November 19, 2014

Arlington Spending Too Much? Depends on Who You Ask

Your humble scribe El Growler Grande will be out of town for approximately a week during which growling may be light or non-existent. Hopefully, growling will resume before the end of the month.

A month ago, on October 15, we growled about how Arlington County spending (on a per capita basis) compared with it's Northern Virginia neighbors. In that Growls, we wrote:

"If you believe, as we do, that a top priority of the Arlington County Board should be to spend tax dollars in an efficient and economical manner, the Board should use the numbers from the VAPA's comparative report as a base to look at the efficiency and economy of each and every county operation or program. We understand there are factors that may justify increased spending, e.g., the county's higher daytime population. Likewise, the county's population density may result in a higher per capita spending for parks and recreation."

The Arlington Sun Gazette's Scott McCaffrey picked-up on that Growls, and asks, "Arlington government spending too much? As always, it’s a matter of opinion," in a story this morning. To balance his story, McCaffrey interviewed Arlington County Board chairman Jay Fisette.

One of the key points your humble scribe has been trying to make is there needs to be greater accountability, including more proof of efficient and economic county operations. Obviously, this would include establishing a strong and vigorous internal audit department. Mr. McCaffrey incorporates comments by Jay Fisette that address several specific comparisons as well as comments about the more general question of greater accountability and transparency of county operations.

As I told Mr. McCaffrey,"“What is needed, it seems, is for the County Board to direct the county manager  to use the numbers [in the report] as a base for taking an in-depth look at each department." Here is Mr. Fisette's response:

"Fisette countered that the ultimate arbiter of government spending is the public. “The study validates that the county spending is closely aligned with our core values – Arlington has a heart, and this spending reflects our values,” he said.

“Our community can afford to help those who need it, to keep our infrastructure humming, to maintain outstanding recreational opportunities and to keep our community safe,” Fisette said.

"Wise pressed for a regional analysis of spending of local governments, along the lines of the Washington Area Boards of Education, which each year produces an apples-to-apples comparison of expenditures in suburban school districts.

"“If the Arlington Public Schools’ staff is willing to cooperate with other public-school districts in the region, Northern Virginia taxpayers should expect no less from their city and county governments,” he said. “A better question, perhaps, is why isn’t the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments already providing such a service?”

Different people are taking different messages from the November 4 elections. Although we wholeheartedly agree with yesterday's decision to cancel the Columbia Pike streetcar, there are other messages that can be drawn from that election. I think it is reasonable to conclude that a large number of Arlington voters are fed-up with wasteful and spendthrift spending.

Readers of Growls who are concerned that Arlington County Board members continue to have their pet vanity projects specifically and are not mindful of inefficient and ineffective spending in  general are urged to write or call the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the link below:

  • Call the Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And if they ask, tell them ACTA sent you!

November 18, 2014

Arlington County Scraps Streetcar Projects

The online Arlington Sun Gazette reported just after lunch today that "Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette announced today that a board majority has opted to scrap the county’s streetcar initiative," adding that it "smounts to a stunning turnaround." The story went on to say:

"The board is expected to ratify that decision at today’s 3 p.m. meeting, and the vote is likely to include both the Crystal City and Columbia Pike streetcar projects.

"Fisette and Vice Chairman Mary Hynes have opted to switch their support for the streetcar, joining John Vihstadt and Libby Garvey in opposition.

“We cannot ignore the political realities,” said Fisette, noting the Nov. 4 election results that saw independent board member Vihstadt handily defeat pro-streetcar Democrat Alan Howze.

“This was a powerful message to the board,” Fisette said at a noon press conference."

At ARLnow.com, their reporting starts with a picture of Board chairman Jay Fisette announcing "the Columbia Pike streetcar will be cancelled." The story was first reported just after noon, and updated twice -- at 2:40 P.M. and at 3:55 P.M. Here's a portion of their reporting:

“I have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward together … is to discontinue the streetcar project,” Fisette said solemnly, before a large crowd of reporters. “After close consultation with [County Board members Mary] Hynes and [Walter] Tejada, with our partners in Fairfax and Richmond and with members of the community, Ms. Hynes and I have agreed that all spending on streetcar must end.”

"Fisette will make it official with a motion at this afternoon’s County Board meeting. Tejada is said to oppose canceling the project and may vote against Fisette’s motion.

"The streetcar project was to be funded by commercial transportation revenue, along with funding from the state and Fairfax County, which was to benefit from the Pike streetcar running to the Skyline area.

"Fisette said the county will instead explore options for improving bus service on Columbia Pike. The transitway between Crystal City and Alexandria will continue to operate and be developed, but will be served only by buses. Existing streetcar contracts — like the $26 million engineering contract awarded in September — will be “wound down” as quickly as possible."

Batting clean-up was the Washington Post's power reporter Patricia Sullivan and Antonio Olivo. who reported this evening, writing:

"Arlington County on Tuesday abruptly canceled two long-planned streetcar projects that had been hailed by smart-growth advocates as catalysts for development but stirred bitter opposition among residents newly skeptical of government projects.

"Despite solid backing from developers, leaders of neighboring Fairfax County and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the plan to launch streetcars along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City became toxic in Arlington, where elected officials pride themselves on progressive urban planning as well as on building polite consensus.

"The streetcars figured prominently in proposals to bring new housing and retail and office space to struggling neighborhoods. They typified the county’s historic embrace of mass transit and its strategic use of transportation projects to trigger development in trendy neighborhoods, including Clarendon and Ballston.

"But a vocal contingent of Arlingtonians questioned the promised benefits of the project — whose price tag eventually reached $550 million — and wondered whether it was an example of county-funded excess.

"A streetcar makes no sense for Arlington from either a transit efficacy or an economic-development perspective,” said Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt (I), who last spring campaigned against the projects and won in a low-turnout special election, becoming the first member in 15 years who is not a Democrat."

One final point. At ARLnow, "Ivan" comments, "This is tantamount to political suicide. All those years and all those sunk costs, direct and indirect, time spent up and down the government chain that could have been focused on other issues (schools). I don't see how he survives this. Such waste." The Post's Patricia Sullivan has the answer, writing:

"Officials in Arlington and Fairfax estimated that they had spent several million dollars, and countless hours, planning the two projects.

< . . . >

"Fairfax officials strongly criticized the decision to pull the plug on the streetcar projects, which were endorsed in a number of studies and became a key part of plans to redevelop Baileys Crossroads.

“This unilateral action by the Arlington County Board destroyed 15 years of a joint effort,” said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). “It set back transit options in this part of the region for at least a generation or more.”

"The streetcar plan had “great support from the governor,” Gross added, and was approved multiple times by the Arlington and Fairfax boards. “And, now,” said Gross, “it’s blown to smithereens.”

"The Arlington board voted 4 to 1 to terminate all contracts and agreements related to the streetcars, withdraw funding applications and “develop alternate transportation strategies” for the areas.

"Board member J. Walter Tejada (D), who voted to keep the streetcars, lashed out against opponents for “rancor and knee-jerk responses” and said the cancellation would limit plans for much-needed affordable housing in Arlington. The county had planned to require developers who wanted to build along the streetcar lines to provide low- or moderate-income housing in addition to market-rate projects."

An online survey accompanied the Washington Post story, asking "Did you agree with the decision to halt the Columbia Pike streetcar project?" As of midnight, 4,599 readers responded to the Post's story. There were 2,318 readers (51.77%) who answer, "Yes. The streetcar was a bad idea" while 2,218 readers (48.23%) answered "No. I supported the streetcar.

The Arlington County press release is here.

We thank all those readers of Growls who used our response facility to e-mail or call the Arlington County Board. Thank you!

Finally, Peter Rousselot and the volunteers of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit are due a great round of applause for organizing the anti-streetcar efforts in Arlington County. Arlington County taxpayers owe Peter many kudos.

November 17, 2014

Are Household Income + Federal Taxes Distributed Fairly?

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their report, "The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2011" on Wednesday last week. The report shows the shares of before-tax income and federal taxes by before-tax incomes groups. (.pdf version of report; and blog version with links to supplemental and related documents)

The CBO provides this very short explanation of the report:

"In 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) estimates, average household market income— a comprehensive income measure that consists of labor income, business income, capital income (including capital gains), and retirement income—was approxi- mately $81,000. Government transfers, which include benefits from programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, averaged approximately $13,000 per household. The sum of those two amounts, which equals before-tax income, was about $94,000, on average. Federal taxes as examined in this report comprise four separate sources: individual income taxes, payroll (or social insurance) taxes, corporate income taxes, and excise taxes. Taken together, those taxes were about $17,000 per household, on average, in 2011. Thus, average household income after taxes was about $77,000, and the average federal tax rate (federal taxes divided by before-tax income) was 17.6 percent."

The following is Table 1 from the 35-page report, which is filled with tables and charts. It is the most comprehensive of the tables:

At the Tax Foundation's Tax Policy Blog today, Kyle Pomerleau provides a brief description and  lists the most important features of the report:

". . . This report measures both average household income and average federal tax burden by income quintile in 2011.

"There are many important parts to this report, but the main feature of this report is its estimation of the distribution of household income and federal taxes. The CBO finds:

  • The median household in the United States earned $66,400 in pre-tax income plus government transfers. However, the distribution of income is skewed to the top.
  • Households at every income level benefits from government transfers (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), but low income households rely on them the most.
  • Conversely, low income individuals pay the lowest average effective federal tax rate (1.9 percent of household income). The top quintile paid the highest (23.4 percent).
  • Although taxes are progressive at the federal level, certain taxes are more progressive than others.
  • The corporate income tax is born by all households, not just the highest income households

The inimitable John Merline argues at Investor's Business Daily (IBD) last week that the "new CBO report explodes tax fairness myths," writing:

"President Obama has constantly complained about the rich not paying their "fair share." But a new Congressional Budget Office report shows that the rich were paying more than their fair share of taxes before the numerous hikes he imposed.

"The CBO looks at the distribution of household income and federal taxes up through 2011, the last year for which it has data. It found, for example, that:

"While the top 1% of households accounted for 15% of all income, they paid 35% of all federal income taxes. The bottom 20% accounted for 5.3% of income, but they got more in refundable tax credits, on average, than they paid in income taxes.

"Even when you include payroll and other federal taxes, the bottom 20% carried just 0.6% of the total tax burden."

A few paragraphs later, Merline goes further into exploding those tax fairness myths, saying:

"Despite all the hullabaloo about how Bush's tax cuts favored the rich, the share of income taxes paid by the top 1% climbed from 22% in Bush's first year in office to 25% by 2008. The share paid by the bottom group dropped from 1.4% to 0.4%.

"Yet somehow, mainstream news outlets like the Washington Post manage to report with a straight face that, thanks to Obama's tax hikes, "the very richest Americans are finally shelling out a bit more in federal taxes."

The country is also extremely generous when it comes to writing checks to lower income families. So much so, in fact, that the bottom 40% of households — 48.6 million of them — now get more than half their income in the form of transfer payments, the CBO report shows.

"Oddly, when it comes to fairness, Obama and his fellow Democrats are completely silent on the fact that the rich actually collect hundreds of billions in federal transfer payments each year, and not just from Social Security and Medicare.

"According to data tables accompanying the CBO report, the wealthiest 20% of households received a total of $284 billion — with a "b" — in transfer payments in 2011. The average family in this group collected $6,050 from Social Security, or $500 more than poorest 20% of households received.

"They also got $3,000 in Medicare benefits — almost the exact same amount as the poorest households."

Merline concludes saying:

"Yet despite their being caricatured as pawns of the rich, it has been Republicans who've pushed to limit or cut off access to these benefit programs to wealthy Americans — particularly Social Security and Medicare — while Democrats defend such payments on the grounds that "means testing" would undermine political support for them.

"Apparently fairness is also in the eyes of the beholder."

The Washington Post story, which Merline cites, appears to be here.

Reason Foundation's Nick Gillespie has some interesting observations about one of the Left's favorite topics -- income inequality -- and economic mobility, writing on Friday, November 14, 2014:

"Between 1979 and 2011, the Gini Index, a measure of income inequality, increased whether talking about pre-tax or post-tax income. In terms of straight "market income" (a measure of all income from all non-transfer sources), it increased from below 0.5 to 0.59. Based on before-tax income, it went from 0.4 to 0.47. And for after-tax income, it went from around 0.36 to 0.44.

"CBO notes that federal tax and transfer policy reduced the increase in after-tax inequality by 26 percent from what it would have been otherwise, with the majority coming from transfers, not taxes. That's despite the aggressive—if often unacknowledged—progressivity of the U.S. tax system, which is far more progressive than systems of other developed countries. As Veronique de Rugy has pointed out in Reason and elsewhere, European countries typically charge more of their residents more taxes at all levels, especially in the form of value-added taxes (on the flip side, those countries typically give more straight transfers to citizens too). The U.S. system, argues de Rugy, hides many of its costs because "it disproportionately relies on the top earners to raise revenue, it exempts a large class of taxpayers from paying any income taxes, and it conceals spending in the form of tax breaks." A more transparent system might have lower marginal rates but fewer if any exemptions.

"So, does increased income inequality reduce economic mobility? Intelligence Squared recently hosted a debate on the issue, featuring the Manhattan Institute's Scott Winship, whose work is often cited here. The entire debate is worth a listen but Winship's main point is that income mobility—the ability for an individual or particular household—to move up or down the income ladder is unrelated to whether the rungs of the ladder are being more widely spread out. Winship is a critic of mobility rates—he thinks they are too low—but he persuasively documents that those rates haven't changed over the past 30-plus years even as income inequality has increased."

Gillespie writes that you can "read some of (Winship's) reasons" in this essay at the Manhattan Institute's e21 website.

Also last week, former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm and budget advisor Michael Solon take on the "now-famous study by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez" about income inequality, and show how "the Piketty-Saez data ignore changes in tax law and fail to count noncash compensation and Social Security benefits." Unfortunately, their November 12, 2014 op-ed is behind the Wall Street Journal's paywall.

Readers of Growls who consider that a flat tax or the FairTax are far preferable to the concurrent system are urged to  contact their members of Congress. Contact information is available at Thomas (use left-hand column). Readers living in Virginia's Arlington County, should contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -  write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Jim Moran (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

And, tell them ACTA sent you.

November 16, 2014

More Waste, Fraud and Abuse of Your Federal Tax Dollars

The next time you're browsing the Internet, stop by the Washington Examiner news site, and click-on the Watchdog icon at the top of the page. Below are just a few of the ledes from stories being reported this evening:

"A Tennessee home healthcare company was forced to pay $25 million to settle its second fraud case in two years.

"CareAll, a collection of home nursing and rehabilitation companies, defrauded both Medicare and Medicaid by billing inflated and falsified costs to the federal programs for home healthcare services, the Department of Justice said.

"From 2006 to 2013, CareAll exaggerated the severity of patient illnesses to pad its billings and sought reimbursements for medically unnecessary services that were administered to patients who weren’t even homebound, according to the Justice Department.

"But this wasn’t the home healthcare group’s first encounter with the court."

"Federal tax officials may have paid more than $168 million in improper fuel tax credits because the IRS failed to catch questionable claims on Form 1040 returns, according to a government watchdog.

"The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration said its auditors reviewed a sample database consisting of more than 1.2 million tax returns for the three years ending in 2013.

"Approximately $168 million (24 percent) of the $694 million in fuel tax credit claims for the three years were questionable based on the fact that the individuals reported no farming or other business income to support their claims," TIGTA said in a report made public Thursday.

"The questionable claims weren't caught in many cases, IRS officials told TIGTA's auditors, because the federal tax agency's computers weren't properly programmed."

"Federal auditors rarely show emotion in their official reports, but that didn't prevent a government watchdog from leaving no doubt about what happened to $1.25 million awarded to Childhelp, a troubled Phoenix-based foundation.

"We found that ChildHelp did not comply with essential grant conditions in every area we tested," said the Department of Justice Inspector General in a report made public Thursday.

"That meant more than 83 percent of the funds Childhelp received through six separate federal grants in 2010 were spent without complying with Justice Department guidelines."

"A federal program designed to help women-owned small businesses compete for government contracts often hands awards to ineligible companies, according to the Government Accountability Office.

"What’s more, the Small Business Administration program is falling short of its goal of increasing opportunities for women who own small businesses, GAO said in a new report.

"An SBA review in 2012 and 2013 discovered more than 40 percent of companies that had previously received contracts through the program were ineligible to be designated as women-owned or economically disadvantaged women-owned small businesses."

"A damning audit report provides the latest evidence of IRS mismanagement of the flood of sensitive documents and data it gets from taxpayers despite having a $1.8 billion information technology budget.

"The federal tax agency doesn’t effectively keep track of the software it purchases, it buys more copies than needed and it sometimes deploys more copies than it is allowed, the report said.

“The IRS does not effectively manage server software licenses and is not adhering to federal requirements and industry best practices,” according to a new audit report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

“TIGTA estimates that the amount wasted because of the inadequate management of server software licenses is in the range of $81 million to $114 million based on amounts spent for licenses and annual license maintenance that were not being used,” the report said."

Those are just a small sample of the reporting that is posted at one newspaper's website in just a few days of November.

Some might ask why I seem to growl so frequently about stories unrelated to Arlington County. First of all, I only growl once a day. Consequently there is so much to growl about. We do cover Arlington County stories, e.g., growling about such topics as the Columbia Pike streetcar, the $80 million swimming pool, aka the aquatics center, and the $1 million SuperStop bus stop, among many others. One thing I strive for is a variety of topics, but also interesting topics.

Last Friday, there was a story on page 2 of the Washington Post where David Fahrenrhold reported that "Congress votes to kill some government reports." He talked about the work of Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), and said it was a "small victory for efficiency in government." The House voted 382-0 to kill 48 of 4,291 reports identified by the Post in a May 3, 2014 story. Since the Senate passed an identical bill in September, President Obama will likely soon sign the legislation into law. The media frequently reports that Americans want the two political parties to "work together in governing America." Well, if it's so difficult to eliminate 48 useless reports, one has to wonder how Congress will pass such major legislation as so-called immigration reform, or even more important legislation as a balanced budget.

Readers of Growls who wish to thank Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) for continuing to work on eliminating useless reports, or want to comment on government waste, fraud, and abuse are urged to contact their members of Congress. Contact information is available at Thomas (use left-hand column). Readers living in Virginia's Arlington County, should contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -  write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Jim Moran (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

And, tell them ACTA sent you.

November 15, 2014

Average Arlington Tax Bill Could Increase $330-$440 per Year

The Arlington County Board and School Board held a joint budget planning session on Friday morning, November 7, 2014. According to the PowerPoint (PPT) presentation posted at the Department of Management & Finance’s website, the Boards were told the “economic outlook has stabilized since last fall’s Federal government shutdown” with a“solid residential real estate market.” However, staff has “continued concerns in office sector.”

That concern about the office sector was demonstrated in an accompanying chart of the countywide commercial vacancy rate, which showed the rate has essentially doubled from just under 10.0% in 2011’s first quarter to a current rate of just over 20.0%.

The two Boards were told that while revenue projections are positive, they are projected to be less than the projection of expenses. Here are the details from the PPT slides:

“Overall real estate growth: 3%
  • Single Family: +7% to 8%
  • Condominiums: +5%
  • Apartments: 0% to +2%
  • Offices: flat to declining 
  • General Commercial up & Hotels down

“Continued residential growth with flat commercial shifts more of the burden to the homeowner

  •  “Average tax bill would increase between $330 and $440 per year (at current tax rates)

“Other Taxes up 3%

“Fees, interest, & other revenues up 1%

“State and Federal revenues remain flat – monitoring budget developments at the State level for impacts on the County”

Two slides contained graphs showing vacancy rates in key commercial areas. For example:

  • Rosslyn increased from “20% to 28% in the past year while Crystal City’s hovers “around 24%.”
  • Rosslyn increased from “20% to 28% in the past year while Crystal City’s hovers “around 24%.”

The county expenditures slide shows that merit pay and/or step increases are expected to increase employee compensation by $4.9 million while healthcare will increase 10% or $3.9 million. Retirement costs are expected to decrease by $600,000 due to an actuarial study while other post-employment benefits will increase $400,000. Metro will increase by $1.2 million, or 4%. Finally, costs for “new facilities” will increase $2.3 million  for the full-year funding of the new homeless shelter and costs associated with DHS’ Sequoia move.

According to the staff’s PPT slides, the county is facing a funding gap “in the single digits” but they note the Schools have “enrollment challenges and facility needs” while there are “increased demands on county programs and services.” Staff does display their sense of humor, however. On the slide (#10) forecasting the funding gap,” staff found a graphic showing that expenses outweigh revenues.

If you have a few minutes, take a look at slides 11-20, which have several charts with program data such as annual transit ridership.

Information from the County Board’s recessed meeting on Tuesday, November 18, may affect the above numbers. Agenda item #31 is the FY 2014 closeout and re-appropriation while agenda item #32 is the FY 2016 financial forecast and budget guidance for FY 2016. We'll likely post another Growls about agenda items 31 and 32 are heard by the Arlington County Board on Tuesday.

Readers of Growls who are concerned that the average residential Arlington County real estate tax bill is likely to increase as much as $440 per year are urged to write or call the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the link below:

  • Call the Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And if they ask, tell them ACTA sent you!

November 14, 2014

ObamaCare, Gruberisms & the Deception of 'Stupid' Americans

Shortly after 3:00 P.M. today, CNN's Jake Tapper reported that the sixth of a series of videos of "ObamaCare architect" Jonathan Gruber had been located. In this one, Tapper says that according to Gruber, "'Mislabeling' helped us get rid of tax breaks." Here's Tapper's introduction:

"In a 2011 conversation about the Affordable Care Act, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of the law more commonly known as Obamacare, talked about how the bill would get rid of all tax credits for employer-based health insurance through "mislabeling" what the tax is and who it would hit.

"In recent days, the past comments of Gruber -- who in a 2010 speech noted that he "helped write the federal bill" and "was a paid consultant to the Obama administration to help develop the technical details as well" -- have been given renewed attention.

"In previously posted but only recently noticed speeches, Gruber discusses how those pushing the bill took part in an "exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter," taking advantage of voters' "stupidity" to create a law that would ultimately be good for them.

"The issue at hand in this sixth video is known as the "Cadillac tax," which was represented as a tax on employers' expensive health insurance plans. While employers do not currently have to pay taxes on health insurance plans they provide employees, starting in 2018, companies that provide health insurance that costs more than $10,200 for an individual or $27,500 for a family will have to pay a 40 percent tax.

"Economists have called for 40 years to get rid of the regressive, inefficient and expensive tax subsidy provided for employer provider health insurance," Gruber said at the Pioneer Institute for public policy research in Boston. The subsidy is "terrible policy," Gruber said.

"It turns out politically it's really hard to get rid of," Gruber said. "And the only way we could get rid of it was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people when we all know it's a tax on people who hold those insurance plans."

The remainder of Tapper's report is here. If you're wondering where all the tapes are coming from, Tapper explains:

"Many of the videos were discovered by a Philadelphia-area financial adviser named Rich Weinstein who has spent the last year researching Obamacare after his family insurance premiums doubled. Weinstein told CNN that he had assumed, incorrectly, that since he liked his health insurance plan and he had insurance, he wouldn't be much impacted by the new law."

The American Thinker blog has more about Weinstein and another private citizen "doing the job investigative reporters won't do.

Also today, Fox News' Kelley Beaucar Vlahos reports that "(d)espite Dem claims, trash-talking Gruber was well-paid adviser for ObamaCare and more." Here's how Vlahos starts his reporting:

"During the heyday of the ObamaCare push, Jonathan Gruber was whiz-kid-in-chief. His number-crunching on the benefits of the plan was frequently cited by Democrats trying to sell the proposal to the public.

"Now, Washington Democrats have a new message: He’s not with us.

"After a string of videos have emerged showing Gruber gloating about how the law’s authors exploited Americans’ “stupidity,” the White House has distanced itself. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi even claimed: “I don’t know who he is. He didn’t help write our bill.”

"But while Jonathan Gruber might not have been a familiar name until this week for many, Pelosi and the rest of the lawmakers who pushed the law certainly knew who he was in 2009 and 2010.

"A look at the record shows he was in fact paid to advise the Department of Health and Human Services. And he continues to play a role in health policy elsewhere, even as his unearthed videos cause headaches for the administration, just ahead of this weekend’s Round 2 enrollment launch.

"Gruber, an MIT professor and economist, has lived amid the health care debate in Washington for at least 20 years.

"Gruber was retained by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2009 on a $297,600 contract to provide “technical assistance in evaluating options for national healthcare reform.” Gruber also confirmed to The Washington Post that he was paid another $95,000 before that, for a total of nearly $400,000."

The remainder of Vlahos' reporting is here.

Late this afternoon, Shushannah Walshe of ABC News provides additional background and explains "how little-known MIT professor Jonathan Gruber shook up Washington this week," including this:

"Before Obamacare, he also advised the creation of a similar law in Massachusetts, sometimes called Romneycare, after Mitt Romney, who was governor of the Bay State at the time. Despite some resistance to the term “architect,” Gruber joined the president’s transition team in 2008 and no one disputes he played a key role in the law’s creation. The Washington Post reports he was also paid "almost $400,000" for the work, controversial in its own right.

"Gruber has made controversial comments in the past, but they don’t compare to the comments that came to light this week, six videos in total and counting – including one where he refers to the “stupidity of the American voter.” In another, when talking about Obamacare tax credits, he said, “American voters are too stupid to understand the difference.”

Meanwhile, this morning at National Review Online, David French posted a "Dear Democrats" letter, advising them, "don't even think about running from Jonathan Gruber."  His lede:

"Ian Tuttle has a nice piece up over on the homepage about the Democrats’ many efforts to distance themselves from Jonathan “stupidity of the American voter” Gruber. He used to be known as the “architect” of Obamacare and now, according to CBS News, the Democrats are trying to “turn Gruber into a stranger.”

"Not so fast.

"In a 2010 piece, the Daily Kos outlined Gruber’s deep ties to the White House and to HHS, providing even links to his HHS contracts and the stated justifications for his contracts. The language from the presolicitation notice is particularly interesting . . . ." (links deleted)

And at Reason at noon today, Peter Suderman further explains how Gruber "embraced misleading public," adding:

"Remember, this is what Gruber was saying as the law was still being debated. It didn’t pass in the House, the critical step before hitting President Obama’s desk, until more than a week later. And what Gruber was saying, even before the bill was law, was that supporters had intentionally emphasized parts of the bill that were relatively minor, and that were not certain to even produce their intended effects.

"This is not lying, exactly; the bill did in fact include some attempts at cost control, although as Gruber said, it was unclear at the time if or how well they would work. And Gruber may well have been right that the public was more concerned with cost control than expanding coverage. But, especially in combination with the other video released this week, it indicates that Gruber believed that the law’s advocates were not being completely straight with the public, that supporters of Obamacare were telling the public what they believed the public wanted to hear instead of giving them the full story, and that they were doing so on the understanding that telling the full story would make the bill impossible to pass.

"What it shows, in other words, is Gruber openly embracing a strategy of messaging manipulation and misleading emphasis even while the bill was still being debated. If the public understood the bill clearly, he believed, they would reject it. It was more important to pass the bill."

Even the far left MSNBC posted a story about the Gruber video(s) yesterday evening. The lede from Benjy Sarlin's report:

"Congress returned this week to a looming immigration shutdown, a new climate change deal, and leadership elections in both parties, but recently unearthed remarks by Jonathan Gruber, a prominent architect of the Affordable Care Act, may have generated the most buzz.

"The comments, dug up by an amateur researcher, came from a conference a year ago in which Gruber said that the bill was “written a tortured way to make sure the [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes.” The “mandate” is the law’s controversial requirement that everyone must carry health insurance or otherwise face a fine.

"The real kicker, though, was what Gruber seemed to say next: that the Obama administration had relied on “the stupidity of the American voter” to push the law through."

Not to be outdone, the New York Times' Neil Irwin tries to downgrade the "Gruber controversy" as just "Washington's dirty little secret." In the commentary section of the Washington Times yesterday, James Bovard uses "(t)he ObamaCare deception of 'stupid' Americans" to explain "(h)ow the liberal elites rely on lies to pass their paternalistic agenda." Gateway Pundit also had a post this afternoon in which he tallies up the $4 million made by Jonathan Gruber from healthcare consulting.

Readers of Growls who are concerned about the intended and/or unintended consequences of ObamaCare are urged to contact their members of Congress. Contact information is available at Thomas (use left-hand column). Readers living in Virginia's Arlington County, should contact:

  • Senator Mark Warner (D) -  write to him or call (202) 224-2023
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D) -- write to him or call (202) 224-4024
  • Representative Jim Moran (D) -- write to him or call (202) 225-4376

And, tell them ACTA sent you.

November 13, 2014

Arlington Public Schools Still Region's Most Expensive

The new Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE) Guide is out for Fiscal Year 2015, and it shows the Arlington Public Schools (APS) are the most expensive in the Washington, D.C. region, and the difference between APS and the next most expensive ((Falls Church) is over $1,800.

The new WABE Guide was posted at the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) website on Tuesday, November 11, 2014, but is not yet available at the APS website. The WABE Guide includes school districts in Northern Virginia and the nearby Maryland school districts. The WABE Guide is an important source for comparing the cost per student of the participating school districts. As the footnote on page 31 of this year's Guide says:

"Uniform formulas were developed by the WABE committee for consistency area-wide. These numbers are comparable; however, the cost per pupil reported here may differ from that reported in individual districts' budget documents or other reports."

Consequently, the Guide provides the ability to make "apple-to-apple" comparisons. Here are the cost per student numbers for the 10 WABE school districts:

         School Division                   FY 2015 Approved     Percent Change

  • Arlexandria                            $17,041                  0.95%
  • Arlington                                $19,040                 1.94%
  • Fairfax County                        $13,519                0.35%
  • Falls Church                           $17,109                0.69%
  • Loudoun                                  $12,195                  4.79%
  • Manassas City                        $12,613                  5.25%
  • Manassas Park                      $10,836                  6.52%
  • Montgomery County              $15,351                  0.16%
  • Prince George's County         $12,902                11.58%
  • Prince William County           $10,365                2.04%

Over the next several weeks, we'll growl about other comparisons contained in the WABE Guide, e.g., comparisons of enrollment data, teacher pay, sources of revenue, and authorized positions.

If one listens carefully to the education press or the teachers' unions, one is encouraged to think that more spending "for the children" increases student performance. Let's test that out. Consider that according to the WABE numbers for FY 2015, the Arlington County Public Schools will spend $5,521 more than the Fairfax County Public Schools. Multiply that difference by the 23,421 APS students, and the number crunching means the Arlington School Board has an "extra" $129 million to spend on improving the educational performance of Arlington students. Unfortunately, the total SAT scores for the two school districts are essentially the same -- 1653 for APS and 1668 for FCPS. But what about other factors, one could ask. There are some differences, but the differences don't seem significant. For example, ESL students (APS has 17.4% while FCPS has 17.0%); free and reduced price lunches, often seen as a proxy for poverty (APS has 31.8% vs. 27.5% for FCPS); and special education students (APS has 14.7% vs. 13.8% for FCPS). Finally, we growled on May 11, 2012 about the consulting firm, hired by the Commonwealth, that estimated the cost of Arlington's lower student-teacher ratios at about $30 million. Well, it sure seems the accounting of APS costs needs to be much more transparent.

Readers of Growls who are concerned about the cost of the Arlington Public Schools are urged to write or call the Arlington School Board. Just click-on the link below:

  • Call the Board office at (703) 228-6000

And if they ask, tell them ACTA sent you!

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Items in Growls are written by individual ACTA members and do not necessarily represent the views of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, Inc. Please send comments about Growls to The Growl Meister