Well, 'how much is it?', you'll ask. Suddenly we're responsible for our own costs.

Any money put into an HSA is tax-deductible and if you invest the money, it is tax free. A lifetime of saving in an HSA could produce hundreds of thousands of dollars, which can be spent tax-free on medical expenses. If you've got more than you can use in the account at age 65, it can be used at a regular tax rate for non-qualifying (non-medical) expenses.

For an example of how the current health care system drives up costs, consider the following example from columnist Wayne Dunn:

Is there something special about health insurance that makes it crisis-prone? I mean, we never hear about the horrible "house insurance crisis" or the "spiraling cost of auto insurance."

It wouldn't be too hard to create such a crisis though. In fact, let's try to map one out.

Just imagine if politicians resolved that, since automobiles are vital for getting people to work, companies ought to provide for the care and maintenance of its employees' vehicles.

So political pressure is applied to employers-- maybe through the tax code, or perhaps legislation is passed outright; and, before long, auto insurance is restructured to cover not merely accidents, but routine maintenance and service. For a monthly premium and a $10 or $15 "co-pay," your car insurance would cover the cost of an oil change, tune up, new tires, whatever it needed.

Something odd would begin happening though. Mechanics would stop hearing the now pervasive, "How much will it cost?"

Why? Because if all you had to do is plop down ten or fifteen bucks and your insurance paid the rest, why would you care what the mechanic charged? Heck, you'd start taking your car in for an oil change every 1000 miles instead of every 3000. Rather than getting your tires rotated, you'd just have new ones put on. And that rear electric window that won't lower, you'd not think twice about having fixed.

More info is available at HSA Insider.

Friday, August 13, 2004

More Questionable Spending

We here at GR Pundit sometimes wonder whether our city government ever thinks about what it does.

The Grand Rapids City Commission yesterday approved the expenditure of $67,700 of taxpayer dollars on an adopt-a-stream program which is operated by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC). The article states that with this money over the last year, over 200 bags of trash were removed by volunteers from local streams.

But let's take a closer look at this program and the WMEAC. First, WMEAC is not just a group of concerned environmentalists. They are the garden-variety environmental political activists who run such programs as the "Cup of Justice Group," which aims to "...communicate with the Grand Rapids community about the environmental and social justice issues in our cup of coffee." What types of social justice issues? Things like "...consumer awareness and demand for fair trade, shade-grown, [and] bird-friendly organic coffee." Maybe we can sing kumbaya after.

Second, this adopt-a-stream program is supported by taxpayer dollars. We here at GR Pundit agree with the goal, that is, cleaning up local streams and protecting waterways. Who doesn't support that? But spending $67,700 to pick up 200 bags of trash? Well, we suspect there was some number inflation at the City Commission meeting on the part of the WMEAC presenters. Their own annual report says that 120 bags of trash were picked up last year. That's a great achievement - we don't disagree. But that's at a cost of $564 per bag of trash collected. A cost to us taxpayers.

Isn't there a more efficient way to do this? Particularly when our city taxes keep getting jacked up while we're told that if we don't increase taxes, police and fire will be cut. How about cutting wasteful spending first?

Maybe just hire a rubbish company to regularly collect garbage? I seriously doubt that anyone would charge $564 per bag of trash.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Tax Attack Backtrack

In a sudden revearsal of the onslaught of tax increases we have been hit with in Grand Rapids and Kent county, the county commission announced they would not pursue another tax increase request in November to create a county-wide 911 system.

They claim that they were planning on holding off before last week's election, but that the results of several tax votes were what sealed the decision.

The county wanted to increase taxes, again, to support a single 911 system. Currently, each jurisdiction has its own dispatch, which results in a patchwork of police department dispatch systems around the county. That's a legitimate concern, but perhaps the issue should be approached from a different direction.

Since each of those jurisdictions pays for its own system already, why not just get each of those cities, towns, and townships to chip in what they'd save by not running their own 911 dispatch system to pay for a county-wide system? It seems like it would be a lot cheaper to run one centralized dispatch, so it would probably save money for everyone involved.

But then again, the bureaucrats were never accused of being an innovative or efficient bunch. Instead they'd just rather raise taxes for everyone across the county. Then each jurisdiction could spend the "saved" money on much more important things, like midnight basketball.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Bureaucrats for a Safe Job

A group calling themselves "Citizens for a Safe Wyoming" is going to ask the county clerk for a recount of the failed revenue enhancement millage that failed last week. No doubt the group is comprised of those being laid off due to the budget cuts.

Not only can't they let the reality of the citizenry's vote stand - now they are going to cost the taxpayers even more money by asking for a recount, which will cost about $1000.

While we do feel bad for the Police and Fire Fighters that are going to be laid off, perhaps the blame is misplaced. It isn't the citizenry who they should be angry at. After all, they voted in favor of more money for the Fire Department. Maybe they should focus their blame at the city bureaucrats who can't seem to run government with any level of efficiency.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Holland Celebrates a Failure

In a story that made us chuckle here at GR Pundit, residents of Holland celebrated twenty years of Amtrak service on Thursday with balloons and a party. They were celebrating a miserable failure.

Amtrak is subsidized to the tune of about $1 billion a year in taxpayer funds. In other words, Amtrak loses $1 billion a year. Since 1971, Amtrak has received $39 billion in taxpayer funds to keep operating. No business in the world would be able to continue to operate like Amtrak does.

But looking at federal dollars is generally easy to dismiss because of the enormity of the federal budget. However, the state of Michigan also subsidizes Amtrak to the tune of $7.1 million a year. The GR Press article says that this funding is split betweek two lines. Since the exact numbers don't seem to be easily available, let's assume that half of the state subsidy goes to the Holland Amtrak line. Since about 73,000 people rode the Holland line last year, that means that Amtrak loses about $47 per rider!

So, as Holland celebrates a disastrous, bloated, inefficient example of government largesse, we giggle.

Monday, August 9, 2004

Store Owner Shoots Thief

In Saturday's Grand Rapids Press there was an interesting article about a store owner named Leon Moody who shot a man who attempted to rob his convenience store. Moody had a .357 pistol behind the counter and reached for it when the punk jammed a gun in his face and demanded his cash.

The cowardly puke trying to rob the guy saw the gun, freaked, and ran out of the store. Moody didn't stop there. He chased the guy into the street and shot at him twice, hitting him once in the shoulder. The moron got into an SUV and sped away... but he turned up at an emergency room soon after and was picked up by the cops.

Our hat goes of to Leon Moody. He exercised his right to arm himself and take responsibility for his own safety and security. Plus he took out one more piece of scum in the process.

Long live the right to self-defense with firearms!

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Wyoming Tax Revolt

In an interesting development, on Tuesday the voters of Wyoming voted down an operating millage to replace lost state revenue sharing funds. It was a request for 1.5 mills, which would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $75 a year. It would have given the city revenue of about $2.8 million a year.

Of course, as city governments usually do, they are saying that they need to cut police and fire to make up for the lost revenue. This is the type of politicking that we can't stand here at GR Pundit. They always threaten police and fire to scare people, instead of cutting the usual social spending first, and protecting, as much as possible, the most basic functions of a city government.

Interestingly though, a second funding request specifically for more fire department funding passed, but it was contingent on the first request passing. What does that tell you? The people want to fund the basics - fire protection - but they don't want to fund the other jibberish that the city government does.

The apparent lesson here is this: people want their city government to do what it should be doing - providing the basics. The rest isn't wanted or needed.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

No Zoo Tax

What do you know? The citizens of Grand Rapids came through last night! The Zoo tax (oh, wait, I mean wildlife park) went down pretty handily. It looks like the first and second wards of the city (West and NE ends) voted it down, but of course, the third ward, (SE side) voted in favor of it. Is there a tax the third ward hasn't loved?

Perhaps it's time to question the very premise of last night's vote. Why does the county even run a zoo? Is a zoo a legitimate function of government? It should be able to operate just as any other non-profit organization - through private donations and entrance fees. A zoo is really no different than a taxpayer funded major league stadium. Just another publicly subsidized entertainment venue. Is that really what we should be doing with our tax dollars?

What bothered us here at GRPundit most was the fact that we were being asked to pay for a new zoo through our taxes, yet we'd still have to pay to get in the door. It's like not being able to get into the house you pay a mortgage on.

Unfortunately, this probably isn't the last we've heard of an extra tax for the zoo. They'll probably go back to the drawing board and come back in a year or two.