What’s Worse Than Cancer? Taxes!

taxchopTwo different op-eds applauding the legislature’s phased repeal of the Hall income tax popped up on The Tennessean‘s website over the weekend, overtaxing (semi-intended) the ability of headline writers to find different ways to say the same thing. One piece (“Repeal of Hall Tax Will Bolster Tennessee’s Economy“) is by Raul Lopez of a PAC called Latinos for Tennessee, the other (“Hall Tax Repeal Will Benefit Tennessee’s Economy“) is by Joe Horvath of the America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Virginia-based public policy outfit bankrolled by big business and right-wing foundations that pushes its corporatist conservative agenda in state legislatures. The Hall repeal measure awaits action from Gov. Bill Haslam — the bill hit his desk today — who has spoken approvingly of cutting the tax but isn’t so crazy about eliminating it; still, a veto seems unlikely.

Certainly there are valid grounds for quarreling with the Hall tax, which is just another cog (and a relatively small one) in the convoluted wheel that is Tennessee’s dysfunctional tax system. But the op-eds by Lopez and Horvath are quite remarkable in their combined ability to advance the most preposterous notions of the nature and role of taxes in Tennessee’s economy.

The Lopez column basically parrots the relentless illogic of the market-conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market anti-tax outfit that longs for the libertarian paradise of a future Tennessee in which nobody pays taxes or has health insurance. Citing Beacon, Lopez acknowledges that the Hall tax revenue accounts for less than one percent of the state budget, but at the same time calls repeal “absolutely vital in order to ensure that our state remains competitive.” If it’s “absolutely vital” that we repeal a tax with such minor budgetary impact to stay competitive then we have bigger problems than just the Hall tax.

ALEC’s Horvath traffics in the same kind of trickle-down fantasy dogma, with a dose of cause-effect sophistry thrown in. He approvingly quotes Senate sponsor Mark Green’s bizarre assertion of a “lack of investment in Tennessee due to the Hall tax.” Yes I’m sure many firms are choosing not to invest here because we have a tax on investment income (like most states) that accounts for a tiny part of the state budget. Horvath applauds Tennessee’s ranking of seventh among the states in ALEC’s “economic competitive index,” which gives props to states for having low taxes and services, low wages, hostility to labor, and a tort litigation system tilted in favor of businesses over consumers and workers. Yep, we’re competitive all right.

Horvath says for states to be competitive their “crushing tax burdens” must make way for private industry. What neither of these guys mention, of course, is that Tennessee’s brand as a destination for investment is one of low and regressive taxation that punishes the poor and fails to adequately fund essential services (like education and health care). According to figures compiled by the independent Tax Foundation, our “crushing tax burden” has us ranked 45th among the states in taxes as a share of state income and 44th in tax collections per capita (47th in overall revenue/capita). We lead all states in having the highest combined state and local sales tax rates, which is what really burdens Tennesseans of limited means. And let’s not forget that for all the right-wing talk of how much we are oppressed by Washington, Tennessee is a taker not a maker: we rank 3rd among the 50 states in the percentage of state revenue that comes from federal aid. Oh, and we’re also a top 20 state in income inequality.

It’s lovely in the abstract to be (and be perceived as) a low-tax business-friendly state, but to isolate an analysis of taxes from a larger conversation about public services and social progress is ludicrous. Is it really controversial to surmise that a significant corporation contemplating investment in Tennessee is going to pay a lot less attention to the phasing out of the Hall tax than to the current and future state of our systems of education, environmental quality, and public health?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Baldfaced Lies at the Legislature

I realize I’m becoming a bit of a broken record documenting the shameless lies and propaganda that dominate the Beacon Center of Tennessee’s messaging on “Insure Tennessee.” But since our state lawmakers insist on giving Beacon a platform to spread their nonsense, someone has to call bullshit. Consider it called.

At this morning’s Senate Health and Welfare Committee hearing on Insure Tennessee, committee members were shown this slide by the Beacon Center’s Justin Owen, who was appearing before the committee to describe the various forms of apocalypse that will ensue if the legislature approves Medicaid expansion.

BeaconSlideCrop

Owen wants to argue that Medicaid expansion puts stresses on the system that end up harming the most vulnerable individuals already covered, and the slide was an attempt to suggest there there is evidence for this alarming prediction in the experiences other states that have expanded Medicaid. There’s just one problem with the slide: Every claim it makes is factually incorrect.

You see five claims in that slide. Let’s take ’em one by one.

Arizona – dropped coverage for transplants? It is true that Arizona made some drastic cuts that included reducing Medicaid coverage for some transplants, but this occurred in 2010, before Obamacare took effect and a full three years before Arizona actually approved Medicaid expansion in 2013. And oh by the way, Beacon doesn’t want you to know that Arizona restored funding for those organ transplants for Medicaid patients in 2011.

Arkansas – denied drugs for cystic fibrosis patients? It is the case that Arkansas’ Medicaid program last year decided to deny access to the drug Kalydeco, which costs around $300,000 per year, triggering a patient lawsuit. What the Beacon Center conveniently omits adding, however, is that a few months later a state review board comprised of doctors and pharmarcists recommended that restrictions on the use of Kalydeco be eliminated, a recommendation that the Arkansas Department of Human Services has said it intends to adopt.

Oregon – stopped coverage for cancer treatments? This claim has its roots in a bogus chain email that made the rounds in 2013. PolitiFact Oregon has thoroughly vetted this and rates it a “pants-on-fire” lie: “Older patients diagnosed with cancer need not worry that treatment will be rationed or denied under the Affordable Care Act. The claim is based on an inaccurate reading of a bill that went nowhere.”

Maine – stopped treating brain injury patients? It is preposterous to attribute any change in coverage in Maine to Medicaid expansion given the basic reality that Maine is not participating in Medicaid expansion. It’s governor Paul LePage has been an unyielding advocate of shrinking Medicaid, not expanding it.

Rhode Island – implemented premium for disabled children? This refers to a proposal floated by Rhode Island’s governor early last year that would charge a $250/month premium to parents with kids in the state’s Katie Beckett program for severely disabled children. What the Beacon Center conveniently neglects to mention is that state lawmakers scoffed, the premium proposal was scrapped, and if you visit the Rhode Island Katie Beckett eligibility page you learn that “There is no cost to families.”

That Beacon slide on display for Tennessee lawmakers this morning had no title. It need one: “Things in other states that didn’t happen but if I can fool you into thinking they did maybe I can scare you into opposing health insurance for the working poor.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Right Track? Nation’s Worst? What’s the Diff?

CFCoverTennessee state house speaker Beth Harwell picked an odd week to write an op-ed (in this morning’s Tennessean) declaring that “Tennessee is on the right track” — unless she equates “on the right track” with “among the nation’s worst.” Because “among the nation’s worst” is precisely and appropriately how Tennessean reporter Shelley DuBois sums up the state’s standing in a new Commonwealth Fund report comparing states on dozens of measures of health care access, quality, costs and outcomes.

The report titled Aiming Higher (full text pdf here), which covers the period 2007-2012, finds widespread gains among states in areas that were getting a lot of policy attention, such as child immunizations and hospital readmissions, but on the down side rising costs and declines in access to care. In comparisons of states, Tennessee comes out rather badly. Skimming through the report’s various charts and graphs (pdf), this is easy to see.

Exhibit 12: Percent of adults who went without care because of cost, Tennessee ranks 10th from the bottom, unchanged from 2007.

Exhibit 16: Mortality amenable to heath care, Tennessee is in the bottom 10 for both black and white residents (they do that one by race).

Exhibit 8: Tennessee has the 16th highest rate of Medicare 30-day readmissions.

Exhibit 3: An overall state scorecard summary of health system performance across five dimensions (access and affordability; prevention and treatment; avoidable hospital use and cost; health lives; equity) ranks Tennessee’s 40th, in the bottom quartile.

Two bright spots: Exhibit 6 shows Tennessee ranks 11th in percent of children receiving all recommended vaccine doses, and Exhibit 11 shows Tennessee in top third of states in percent of children with insurance.

Perhaps these weak results mask improvement, making it possible to couch them in Harwell’s “on the right track” optimism. Is that plausible? Not so much. The CF report captures trends in Tennessee on 34 indicators, and finds improvement on 12 of them, worsening on 10, and no change on the rest — pretty much a wash. With the state’s ongoing stubborn refusal to entertain Medicaid expansion, it’s hard to look at the data here and predict upward movement in Tennessee’s health care quality and outcomes anytime soon.

“Right track” indeed.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Questions for Marriage Equality Foes

A new poll last week showed a striking continuation of the dramatic shift in national public opinion toward broad acceptance of same-sex marriage. The trend is hard to miss:

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

This latest Post/ABC poll also finds that 61 percent favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and 81 percent say businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians. And there’s an accelerating body of judicial opinion to go with public opinion: In the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on DOMA we’ve seen federal judges striking down gay marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas, along with state court rulings in New Jersey and Mexico.

Here in Tennessee, of course, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage enacted in 2006 remains in effect, although a federal lawsuit of the sort that has worked in these other states is in process.

All of which raises the question: What is going through the minds of stalwart opponents of marriage equality as they digest these developments? The Family Action Council of Tennessee’s David Fowler is among those trying to stop the tide from coming in. Some questions for Mr. Fowler:

[1] Mr. Fowler, you are fond of reminding us that a very large majority of Tennessean voters “approved our constitutional definition of marriage” and that most still say that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Both of these things are true, but while geographic splits on same-sex marriage approval do show the South lagging other regions, it’s no longer a minority view even here, and it isn’t hard to fathom which way it’s trending. Do you look at the polling data, Mr. Fowler, and honestly convince yourself that this shift happening everywhere is not actually occurring here in Tennessee?

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

[2] You have written that if federal court decisions like the one in Ohio ultimately extend to Tennessee, “a conflict will immediately arise between what the federal government, through the courts, will require Tennessee to recognize as a marriage and what Tennesseans voted to recognize as a marriage.” Is your grasp of constitutional law and the Fourteenth Amendment so tenuous that you will regard federal court decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage as inciting conflict between federal law and Tennessee voters? Do you believe, accordingly, that the 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia invalidating state laws prohibiting interracial marriage was wrongly decided?

[3] You wrote last summer that “if same-sex marriage advocates want equality, then the burden is on them to prove that a same-sex union is essentially the same as a heterosexual union in all regards. Otherwise, everyone knows that there is nothing ‘unequal’ or ‘unfair’ about treating two different things two different ways.” Do you really believe that threats to equal protection under the law are taken seriously only if those in a social category denied equal protection can prove that they are just like those whose rights are protected “in all regards”? So black people have to be able to prove they are like white people “in all regards”? Muslims have to be like Christians “in all regards”? Women have to be like men “in all regards”?

The fact is, Mr. Fowler, that you and your organization cling to a viewpoint support for which is rapidly deteriorating everywhere. Do you imagine that Tennessee will somehow defy the trend and become a heterosexual oasis of bigotry? You are free to believe these things, of course, but why not just admit publicly what you no doubt understand privately: that opposition to marriage equality almost certainly will not outlast judicial momentum toward a Supreme Court ruling that throws Tennessee’s constitutional ban under the bus of history.

So what’s your end game, Mr. Fowler? Will you help usher Tennessee into the 21st century by hopping on the bus now in a gesture of humility and humanity? Or do you choose to remain defiantly in its path, somehow imagining that everyone else is going to suddenly wake up from a Fourteenth Amendment nightmare and reclaim bigotry and discrimination as righteous paths to Tennessee’s glorious future?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


FedEx Thou Doth Protest Too Much

fedexboxA cranky op-ed by a FedEx executive in today’s Tennessean calls the paper out for its “deeply flawed and erroneous report insinuating that FedEx is less than a full-rate taxpayer.” FedEx VP Michael Fryt is responding to a recent Tennessean story about the DC-based Citizens for Tax Justice’s analysis of Fortune 500 companies that paid no federal income taxes during at least one year since 2008. FedEx made the list twice, for having “paid” federal income taxes at a rate below 0 percent in both 2009 and 2011. As The Tennessean further reported, FedEx paid an effective federal income taxrate of 4.21 percent over the five year period of the study.

Blasting the CTJ report as “compiled by a heavily biased, partisan advocacy group,” Fryt asserts that FedEx “is a full-rate taxpayer and that we pay all the taxes owed to local, state, federal and foreign governments.” Declaring that “the effective income tax rate for FedEx has been no lower than 35 percent in each of the past 20 years,” Fryt calls the analysis misleading because it takes accelerated depreciation into account (as well it should), and he criticizes The Tennessean for printing the story “without contacting us.”

What Fryt and FedEx are doing here is blaming the messenger (two of them, actually) and responding with their own conveniently misleading version of events. But the careful reader will note that something Fryt and FedEx are not doing is denying the empirical truth of the CTJ’s findings.

How is it, you may ask, that the CTJ report can show FedEx paid less than 0 percent (meaning, received a rebate) in federal income taxes in two separate years while a FedEx executive insists that “the effective income tax rate for FedEx has been no lower than 35 percent in each of the past 20 years.”? Both statements can’t be true, right? Someone must be fibbing here?

Not necessarily. The key here probably lies in Fryt’s careful wording, “the effective income tax rate for Fedex…” Note the absence of the word “federal” between “effective” and “income.” Corporations pay not just U.S. federal taxes on income, but also state as well as foreign income taxes. That same CTJ analysis reporting FedEx’s effective rate of 4.2 percent in U.S. federal income taxes between 2008 and 2012 found that the company paid a much higher rate (57.7 percent) to foreign governments on its overseas pretax income. My assumption is that FedEx is counting all forms of income tax (that omission of the word federal is presumably no accident), and in so doing hopes to lead readers to believe that the zero tax years and astoundingly low effective average federal tax rate revealed by CTJ and reported by the Tennessean are factually inaccurate. But if you read Fryt’s op-ed carefully you’ll notice that he never actually repudiates the accuracy of CTJ numbers. Why? Because he can’t.

As mentioned above, Fryt and FedEx righteously assert that the firm pays all taxes owed to all governments. This is a classically defective straw-man argument; nobody claims otherwise, and neither the CTJ analysis nor the Tennessean story intimated that FedEx isn’t meeting its obligations under the law. As far as I’m concerned FedEx is a great American company, one that treats its people well and plays by the rules. A key aim of the CTJ analysis is to show the extent to which copious loopholes and tax breaks legally enable corporations to minimize their income tax obligations.

Fryt concludes his op-ed with familiar corporate whining that U.S. corporate income tax rates are among the highest in the world, creating a tax system that “is seriously flawed and hurts U.S. economic growth and competitiveness.” He’s right that statutory corporate tax rates in the U.S. are among the world’s highest, but it’s also the case that the actual rate large profitable corporations pay is typically less than half the statutory rate.

Fryt and FedEx may not like hearing these realities when they are foisted upon them (accurately) by a “heavily biased, partisan advocacy group.” Ok, then, how about that leftist commie Warren Buffett: “It is a myth that American corporations are paying 35 percent or anything like it…corporate taxes are not strangling American competitiveness.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


At the State Capitol: More Religion! As Much as Possible!

churchstatestreetsIn their ongoing quest to ensure that religious expression is never far from center stage in Tennessee’s public schools, our elected guardians of spiritual zeal down at the state capitol (masquerading as the House Education Committee) today take up the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act (HB1547/SB1793). The measure, which could have been titled the “Make Schoolchildren Commingle With As Much Religion As Humanly Possible Act,” would require that local school boards adopt policies letting students express religious beliefs in all kinds of settings: assemblies, athletic events, pep rallies, graduation ceremonies, and even school day opening announcements. (“The Lord, who by the way frowns upon the idea of one world government, wants you to know that the Model U.N. Club will meet after school today in room 301.”)

Viewed as a whole, the bill comes off as a way to compel kids to listen to religious messages (which may well conflict with their own beliefs) in school as often as possible. But the especially pernicious part of HB1547 is its approach to classroom activities — you know, that pesky learnin’ stuff the schools are supposed to be doing between prayer meetings.

The bill incorporates a lengthy “model policy” that local school boards could adopt to come into compliance with its requirements. Here’s the full text of Article IV of that model policy, titled “Religious Expression and Prayer in Class Assignments” (emphasis added):

A student may express the student’s beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the student’s submission. Homework and classroom work shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Students may not be penalized or rewarded on account of religious content. If a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards, including literary quality, and not be penalized or rewarded on account of its religious content.

There is an obvious contradiction built in to those middle two sentences. On one hand, a teacher can judge a student’s work by “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance,” but on the other hand the teacher cannot penalize “on account of religious content.” So the student who incorporates creationist notions into an assignment on paleontology or developmental biology or cosmology is … what? Evaluated in a science class as scientifically incompetent, but then not penalized for it? What does that even mean?

This bill is clearly just the thing we need to beef up Tennessee’s national educational reputation. Hell, even the most notorious conservative interest group in America ranks us in the bottom 10 of states in its Report Card on American Education. And by the way, I can’t be penalized for that last sentence, since it did open with “hell,” which qualifies, of course, as “religious content.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


The Business of Discrimination

Apparently there wasn’t room for an accurate headline, like “Bill authorizes bigotry and discrimination,” so the good folks down at 1100 Broadway went with “allows faith objections” instead. Please. The measure (SB 2566) described in the story, which comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, is nothing short of a license for private enterprise to make anti-LGBT hate into a viable business strategy.

TennFront

Desperate to halt political and social momentum toward widespread acceptance of same-sex unions, sponsors of the bill want to use public policy to ensure that businesses can refuse service “related to the celebration of any civil union, domestic partnership, or marriage not recognized by the state” if it violates “sincerely held religious beliefs…regarding sex or gender.” Translation: if your religious beliefs cajole you into hating gay people, you are free in running your business to deny them employment, goods, services, or accommodations without fear of being sued by private parties or acted against by government under any kind of local nondiscrimination law or policy.

The Tennessean story neglects to mention that SB2566 (and its House companion HB2467) are patterned on a model bill developed by an offshoot of the D.C.-based Ethics & Public Policy Center, which fashions itself a think tank “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” We’re not sure how Judeo-Christian principles fit in, but this is an organization that confuses bigotry with freedom, at least to judge by this declaration by the EPPC’s president in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last year: “The sweeping application of non-discrimination principles poses an increasingly severe threat to civil liberties.”

Although the bill purports to be about gay marriage, not about being gay generally, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate (writing about a similar bill introduced in Kansas) points to the “breathtaking” potential sweep of these bills:

The law’s advocates claim that it applies only to gay couples—but there’s no clear limiting principle in the text of the bill that would keep it from applying to gay individuals as well. A catch-all clause allows businesses and bureaucrats to discriminate against gay people so long as this discrimination is somehow “related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.” This subtle loophole is really just a blank check to discriminate: As long as an individual believes that his service is somehow linked to a gay union of any form, he can legally refuse his services. And since anyone who denies gays service is completely shielded from any charges, no one will ever have to prove that their particular form of discrimination fell within the four corners of the law.

The Kansas version passed their House but was derailed when the Kansas Senate’s GOP leader announced last week that she doesn’t support it because she and her members “don’t condone discrimination.” Fancy that. Your move, Beth.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.