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August 12th, 2012:

Weekend link dump for August 12

Photobombed by an ostrich. If that’s not a meme, it should be.

I don’t care what anyone says, I’m going to listen to music when I want to.

You can’t increase your metabolism by exercising.

Haven’t we all seen this movie before? Don’t rely on electric fences and supposedly bulletproof automated systems, that’s all I’m saying.

How elephants trumpet. I didn’t know that we hadn’t known that before now.

We’ll never see the likes of the ABA again.

What Arizona and Texas have in common, other than idiot governors.

Getting hacked is a whole lot of no fun.

On writing jokes for those who tell them.

The people who are fighting for marriage equality in the South are truly doing the Lord’s work.

There’s more than one way to finance your Olympic dream.

Pat Robertson sure is wrong a lot about what God supposedly says to him.

There’s less spam on the Internet today.

Damn you, AutoCorrect! Another reason why I still love my BlackBerry.

The venues from the 2004 Olympics in Greece will not last nearly as long as anything from the time of the original Olympics.

Down with algobots. Up with a financial transactions tax.

RIP, Martin Fleischmann, co-“discoverer” of cold fusion.

The Woz doesn’t like the cloud.

Bobak Ferdowski, Internet sensation.

On Chick-fil-A and Starbucks.

RIP, Marvin Hamlisch.

Even the wages of sin have stagnated.

Twitter bots are people, too.

I for one stand foursquare with Americans for More Rhombus.

“Apparently, their deep moral convictions against providing this benefit only kicked in when the opportunity to politically grandstand about the evils of contraception came up.”

Even if the Affordable Care Act did lead to a small increase in the cost of a pizza, why is that necessarily a bad thing?

What Mary Elizabeth Williams says. Also, McKayla Is Not Impressed by you.

Yes, it should. Especially now. This has been another edition of Simple Answers For Simple Questions.

It helps to have some understanding of a culture before you critique it.

HCC board approves its bond package

More bonds for your consideration this fall.

Houston Community College trustees voted Thursday to placea $425 million bond referendum on the November ballot.

If approved by voters on Nov. 6, the bond would help update classroom technology, build a new medical center facility, expand campuses and boost workforce development programs. It would also phase in a 2 cent to 3 cent property tax increase. The former translates to about $37 annually for the owner of a $150,000 house.

The bonds are needed to cope with enrollment that has jumped from 50,000 to 75,000 in the last five years, leaving the system “bursting at the seams,” said HCC trustee Richard Schechter.

There would be funds allocated to build a new health care education center in the Medical Center, plus renovations and new construction at all six HCC campuses, with an emphasis on workforce development in energy and the STEM fields. Typically, this has had a much lower profile than the other referenda, but that doesn’t mean it has been without contention.

The proposed allocation for westside construction does not sit well with some groups in Alief, which was annexed by HCC’s taxing district four years ago.

The Alief ISD board of trustees and the Alief Super Neighborhood Council passed resolutions opposing the bond proposal, saying HCC has failed to complete projects promised under the annexation agreement. The groups said the $10 million allocated for the Alief campus in the bond proposal is insufficient.

Only one floor of a four-story Hayes Road building on the Alief campus has been completed. That building, which is used by the Alief ISD Early College High School, also lacks a library and science labs, according to Sarah Winkler, an Alief school trustee.

“I don’t see how that (the westside campus) should be a priority compared to existing facilities that should be finished,” said Winkler, who noted that the first Early College class may graduate next year without having had access to a library or science labs. “We’ve never had campuses without a library. That’s just not acceptable to me.”

The lack of services and classes on the Alief campus forces many area residents enrolled at HCC to travel to other campuses for classes, Winkler said.

The first story above notes that the board “pledged to use the bond money first to complete construction of the Hayes Road building”, which is a new campus in Alief. Not clear whether that addressed the concerns or not, however. See here and here for more.

No, we can’t eliminate the property tax

The latest wingnut economic fantasy is that we can completely eliminate the property tax and replace it with an increased sales tax. Debra Medina was a champion of this during the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, which should give you some idea of where this lies on the spectrum of mainstream policies. Former Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton pens an op-ed explaining just how dumb this concept is.

The property tax produces more than $40 billion a year. All of that revenue goes to fund the state’s 4,000 local governments, including cities, counties and school districts. Because Texas doesn’t provide local governments with many other tax options, the property tax is their most important tax source, providing 80 percent of all of local taxes.

It would take a whale of a sales tax to replace that much revenue. Based on state estimates, a sales tax on the current tax base of 25 percent would be needed to replace the property tax and still provide revenue for the state, which relies on the tax for more than half of its total tax revenue.

That means a $100 purchase would cost an extra $25 in tax, rather than the $8.25 charged now in most places. It also means that the Texas sales tax rate would be more than double the current highest sales tax nationally and far higher than states like New York, which typically are viewed as high-tax states. You can see the problem.

Supporters of this idea suggest that this problem could be overcome by expanding the sales tax base. The question is to what? Many of the big-ticket items that aren’t taxed now aren’t taxed because they don’t make sense in a sales tax – items like raw materials used in manufacturing. Or they would put a heavy burden on families – like taxing groceries, water, medicine or home sales. There’s certainly room to expand the sales tax base, but what we are talking about here is replacing twice as much revenue as the state sales tax brings in now.

Even if it could be pulled off, this tax swap would have other undesirable effects. It likely would undermine local control of funding for cities, counties and schools. The decisions about who gets how much of the tax would likely have to be made in Austin, and there would be losers – particularly rural Texas, which doesn’t have the population to generate much sales tax.

The swap might be revenue neutral, in the sense that the same amount of money would be raised, but it wouldn’t be tax neutral for taxpayers. Depending on whether you pay a lot of sales tax or own land, you could see a large swing in your tax bill. The plan also would give an immense tax break to out-of-state property owners who would get a massive property tax cut but wouldn’t necessarily pay anything in sales tax.

Supporters sometimes promise that the change would produce an economic boom in Texas, but it’s hard to see how that could be true. What business would locate here and face the prospect of a 25 percent tax on the goods and services it buys? Tax avoidance such as shopping on the Internet or in surrounding states would increase dramatically. The one economic boom that is likely from this swap is in the construction of large shopping malls just over the Texas border in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

One thing Hamilton fails to note is that the Lege has considered the idea of swapping property taxes for sales taxes before, in 2005. This was a much smaller swap, which would have raised the state sales tax rate from 6.25% to 7.25%, with some other bells and whistles in there. The Legislative Budget Board studied this proposal, and concluded that it would benefit the rich at the expense of everybody else. One can only imagine what a huge boon a complete swap would be for the one percent crowd.

There are other issues – Hamilton correctly notes the effect of border-crossing and online shopping, but doesn’t mention the black market that would quickly burgeon in this scenario – but this is a pretty long list already. But let’s be clear about something: The purported reason for wanting to find an alternative to the property tax is that one’s property taxes can rise faster than one’s ability to pay them, and through no fault of one’s own one can find oneself unable to afford one’s house. If only there were some other kind of tax that could be substituted for the property tax. You know, a tax that was proportionate to the amount of money one made in a given year, so that one’s annual tax bill rose or fell in direct relation to one’s ability to pay it. I don’t know what you’d call this kind of tax – maybe the “Annual Earnings Tax”, or the “Tax On How Much I Made This Year”; I’m sure there’s a snappier, pithier name for it if only I could think of it – but I’m sure if we thought about it we’d realize that it could well achieve the aim of substituting for most of the property tax without suffering from all the problems that a 25% or higher sales tax would have. Maybe that’s the tax we should talk about implementing instead.

Who wants to sue over the HCDE election?

Depends who you ask.

At a court hearing July 30, the county, both political parties and an attorney for [runoff winner Erica] Lee all said they wanted the department of education’s suit dismissed (the school board wanted it to continue). First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said a dismissal would be the most “efficient” thing to do. The result of the runoff would be clear, O’Rourke said, and any voter or candidate who chose to challenge the result later would be a more appropriate party to the lawsuit than the county or department of education.

That rationale sounded pretty odd when the department of education this week filed its response to those motions to dismiss. Three times, the school board’s lawyers wrote that the people now asking to dismiss the suit were the same people who had asked them to file it in the first place:

HCDE said it filed the suit “at the urging” and “at the invitation” of county officials.

Robert Soard, chief of staff in the County Attorney’s office, said HCDE may have misinterpreted discussions among various officials about whether the political parties, the candidates, the department of education or someone else should file a suit.

“I would dispute the claim that they were encouraged to do it or asked to do it by our office,” Soard said. “They have their own lawyers. They understood from the beginning we’re not their lawyers.”

The county and the Democratic Party have now also filed replies in supportive of their motions to dismiss with the court.

HCDE’s motivation for pressing on with the suit, as expressed in that Chron story from the 30th, is that they have to hold legal elections or they could get sued later. That makes sense, and as an ideal I agree. At this point, however, it seems to me that the only person likely to be interested in trying to force a change is Jarvis Johnson, and so far he has not taken any action. Maybe he’s waiting to see what happens with HCDE’s litigation, I don’t know. Maybe we could all save some time and have him testify or at least submit a brief in this suit, and go from there. I guess there could be a technical legal reason why that isn’t possible. Everything about this is uncharted territory. At this point, I’d just like to get a resolution so we can put our full focus on November. In the meantime, here’s a little musical interlude to get us through.

Or don’t. Let’s just make a decision and go with it, OK?

Romney-Ryan

Game on. You’ve probably read all you can stand to read about this by now since it was everywhere on the internets yesterday, but do read Charlie Pierce if you haven’t already – he’s the best cure for mainstream media stuffiness – and Michael Grunwald, who seems to have escaped the reality distortion field in the mainstream media regarding Ryan. I agree with Ed Kilgore that this sets up the election as a choice between competing visions rather than a referendum on the incumbent. This is also what Team Obama wanted the election to be about. Bridge players have a saying that “if both sides are playing the same suit, one side is crazy”. We’ll know soon enough who’s crazy here.