Newspaper column: Tax reform debate falls down a rabbit hole

If you are trying to follow the debate in Washington about tax reform in its various and evolving iterations, you are likely to come away muttering: Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.

This past week the House passed its version of tax reform by a vote of 227-205 with not a single Democrat voting aye. The 13 Republicans who voted nay on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are mostly from high tax states such as California, New York and New Jersey, where constituents would no longer be able to deduct high state and local income and sales taxes.

Also this past week and on a party line vote of 14-12, the Senate Finance Committee, where Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller is a member, passed a slightly different tax reform bill with the same name.

Nevada’s Democratic delegates to D.C. were all singing from the same hymnal.

Democrat Rep. Ruben Kihuen, who represents northern Clark County and the southern portion of rural Nevada, declared the House bill “nothing more than a handout to big corporations and the wealthiest Americans that unfairly sticks working and middle-class families with the bill.”

Kihuen said the bill also will increase taxes by an average of $680 for 113,000 middle- and low-income Nevada families.

This figure apparently comes from the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), which calculated that in 2027 about 11 percent of Nevadans in the lowest 60 percent of earners would see taxes increase by $680. Kihuen neglected to mention that in that year 89 percent of those Nevadans in that earning range would still have a tax cut of $490, according to ITEP.

Nor does he mention that ITEP calculates that in 2018 only 3 percent of those lower tier earners would have a tax hike of $460, while 79 percent would see a tax cut of $610. How these number were derived is not explained.

The average tax cut for 84 percent of all Nevadans in 2018 would be $2,670, according to ITEP. Yes, the tax cut for the richest 1 percent would amount to more than $100,000. The poorest 20 percent would only save $270.

Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto chimed in by claiming the House bill would raise taxes on 36 million working and middle class families, without bothering to mention that in 2017 there were more than 145 million IRS tax returns filed.

Democrat Rep. Dina Titus of Las Vegas lamented, “Of the 50,000 constituents in my district who itemize their taxes, the majority earns less than $75,000 per year.” She failed to note that the standard deduction is being doubled and thus eliminates the need for itemizing for many of them. Nor did she mention that only 25 percent of Nevadans’ tax returns are itemized.

First-term Democrat Rep. Jacky Rosen of Henderson, who has already announced she is a candidate for Heller’s Senate seat, wailed, “This partisan plan adds $1.5 trillion to our deficit and could trigger a $25 billion cut from Medicare as well as further cuts to other programs, unfairly shifting costs onto Nevadans who rely on commonsense tax reliefs policies that help those saddled with high-cost medical expenses, students struggling to pay off their college loans, and teachers trying to buy basic supplies for their classrooms.”

But Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents Northern Nevada, counters that such deficit claims fail to take into account the anticipated growth in GDP that should increase wages and jobs and actually grow federal tax revenue.

“Even a 1% increase in GDP generates about $3 trillion in revenue over 10 years — more than covering the anticipated $1.5 trillion deficit,” Amodei reported in an email. “The accuracy of this projection can be further evidenced by going back to the Clinton Administration where GDP growth was at 3.9% – the highest it’s ever been under the last five administrations – and the government was operating under a surplus.”

The congressman also pointed out that for those in his district with an annual income of around $64,000 the federal tax cut effect is more than $1,200 a year with the new brackets and increased standard deductions.

Amodei and Sen. Heller both cited the calculations by the Tax Foundation which estimates that both the House and Senate bills could bring 8,000 additional jobs to Nevada and boost middle-class income by $2,500 a year.

What are you going to believe? Historic precedence or cherry-picked examples of a handful of outliers?

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

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Editorial: VA health system continues to need bandaging

A month ago USA Today published the results of a months-long investigation of the Department of Veterans Affairs that found the agency covered up mistakes and misdeeds by doctors, nurses and staffers, often by cutting secret severance agreements and then writing large severance checks.

“In some cases, agency managers do not report troubled practitioners to the National Practitioner Data Bank, making it easier for them to keep working with patients elsewhere,” the newspaper reported. “The agency also failed to ensure VA hospitals reported disciplined providers to state licensing boards.”

This past week Nevada senior Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, joined with Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, to introduce a bill that prohibits such behavior by requiring the VA to report major adverse actions to the National Practitioner Data Bank and state licensing boards within 30 days. It would also prohibit the VA from signing settlements with fired or dismissed VA employees that allow the VA to conceal serious medical errors or purge negative records from personnel files.

“The investigation’s findings are downright shameful, and we need action immediately to ensure that the VA does not hide medical mistakes or inadequate care,” Heller, a senior member of the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the bill. “That’s why Senator Manchin and I introduced legislation that demands transparency and accountability from the VA and puts a stop to concealing serious medical errors through settlements with fired or dismissed VA employees. It is our responsibility to stand up for those who put their lives on the line for this country and provide them with the world class medical care they expect and deserve. The VA lists integrity as its first core value, and VA employees make the promise to act with high moral principle and adhere to the highest professional standards. Our legislation will make sure of it by holding the VA’s feet to the fire so that the veterans the agency exists to serve have trust in their caretakers.”

Heller noted that the nation has 21 million veterans and 300,000 of those live in Nevada. He noted that the VA’s mission statement reads: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle.” But in recent years, the senator noted, the VA hasn’t always lived up to that mission statement.

In 2014 VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned as a result of the scandal over veterans dying while waiting to receive treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital. The inspector general report called the VA’s problems “systemic.”

The inspector general found that the Phoenix VA hospital staff lied about its waiting list, claiming veterans waited on average 24 days for their first primary care appointment, when the average was 115 days. There were 1,400 vets on the official waiting list, but another 1,700 had been excluded from the list.

A subsequent audit issued on the day Shinseki resigned revealed that 64 percent of 216 VA facilities reviewed had tampered with waiting lists.

This latest scandalous revelation is nothing new to the VA. In 1945 the head of the VA hospital system resigned after a series of news reports about shoddy treatment. In 1976 an investigation of a Denver VA hospital found some veterans’ surgical dressings were rarely changed. In 1986 the inspector general found 93 VA physicians had sanctions against their medical licenses, including suspensions and revocations. In 2007 a commission reported “delays and gaps in treatment and services.”

In 2012 the VA opened a new hospital in North Las Vegas. It cost $1 billion, four times the original budget, and took six years to build. The emergency room was too small and had to be doubled in size a year and half later. The hospital is many hours away for rural Nevada veterans.

While Heller’s bill is needed to stanch the latest hemorrhage, perhaps it is past time  for Congress to disband the VA health care system and just give veterans vouchers for the doctors and hospitals of their choice.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Zinke’s national monument modifications too modest

Frankly, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s memo to President Trump recommending modifications to a few national monuments — including the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Clark County — is far too modest, but it has the Democratic contingent of Nevada’s Washington delegation squealing like a pig stuck under a gate.

Zinke recommended unspecified changes to the Gold Butte boundaries but totally ignored the massive 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument that straddles the border between Nye and Lincoln counties, even though members of the Congressional Western Caucus recommended reducing it to 2,500 acres — “the smallest area compatible,” as the law says, to protect the Indian petroglyphs there.

The Interior Secretary noted in his memo that the Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the president authority to protect historic and prehistoric landmarks and objects of scientific and historic interest, but the monument designation has instead been used to block use of vast landscapes. “It appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining, and timber production rather than to protect specific objects,” the memo observes.

Ryan Zinke visits Gold Butte (R-J pix)

He also noted that the public comment process has been usurped by well-organized, well-funded, self-styled environmental groups, drowning out local officials, ranchers, miners and loggers.

These environmental groups and their Democratic cohorts are dead set on protecting every inch of barren dirt and rock from the invasive non-native species known as mankind.

Not that any of them has ever worked as a roughneck or roustabout in the grease orchards, castrated a calf or branded a steer, driven a Euclid filled with ore or operated a jackhammer or a chainsaw or cashed a pay check for doing so.

Democrat Rep. Ruben Kihuen of North Las Vegas, whose district includes Gold Butte, screeched about Zinke’s modest memo, “This decision will not only be detrimental to Nevada’s economy and shared cultural heritage, but it is further proof that the monument review process has been rigged from the start. Secretary Zinke promised that Nevadans’ voices would be heard. Instead, we got half-hearted attempts to meet with stakeholders and secret memos cooked up behind closed doors, all when the outcome was predetermined from the beginning. When it comes to altering our monuments and impacting our livelihood, Nevadans deserve more than unofficial leaks and uncorroborated reports. Secretary Zinke should look Nevadans in the eye and give it to us straight, rather than hide behind the administration’s continued shroud of secrecy.”

Actually, his constituents in Mesquite welcome the reduction, especially if it assures the town it will have access to springs in the region that will be needed to supply the growing community with drinking water in the future.

Zinke’s memo specifically noted that the water district has historic water rights to six springs and five of those are within the Obama-designated national monument boundaries. The memo further said that there are four active grazing allotments in the area, though the proclamation claimed there were none.

Democrat Rep. Dina Titus of Las Vegas weighed in by declaring, “Gold Butte’s opponents have created a straw man argument about water rights without mentioning that the monument’s proclamation includes language to protect them. Now we must recommit our effort to protect these precious public lands in the courts and send a strong message to Zinke and Trump to keep their hands off our monuments.”

Democrat Rep. Jacky Rosen of Henderson claimed, “This rash decision by the Trump Administration will not only endanger Nevada’s natural beauty and chip away at our cultural heritage, but it will also hurt our state’s outdoor recreation economy by eliminating jobs that have contributed significantly to our local tourism industry.”

Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Las Vegas has opposed reducing the footprint of any national monument.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei both opposed the designations of Gold Butte and Basin and Range.

Heller said, “As a strong proponent of states’ rights, the Obama Administration’s decision to bypass Congress and designate two national monuments in Nevada despite widespread disagreement at the local level is an example of extreme overreach and the failed Washington-knows-best mentality. That is why I welcomed Secretary Zinke to Nevada to see first-hand the impact of monuments designated under the Antiquities Act with no local input.”

The monument designation does nothing to add actual protection for the few petroglyphs and other artifacts that are located on the sites, but Zinke did recommend the president seek funding to actually protect those artifacts.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: DACA rhetoric just muddies the waters

Pro-DACA gathering in Las Vegas earlier this month. (R-J pix)

The vitriol being spewed over President Trump’s suspension of Obama’s executive fiat to defer deportation of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children is nothing more than pretentious and pointless political patronizing.

Nevada’s Democratic delegation to Washington was unmatched in its heated hyperbole.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto called Trump a racist and a xenophobe, firing off a missive declaring the “decision to end DACA protections for DREAMers is not guided by sound policy, but by xenophobia and myths. DREAMers who benefit from DACA know no other country other than the U.S. Denying them DACA protection unjustly rips away their future, exposes them to job loss, and threatens them with deportation from the only country they have ever known.”

For the acronym deprived, DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the name given by Obama to an executive order to defer deportations of illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. DREAMers is a derivation of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which has been pending in various forms in Congress since August of 2001 without passage.

When Congress failed to act, Obama took it on his own in June 2012 to do what Congress had not.

Even though Trump gave Congress six months to remedy his rescinding of DACA and pass the DREAM Act, Rep. Jacky Rosen declared it was wrong to invite “these young people to come out of the shadows, raise their hands, and make themselves known, the United States made a promise to those who came here as children. President Trump is now reneging on that promise …”

Rep. Ruben Kihuen, making the obligatory observation that he was once an undocumented immigrant brought here by his parents, said in an email that the decision tramples this country’s values and shatters the hopes and dreams of the 800,000 who have signed up for DACA. He called the decision “heartless and cruel.”

Rep. Dina Titus said, “Ending DACA appeals to xenophobic beliefs and goes against the founding principles of our nation” — ignoring the fact it was Obama who made a promise he had no power to make.

In a statement announcing the DACA decision, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “This policy was implemented unilaterally to great controversy and legal concern after Congress rejected legislative proposals to extend similar benefits on numerous occasions to this same group of illegal aliens.

“In other words, the executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions. Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”

In contrast to Nevada’s Democratic delegates, its Republicans reacted by saying it is now time for Congress to do its job.

Sen. Dean Heller issued a statement to the Reno newspaper saying, “While I remain concerned about the way in which DACA came to life, I’ve made clear that I support the program because hard working individuals who came to this country through no fault of their own as children should not be immediately shown the door.”

Heller noted that he is a cosponsor of the Bridge Act, which provides legal status for so-called DREAMers while Congress works toward a permanent solution to immigration problems.

“Just as I have in the past, I’ll continue to work with my colleagues to reform our broken immigration system and that must start with securing our borders …” Heller’s statement continued.

Rep. Mark Amodei put out a statement noting that he is a sponsor of a bill called Recognizing America’s Children Act, which would provide a way for childhood immigrants to earn legal residency.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve called on congressional leadership to act on immigration reform. I would always rather be criticized for attempting to move this issue toward a solution, than criticized for repeated inaction,” Amodei said in a statement. “Now, Congress has six months to do the job it’s supposed to do according to the Constitution. If we’re unable to do that job, then 800,000 immigrants will be affected.”

Amodei further noted that Congress has not passed any substantive immigration reform since Ronald Reagan was president, three decades ago, adding that if any blame is to be attached to this it is rightfully Congress’.

The Democrats’ rancorous rhetoric does nothing to move toward a compromise and might well jeopardize that goal, especially if they categorically reject border security as a part of the package.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Zinke recommendation to reduce Gold Butte Monument size met with usual blather

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s memo to President Trump recommending an unspecified reduction in size of several recently created national monuments — including the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Clark County — has sent the usual suspects into apoplexy.

Democrat Rep. Ruben Kihuen, whose district includes Gold Butte, screeched, “The latest leaks from this administration show that once again Secretary Zinke is ignoring the will of Nevadans by recommending that the size of Gold Butte National Monument be reduced. This decision will not only be detrimental to Nevada’s economy and shared cultural heritage, but it is further proof that the monument review process has been rigged from the start. Secretary Zinke promised that Nevadans’ voices would be heard. Instead, we got half-hearted attempts to meet with stakeholders and secret memos cooked up behind closed doors, all when the outcome was predetermined from the beginning. When it comes to altering our monuments and impacting our livelihood, Nevadans deserve more than unofficial leaks and uncorroborated reports. Secretary Zinke should look Nevadans in the eye and give it to us straight, rather than hide behind the administration’s continued shroud of secrecy.”

Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to media in Bunkerville during a visit to Gold Butte. (R-J pix)

Actually, the residents of Mesquite welcome the reduction, especially if the free land assures the town it will have access to springs in the region that will be needed to supply the growing community with drinking water in the future.

Zinke’s memo specifically noted that the water district has historic water rights to six springs and five of those are within the Obama-designated national monument boundaries.

Democrat Rep. Dina Titus weighed in by proclaiming, “Secretary Zinke leaked a memo in the middle of the night because he knows his plan to hack away at monuments like Gold Butte is an overreach opposed by the majority of Americans. Gold Butte’s opponents have created a straw man argument about water rights without mentioning that the monument’s proclamation includes language to protect them. Now we must recommit our effort to protect these precious public lands in the courts and send a strong message to Zinke and Trump to keep their hands off our monuments.”

Democrat Rep. Jacky Rosen claimed, “No President has unilateral power to revoke a national monument under the Antiquities Act and any decision to redefine protections for Nevada’s national monuments is a blatant overreach. This rash decision by the Trump Administration will not only endanger Nevada’s natural beauty and chip away at our cultural heritage, but it will also hurt our state’s outdoor recreation economy by eliminating jobs that have contributed significantly to our local tourism industry. I’ll continue to stand up to this administration, in every way I can, to protect Nevada’s public lands.”

Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in the past has opposed reducing the footprint of any national monument.

But Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei had opposed the designation of Gold Butte and the 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument in Nye and Lincoln counties. Zike’s memo makes no mention of Basin and Range.

Heller said, “As a strong proponent of states’ rights, the Obama Administration’s decision to bypass Congress and designate two national monuments in Nevada despite widespread disagreement at the local level is an example of extreme overreach and the failed Washington-knows-best mentality. That is why I welcomed Secretary Zinke to Nevada to see first-hand the impact of monuments designated under the Antiquities Act with no local input. After talking to and meeting with the Secretary several times, I am pleased that he has taken my recommendation to ask the President to modify Gold Butte’s boundaries to allow the Virgin Valley Water District to access its water rights that were lost under the previous Administration. These actions recommended by me and Secretary Zinke prioritize local concerns over the opinion of Washington bureaucrats, and I hope that President Trump will agree with the Secretary.”

Frankly, the designations as national monuments did little more than create paperwork, because the all the land was under the jurisdiction of various federal land agencies, primarily the Bureau of Land Management. The monument designation does nothing to add actual protection for the few petroglyphs and other artifacts that are located on the sites.

Zinke noted this lack of protection and wrote that his agency “should work with Congress to secure funding for adequate infrastructure and management needs to protect objects effectively” in Gold Butte.

As we have already noted, these monuments need not be so large.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed in order to protect prehistoric and Indian ruins and artifacts on federal land in the West and the law limits such designations to “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects.” While earlier monuments averaged 422 acres, several of Obama’s designations exceeded a million acres.

The Gold Butte portion of the Zinke memo:

ObamaCare will live on … until single-payer takes its place

Sen. Mitch McConnell today released ObamaCare repeal and replace legislation. (AP pix via WSJ)

You can’t drive a stake through its heart. It looks like ObamaCare will live on — or at least until the death spiral of premium and deductible hikes force Congress to pass single-payer, as was the plan all along.

Today the Senate Republicans released their revised repeal and replace legislation, according to The Wall Street Journal, and it would include steep Medicaid cuts. With only 52 Republicans in the Senate and no Democrat likely to get on board, that likely means Republicans like Dean Heller of Nevada will balk and the 50 needed votes can’t be found.

“If you want my support (on repealing Obamacare) … you better make sure that the Republican governors that have expanded Medicaid sign off on it,” Heller was quoted as saying by a morning newspaper columnist a few weeks ago. “I’ve been saying that for months. … Where is Governor (Brian) Sandoval? What does he think?”

Sandoval was one of 31 governors to expand Medicaid with the promise that the feds would pick up 90 percent of the cost. He was quoted as saying, “As a result of [expanding Medicaid] we’ve added 210,000 Nevadans and allowed them to access health care,” Sandoval said. “These are our friends. These are our families. These are our neighbors.”

In addition to Heller several moderate Republicans have voiced opposition to Medicaid cuts.

So, when the death spiral hits bottom, that’s when the Democrats’ plan will kick in. Nevada’s former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid admitted four years ago on public radio here that the country will eventually drop private health insurance for the single-payer government-run-and-funded medical coverage.

Reid said the country has to “work our way past” private health insurance.

“What we’ve done with Obamacare is have a step in the right direction, but we’re far from having something that’s going to work forever,” Reid was quoted as saying by the Las Vegas Sun. “We had a real good run at the public option … don’t think we didn’t have a tremendous number of people who wanted a single-payer system,” but he could not get enough votes then.

That was then.

At a meeting with constituents in April in Las Vegas, Reid’s successor Catherine Cortez Masto was repeatedly asked about single-payer legislation.

At first she said, “We are fighting Republicans who want to take away health care. […] We have to be realistic.” But when asked again about single-payer, she replied, “I will take a look at it.”

 

No expansion of the role of government can ever be reversed

No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth! — Ronald Reagan

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is pushing to keep spending federal tax dollars to keep the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, of course, is on board, along with all of the rest of the state’s delegation except Rep. Mark Amodei. Nevada lawmakers want to expand Medicaid. The governor is for keeping the Medicaid expansion.

Dean Heller

Thus far, according to the morning newspaper, the expansion has added 221,000 to Nevada’s Medicaid roles, although previous stories in the same paper put the number at 400,000. Most of those are able-bodied, childless adults earning above the poverty level.

Few seem willing to throttle back on the government largesse, even though the economy has picked up a bit since the depths of the recession and unemployment has fallen from October 2009’s 10 percent peak to 4.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Medicaid enrollment has grown by 47 percent since 2006 and spending by 75 percent — to $554 billion in 2015.

Trump’s budget proposes to cut more than $800 billion from Medicaid over the next decade, and trim $192 billion from nutritional assistance and $272 billion over all from welfare programs — all of which have increased in recent years.

What goes up must never go down.