July 28, 2014

What Is Arlington County Board Hiding?

In his weekly column at ARLnow.com last week, Peter Rousselot, who leads the anti-Columbia Pike streetcar group, Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, uses the column to ask which Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) projects the Arlington County Board is hiding in favor of the Columbia Pike streetcar.

Here's the essence of Rousselot's column (emphasis in original):

"Prior to approving its latest Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), a bare majority of the Arlington County Board (Fisette, Hynes, Tejada) voted to deny the public access to critical information. The information they suppressed relates to new transportation projects that are being denied funding or delayed as streetcar costs continue escalating sharply.

"The vote to suppress this information comes at a time that this same majority has sanctioned a $650,000 public relations campaign at taxpayer expense to promote the streetcar.

"Both actions represent desperate attempts to refloat a sinking ship.

"The CIP approved by the Board on July 19 documents sharp increases in streetcar costs as a percentage of Arlington’s total capital budget.

"Two years ago, in the FY 2013-2022 CIP, the Columbia Pike streetcar was projected to consume 8 percent of the total CIP and the Crystal City Streetcar 6 percent, for a CIP total of 14 percent devoted to the two streetcars combined. Today, both projects have jumped in cost, and total 19 percent of the FY 2015-2024 CIP for the two streetcars.

"In other words, just two streetcar lines totaling only 7.4 miles, consume 19 percent of our total Arlington capital budget, or nearly one out of five of our proposed capital spending dollars over the next 10 years."

Rousselot continues his column with a series of related questions, and concludes by asking why the three members of the County Board who support the Columbia Pike streetcar are afraid of providing fellow Board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, not to mention the taxpayers of Arlington County, with a list of alternative projects that could be funded with 19% of the total CIP that is now planned to be spent on the Columbia Pike streetcar.

At their revamped CIP program webpages, county staff have a great deal of content about the streetcar and the funding for it. Included are meeting agendas, presentations, and answers to Board members questions. Arlington County taxpayers are urged to browse through this material. If the material raises a question, you are urged to:

  • Call the Board office at (703) 228-3130
If they ask, tell them ACTA sent you!

July 27, 2014

A Thought on Progressivism and the Rule of Law

"There will always be occasions for discretion and interpretation on legal questions, but it is not the case that such discretion should presumptively empower the IRS to do things that the IRS is not legally entitled to do simply because Barack Obama wishes it to be so. If history teaches us anything, it is that a system of law that presumptively sides with political power soon ceases to be any sort of system of law at all. Rather, it becomes a post facto justification for the will to power, an intellectual window dressing on might-makes-right rule.

"The matter addressed in Halbig is hardly the Obama administration’s first attempt to circumvent the law as written — see Hobby Lobby, etc. — nor is it the progressives’ only attempt to impose what they imagine to be enlightened ad-hocracy on the American people. The disdain for the letter of the law is complexly intertwined with the progressive managerial imagination: The law, in their view, is not something that limits the ambitions of princes, but something that empowers them to do what they see fit. It is not surprising that conservative concerns about limited government frustrate and befuddle those who see the law in that way. They imagine government to be something like a plasma cutting table, a complex and precise tool that, in the right hands, can reshape the world in desirable, predictable ways. But government is not a complicated tool. It is in fact a simple tool: a bayonet."

~ Kevin Williamson, roving correspondent, National Review

Source: His 7/27/14 column, posted at National Review Online. HT Hot Air.

July 26, 2014

Economic Inequality and the Worth of the Typical Household

An Associated Press story, written by Jim Kuhnenn, was posted at Huffington Post on December 4, 2013. Kuhnenn reported in his lede:

"President Barack Obama turned his focus Wednesday to the pocketbook issues that Americans consistently rank as a top concern, arguing that the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down and the growing income gap is a "defining challenge of our time."

"The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed," the president said in remarks at a nonprofit community center a short drive from the White House in one of Washington's most impoverished neighborhoods.

"The president vowed to focus the last three years of his presidency on addressing the discrepancy and a rapidly growing deficit of opportunity that he said is a bigger threat than the fiscal deficit.

"Obama's remarks on the economy come as he seeks to move past the health care woes that have consumed his presidency in recent months. He acknowledged his administration's "poor execution" in rolling out the flawed website that was supposed to be an easy portal for purchasing insurance, while blaming Republicans for a "reckless" shutdown of the government."

Kuhnenn also noted, "Obama did not propose any new policy initiatives in the speech, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. But he reiterated his call for an increase in the minimum wage and other measures he's been backing to help lower income Americans."

Despite those claims by President Obama about economic inequality being "the defining challenge of our time," we learn today at the New York Times (HT Drudge Report) that over the past 10 years, including almost six years of his administration, "the typical household (is) now worth a third less." Anna Bernasek reports:

"Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

"The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

"The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years. Other research, by economists like Edward Wolff at New York University, has shown even greater gains in wealth for the richest 1 percent of households.

< . . . >

"For households at the median level of net worth, much of the damage has occurred since the start of the last recession in 2007. Until then, net worth had been rising for the typical household, although at a slower pace than for households in higher wealth brackets. But much of the gain for many typical households came from the rising value of their homes. Exclude that housing wealth and the picture is worse: Median net worth began to decline even earlier."The reasons for these declines are complex and controversial, but one point seems clear: When only a few people are winning and more than half the population is losing, surely something is amiss.

Ms. Bernasek concludes by pointing out: "The reasons for these declines are complex and controversial." Well, if the reasons for the decline in household worth "are complex and controversial," then how is it going to be reversed with simple fixes such as reducing economic inequality and raising the minimum wage? Taxpayers would like to know.

Readers of Growls are urged to communicate frequently with their members of Congress about the state of today's economy. 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

UPDATE (7/28/14): At Hot Air today, Bruce McQuain focuses on Ms. Bernasek's article, and explains the problem is certainly not income inequality, writing:

"Now if you were a low information voter, you might conclude from that excerpt that it is the rotten rich who are responsible for this decline. To do that you have to believe that the economy is a finite pie and when someone takes a big slice, everyone else gets smaller slices. But that’s not the case is it. This really doesn’t have anything to do with income inequality, as the left would have you believe.

"Think about it – average income is a total divided by a number. That means that the total income of everyone working is divided by the number of families out there.

"So if that’s the case, what’s the key? The number of people working. No work, no income. The families still exist in the same numbers, but the income that has been supporting them is down due to what? Unemployment.

"And, of course, because it is bad news for Democrats, we don’t hear much about that anymore. A simple graph, however, will help pinpoint the problem."

McQuain refers readers to a chart, which he includes.

July 25, 2014

Austerity? Do Members of Congress Know the Meaning?

Our friends at the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), especially Demian Brday, primary researcher for BillTally, have completed their analysis of the 1st session of the 113th Congress, i.e., 2013. At the Washington Times, Jennefer Harper devotes a portion of her "Inside the Beltway" column on Wednesday to NTU's BillTally analysis, writing:

"Old habits die hard. During the first session of the 113th Congress, members of the U.S. House authored 496 spending bills, compared with 112 bills that would save money. U.S. senators, meanwhile, drafted 332 increase bills and 56 savings bills — all this according to “Bill Tally,” an analysis released Wednesday by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.

"But wait. Had all 828 of those big-spender wish lists been passed, it would have increased the federal budget by $1.09 trillion. So we need to be careful not to tell our lavish lawmakers what comes after a trillion, so they don’t get any ideas. That goes for the White House, too. Amazingly enough, the study also reports that the number of proposed spending bills is actually the lowest in eight years.

"There are some frugal folk on Capitol Hill, however, both Republicans. Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona proposed spending cuts that would have resulted in $269 billion in savings. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky wins the prize: He offered legislation that would reduce the federal budget the most, the study found — by $317 billion.

"Congress’ agenda still exceeds $1 trillion, as it did during 2011-2012. For concerned taxpayers and fiscal hawks that bottom line may stand out as a sign that legislators are still offering major government-expanding agendas, even with a noted cooling of activity and despite the grim long-term forecast for the federal budget,” says Demian Brady, who led the research."

In their report, "The Tea is Cooling," which summarizes the 1st Session of the 113th Congress (Policy Paper 173, July 10, 2014, aka BillTally Report 113-2) they write about the effect of the Tea Party on this Congress, including this:

"Many pundits and commentators have been quick – perhaps even eager – to proclaim that the Tea Party is dead. For their part, voters have not always been inclined to agree. Candidates aligned with or reflecting many principles of this limited government movement have pulled out some stunning upsets during this election season. Chief among them is the historic, unprecedented primary-level defeat of a Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. And while the Tea Party’s impact on reducing Congressional spending agendas is still evident, results from the current Congress show that its effect may be cooling.

"Because the Tea Party is largely a localized, grassroots phenomenon supporting an overarching agenda, its participants can sway legislation and the formation of policy, not just the fortunes of candidates. Whatever influence the Tea Party may be exerting on the electoral process, is there a way to analyze its impact on the budget process? Thanks to National Taxpayers Union Foundation’s (NTUF) BillTally system, the answer is emphatically “yes”.

"The Tea Party freshman class of the previous 112th Congress helped bring the cost of Senators’ and Representatives’ agendas down significantly. During the current 113th Congress, there are still a significant number of lawmakers calling for cuts, but not as many as during the previous Congress and the dollar amount of the proposed cuts is smaller. The data from the last Congress showed a widening chasm between those who would grow the government and those proposing to shrink it. That gap is narrowing this Congress as the average Republican is calling for more modest budgetary pullbacks and the average Democrat, on the other hand, is calling for less budgetary expansion."

Another point made by many pundits and commentators, especially those in the "mainstream media," is that there is not a "dime's worth" of difference between Democrats and Republicans. Well, not so fast. According to the BillTally accounting, the difference, at least in the 1st session of the 113th Congress, there was a significant difference (numbers are in millions of dollars):
U.S. Senate
  • Democrats'
    • Proposed Increases -- $21,530
    • Proposed Cuts -- $3,233
    • Net Agendas -- $18,296
  • Republicans
    • Proposed Increases -- $5,792
    • Proposed Cuts -- $164,895
    • Net Agendas -- $159,103
U.S. House of Representatives
  • Democrats'
    • Proposed Increases -- $406,795
    • Proposed Cuts -- $10,311
    • Net Agendas -- $396,483
  • Republicans
    • Proposed Increases -- $8,633
    • Proposed Cuts -- $91,280
    • Net Agendas -- $82,647

The NTU also provides another rarely-seen number, comparing "the six fiscally-related House Caucuses," pointing out that of the six, "the Tea Party Caucus would decrease the budget the most." The numbers from the NTU:

  • Republican Main Street Partnership: -$31.6 billion (net savings)
  • Republican Study Committee: -$99 billion (net savings)
  • Tea Party Caucus: -$127.5 billion (net savings)
  • Blue Dog Democrats: $94.8 billion
  • Congressional Progressive Caucus: $857.1 billion
  • Congressional Black Caucus: $735.5 billion

Finally, let's take a look at Arlington County's three representatives in Congress:

  • Sen. Mark Warner (D)
    • Net Increases -- $1,097
    • Net Decreases -- $15
    • Net Agenda -- $1,082

  • Sen. Tim Kain (D)
    • Net Increases -- $3,046
    • Net Decreases -- $0
    • Net Agenda -- $3,046
  • Rep. Jim Moran (D):
    • Net Increases -- $78,407
    • Net Decreases -- $12,922
    • Net Agenda -- $65,485

Finally, NTU provides historical and other data for taxpayers, elected officials, the media, and advocates. Click here for link to the press release and various pieces of information and members database associated with their "Tea is Cooling" BillTally report.

Readers of Growls are urged to communicate frequently with their members of Congress, including about their voting records. 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
Kudos to Demian Brady and the National Taxpayers Union for their latest BillTally accounting.

July 24, 2014

July Porker of the Month Announced

"Porker of the Month is a dubious honor given to lawmakers, government officials, and political candidates who have shown a blatant disregard for the interests of taxpayers."

For the record, we growled about the headquarters building of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPR) on July 7, 2014, suggesting it was a case of "bureaucrats gone wild."

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) announced today that they have "named Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Richard Cordray its July Porker of the Month because of his gross mismanagement of the CFPB’s headquarters renovation budget, which has ballooned by almost 300 percent from a projected initial cost of $55 million to $215.8 million, and for the agency’s inability to produce a single shred of documentation related to the renovation."

Here is how CAGW justified its selection of Richard Cordray as its July 2014 Porker of the Month:

"The CFPB was created in 2011 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act.  One of the agency’s objectives is to “promote financial education,” which is ironic given its failure to control costs.  The CFPB has been called “unaccountable and unrestrained,” which is also an apt description of its handling of the building renovation.  The first revised estimate went from $55 million in the CFPB’s fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget justification to $95 million in April 2013.  It was revised a month later to $111.4 million, and then to $145.1 million in July 2013.  According to a June 30, 2014 Federal Reserve Board of Governors’ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) letter, “Based on the CFPB’s assessed requirements as of June 5, 2014, we currently estimate all-in costs to total approximately $215.8 million” and “a sound business case is not available to support the funding of the renovation.”  Furthermore, in what has become a disturbing pattern of either gross incompetence or systematic agency-wide obfuscation, the OIG wrote that CFPB officials were “unable to locate any documentation” related to the renovation.  Director Cordray has attempted to justify the costs by calling the building as “a classic white elephant,” and claiming it will “cost a fair amount of money to bring it back up to standard.”

"He singled out window replacement, plumbing and electrical upgrades, and a new roof as cost centers for the renovations, yet plans for the building also include such luxurious amenities as an indoor waterfall, a four-story glass staircase, a sunken garden, a custom “green” roof, and stools commissioned from world-renowned sculptor Maya Lin.  The building, which is being rented, was accepted in “as is” condition by CFPB officials, and will not even house all of the CFPB’s staff.  The renovation will cost approximately $590 per square foot, which is more than double the average cost for renovating some of Washington’s most high-end office buildings.  According to the House Financial Services Committee, “…the CFPB is spending much more per square foot than it cost to build the Trump World Tower ($334/square foot), the Bellagio Hotel and Casino ($330/square foot) and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai ($450/square foot).”  The latest estimated cost of $215.8 million is 37 percent greater than the value of the building, which was appraised at $157.3 million in 2011.  House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) has demanded that Director Cordray produce “full, unredacted” records related to the escalating costs for the building renovation by July 31, 2014." (emphasis added)

Readers of Growls who are upset about the out-of-control cost of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) headquarters are urged to call or write their Congressional representatives (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

More information about Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) is available here.

July 23, 2014

Will 'Streetcar Battle' Produce Better County Board Policy?

The Arlington Sun Gazette's Scott McCaffrey has another report this morning from last Thursday's Arlington County Board Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) work session (for a fuller discussion, see our July 18, 2014 Growls here). The title of McCaffrey's report asks, "Latest streetcar battle: why didn't management contract go to County Board?" Here's the lede in McCaffrey's report:

"Arlington County Board members need to formally approve government grants as low as several thousand dollars, but did not get a chance to vet a management contract worth perhaps $7 million for services related to the Columbia Pike streetcar.

"How come? County staff have an explanation, but not everyone on the County Board is buying it. And as a result, there might eventually be a policy change to give elected officials more oversight."

Here's how McCaffrey describes the problem:

"Garvey and Vihstadt were critical of the staff’s bypassing elected officials, and demanded to know why.

"In a response both to Vihstadt and the Sun Gazette, county officials pointed to intricacies contained within the Arlington County Purchasing Resolution.

"Under the resolution, county spokesman Diana Sun stated definitively: “The program-management services for the streetcar project do not require County Board approval. The authority has been delegated to the purchasing agent.”

"Well, maybe. As with many sections of every municipal code, there is some room for interpretation. Vihstadt, the lone attorney on the County Board, pointed to one section that indicated board approval was required; it says that County Board approval is required for capital-improvement projects exceeding $250,000 and “contracts for professional services that exceed $50,000, which are performed as part of a capital-improvement project.”

"Seems pretty cut-and-dried, until county staff take into account another portion of the resolution, which defines professional services as being accounting, architecture, land surveying, landscape architecture, law, dentistry, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, actuarial services or professional engineering."

And how might Arlington County Board policy be changed? Let's turn again to Scott McCaffrey:

"Vihstadt used a recent work session on the county government’s capital-improvement plan to introduce a resolution calling for County Board oversight over every capital-improvement contract valued at $1 million or more. In order to get majority support, he agreed – “reluctantly” – to refine the proposal and give County Manager Barbara Donnellan until November to come back and address the potential impacts of such a change.

"Vihstadt said he hopes his board colleagues will see his point of view.

“In my view, appropriate oversight is part of our job,” Vihstadt said, “and if it takes additional staff or County Board work to bring million-dollar contracts to the board for airing and approval, so be it.”

The day following April's special election, we growled whether the election of John Vihstadt by the voters of Arlington County would see a "new era of fiscal sanity." To date, it seems our question has been answered. First on internal auditing, and now on greater contract oversight by the Arlington County Board.

July 22, 2014

A Thought on Government

"The government is not your salvation. The government is not your road to prosperity. Hard work, education will take you far beyond what any government program can ever promise."

~ Mia Love, former mayor, Saratoga Springs, Utah

HT "25 Great Quotes from Black Conservatives," by John Hawkins, January 29, 2014, posted at Townhall.com.

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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