May 15, 2011

Dahlia Lithwick (@DahliaLithwick) joins regular VS Sundays panelist Culture of Truth (@Bobblespeak) get together tonight at Virtually Speaking Sundays.

The Supreme Court’s composition, recent opinions and policy related to rulings by the Court will probably dominate the discussion.

The oddly open question of whether the Administration’s health care plan, PPACA is constitutional will come up. Dahlia wrote about it earlier this week

The first case was a suit brought byLiberty University, a religious college in Lynchburg, Va., challenging the individual mandate as a violation of both the Commerce Clause and religious freedom (it claims that the ACA forces taxpayers to finance abortions). Last fall, federal District Judge Norman Moon dismissed that suit, finding the mandate a permissible exercise of congressional power under the Commerce Clause, which allows Congress to regulate economic activity.* The second suit was brought by Virginia Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli, claiming that the ACA violates a hastily enacted state law that sought to exempt everyone in the state from the insurance mandate. Federal Judge Henry Hudson agreed, and struck down the individual mandate last winter.

Nationwide, five federal judges have ruled on the constitutionality of the ACA. Three have upheld it, while two have struck it down. More federal appeals courts are teed up to hear yet more cases this summer.

In some ways, this is a test of the Republicans systematic construction of a judicial firewall, in the lower courts, to preclude Democratic policies’  implementation.  More importantly, this case is a test of how far the Roberts Court will go in overturning precedent, and redefining Constitutional interpretation.  Of course, what that really means is whether Justice Kennedy will find a tortuous way to overturn precedent without actually admitting to doing so, as with Casey v Planned Parenthood.

As Dahlia said last month Casey is shepherding in The Death of Roe v Wade

There’s one other (often forgotten) player in this elaborate game of chicken over reproductive rights, and that’s the Supreme Court. Given that public opinion has changed virtually not at all since Roe v. Wade, my guess is still that the Roberts court is as uninterested in overturning the law as its challengers are in forcing the issue. It does not want to be the court that makes abortion illegal, or all-but-illegal, in America. The backlash would be staggering. The conservatives on the court are much happier with the status quo, allowing abortion as a matter of federal law while the states effectively outlaw it as a matter of fact. If the states continue to hollow out Roe from the core, there will be no reason for the court to hear an abortion case ever again.

Just to be clear then: If Terry O’Neill is right, and fear of Samuel Alito is preventing anyone from challenging the host of increasingly invasive, paternalistic, and degrading state abortion regulations, it’s not just abortion foes who are getting what they want. The court is, too. Abortion will have become all but impossible in America—for poor, minority, and rural women in particular—in direct contradiction to a Supreme Court decision, and the court itself will have done nothing to stand in the way. Is that what supporters of the right to abortion, not to mention the rule of law, really want? At the very least, let’s put it to the test.

Amanda Marcotte on how South Dakota is eliminating legal abortion using Casey loopholes:

How did South Dakota do it?  The new law requires women seeking abortion to speak to the doctor, then wait 72 hours, then get counseled at an anti-choice propaganda station called a “crisis pregnancy center,” only after which would she be allowed to obtain an abortion. This law received quite a bit of attention for overt misogyny inherent in the implication that women are too stupid to be aware of what they’re asking for when they seek abortion, or that women are so ignorant and incurious that they can’t be expected to have considered anti-choice arguments unless forced.  But it’s looking like this law may do more than that, and may actually make abortion impossible to get in South Dakota.

This works in two ways.  Right away, it was clear that the 72-hour waiting period was an attempt to force the sole abortion provider in the state, a Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls, to drop the service.  The doctor that performs abortions flies in to provide the service, and this requirement is obviously intended to push out any doctor who doesn’t work full time at the clinic by making the travel requirements onerous.

The “counseling” requirement seemed more condescending than truly burdensome at first, though it is true that many women seeking abortion really don’t have the flexible schedule to work in a few hours to be hectored by anti-choicers before obtaining their abortion, which pushes this requirement from being irritating and sexist to being truly an obstacle.  But recent news indicates that something more devious is likely going on. As Robin Marty reported last week, not a single crisis pregnancy center has agreed to counsel patients seeking abortion so that those patients can fill their requirements to get their abortions.  Not even the centers that lobbied to get the requirement pushed through.  Without centers willing to say they saw the patients seeking abortion, patients could be caught in a red tape nightmare that makes getting abortions impossible.\

Jon us tonight, 9pm EDT.



May 12, 2011

What do Republicans want?

On health care, Ezra observes:

 A capsule history of health-care reform is that Democrats began with single-payer and Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, countered with an employer-based system. Then, in the 1990s, Democrats proposed an employer-based system and Republicans countered with an individual mandate — which Romney actually passed in Massachusetts in 2005. Then, in 2009, Democrats proposed a system based around an individual mandate and Republicans countered with a vague promise to “repeal-and-replace.”

Pretty much every 2012 Republican presidential hopeful supported a cap and trade approach to environmental control:

Cap and trade, like the health care mandate, was an acceptable free market position for quite a long while. There were always critics, but it wasn’t really until 2009, when environmental skeptics and groups like Americans for Prosperity went to war against it, that conservative and national opinion really turned. (The essential poll on this: In May 2009, only a quarter of voters knew that “cap and trade” had something to do with energy.) And so most of the people considered frontrunners for 2012 have been on the record, at some point, talking up greenhouse gas caps.

On the Republican strategy on the debt ceiling, Mitch McConnell echoes Atrios:

Discussing what Republicans needed in order to raise the debt ceiling today, Mitch McConnell went a little further than John Boehner. Like Boehner, he said that the party wanted entitlement reform as part of a deal. He didn’t get too specific, other than saying the deal would have to be reform, not studying reform.

“Not to be argumentative, but the things I’m talking about have been studied to death,” said McConnell. “We don’t need more hearings. All the options are on the table, thanks to the president’s deficit reduction commission. It’s a question of what you want to pick up and really do.”

The main argument: If the president met Republicans and agreed to entitlement reform — with no tax increases — then both parties would be inured from political damage.

And, of course, on Big Government, and Deficit Spending and the Public Debt, Republicans have always been rhetorically opposed, but, in the event in favor of larger governments, funded by large deficits, massively increasing the Public Debt.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what the GOP objectives are.  I’ve always believed in the Big Lie theory–that they paid lip service to these ideals, but only as political rhetoric–that they maintained a transparently false position on these issues because the current media’s operational model would never call them on it. So out of power, they decried spending, while in power they spent like drunken sailors. Something different is going on now, and I’ve been wondering whether the more recent crop of freshman Members of Congress have grown up with the Big Lie, and, to them, it’s not political rhetoric–that they would never channel Vice President Cheney and say “Deficits don’t matter.”

Stuart Zechman and I talk about these and other issues tonight at Virtually Speaking A-Z. 8PM EDT.


May 10, 2011

Back in an earlier life, I worked with state and local governments to improve their property valuation systems, for the purpose of tax assessment.  Our main goal in working with our customers was to avoid the situation that faces many New York counties right now:

Local governments here in well-to-do Westchester County are being overwhelmed by property tax appeals, driven by a growing industry of companies seeking reductions in homeowners’ bills in exchange for a share of their savings.

The record-setting number of tax grievances, which nearly quintupled from 2008 to 2010, are adding fiscal pressure to communities already throttled by economic losses and cuts in state aid.

Towns are being forced to refund millions of dollars to homeowners who show they have been overcharged. Some, like New Rochelle, have been forced to increase tax rates to make up for the erosion of assessed property values. Others, like Greenburgh, are also exploring costly townwide revaluations — a move that many towns have not made in a half-century or more.

This kind of crisis is easy to prevent. But it requires transparency in the operation of the Tax Assessor’s office.  There are two elements required. First, property needs to be revalued annually. Second, the assessed value should be as close as possible to 100 percent of market value.

In most counties, neither of these elements are in place. Revaluations are done infrequently, and assessed values are expressed as a fraction of the current market value.

 Towns here do not regularly reassess individual homes; instead they establish an aggregate valuation increase each year that is imposed on all properties.

As a result, assessments of older, more stately homes had not kept pace with their soaring market values, while middle-class residents and those owning expensive homes built more recently were paying considerably more than their fair share of taxes, and could argue persuasively for a reduction.

The article notes that revaluations are expensive, which they are when done infrequently.  The expense of a “full reval” mostly stems from the data collection effort required, with a visit to every house to gather the characteristics of the property.  Once all the data is collected for all the properties, a computerized model is created, associating recent sale prices with sets of property characteristics, giving a price per square foot of living area, adjusted by other property features, including, of course, location.  The data collection effort invariably requires more workers than are on permanent staff, and is usually handled by outsourcing the data collection and model creation to an outside vendor.

A program of annual revaluations relies on just collecting information on properties that have changed in the past year, using building permit filings as a source for determining what properties have changed structurally, and on collecting data on the properties that have sold in the last year or two, updating the valuation model.  The updated valuation model is applied to all properties, and taxpayers receive an annual valuation notice, at 100 percent of market value.

This makes it easy for the taxpayer to determine whether the model is doing an accurate job of estimating her property’s market value–the assessed value should be the market value. Relative changes in property value are also picked up automatically by the model; the problem the Times notes in Westchester doesn’t arise, because location and style adjustments to market value are incorporated annually by the inclusion of recent sales information. And the workload is such that the data collection and modeling work can be handled in-house.

Johnson County, KS is an example of a jurisdiction that follows this property valuation methodology.  You’ll note they also include recent sales information relevant to the taxpayer’s property.

So why do so many jurisdictions use opaque processes that create situations like the one facing many New York counties?

County (municipal in some states) elected officials do this to hide tax increases.  Property taxes are assessed by multiply a rate times the dollar value, a rate that usually values by land use.  This rate is called a millage.  Most of the time the tax base, the total value of the jurisdiction’s property, is rising in value, because of both new construction and  of historically rising property values.  What should happen is that an increase of 5 percent in the tax base should be reflected in a 5 percent reduction in the millage, with some individual properties rising in value more than 5 percent and some less.

Instead what happens is the jurisdictions “establish an aggregate valuation increase each year that is imposed on all properties.”  When they impose that blanket increase in value, of say 5 percent, they reduce the millage at the same time, but generally by less than 5 percent. The elected officials proclaim a property tax cut of, say, 3 percent, when they have actually increased it by 2 percent.

This gets masked by the fractional assessment–if your million dollar house goes from a valuation of 250,000 to a valuation of 262,500, you’re pretty hard pressed to determine whether that new number is correct or not.

But when there is a precipitous drop in values overall, there is an incentive for private organizations to introduce transparency, explain how this works to taxpayers, and get them reductions in value to reflect current market conditions. Because this is done piecemeal, and helps people with highly valued homes more than low-valued homes, this process actually increases the inequity of an already generally inequitable system of property taxation.

It also wreaks havoc with jurisdictional budgets, and exposes a decade or two of  flim-flammery by local elected officials.  This is actually something a small number of taxpayers can do something about. Attending county commissioner meetings, using open records laws and other forms of citizen oversight can in fact be practiced at the local level.