Poll says public losing patience with Congress

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A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that the American public is losing its patience with the new Congress and thinks that the debate over spending and the deficits has been “generally rude and disrespectful.”

The poll sampled 1,525 adults during the period March 8-14. McClatchy Newspapers reports that big losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of discontent to win control of the House in November.

There’s even bipartisan agreement — 48 percent of Republicans and Democrats have that view, as well as 57 percent of independents. President Barack Obama signed legislation Friday to provide funding to keep the government open until April 8, the sixth such temporary extension in the 6-month-old fiscal year.

Pew surveyed 1,525 adults from March 8-14. The poll’s findings suggest the political losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of voter irritation to win control of the House of Representatives last fall.

After the election, 35 percent said Republicans had a better approach to the deficit, expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year. This month, that number has plunged to 21 percent.

People don’t think Obama has better ideas, either — 20 percent found his approach better, down from November’s 24 percent. Total sample margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Read more in The Miami Herald

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Indiana Democratic lawmakers flee state to halt action on union rights

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In what seems to be the new strategy by Democrats faced with bills limiting union members’ rights, all but three of the 40 Democratic members of the Indiana House of Representatives have fled the state to avoid having to vote on legislation they consider to be anti-union.

Although the exact whereabouts of the politicians is unknown, sources say they have gone to either Kentucky or Illinois, both states that have a Democratic governor.


Without the lawmakers in attendance in the House, the Democrats have effectively shut down the government process as long as there is not a quorum to conduct legislative sessions.

Sources say that Democrats have presented House Republicans with a list of 11 bills they want dropped before they return to work in the capital.  The most high profile on the list is a measure that would make Indiana a right-to-work state, meaning employees could not be forced by their employer to join a union or pay dues if they so desired.

Other measures included labor and education related bills, and the state budget.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told the press that he would not send out the state police to round up the AWOL Democrat lawmakers, although he was highly critical of their behavior.

“The House Democrats have shown a complete contempt for the democratic process,” he said in a briefing on Tuesday afternoon. “The way that works-as we all learned in grade school-is that if you seek public office, you come, do your duty, you argue, you debate, you amend if you can, you vote ‘no’ if you feel you should.”

He added, “You don’t walk off the job, take your public paycheck with you, and attempt to bring the whole process to a screeching halt. You know, if they persist, the Democratic Party of Indiana will need a rebranding effort because this is as anti-democratic as behavior can be.”

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Washington lawmakers propose legislation for state workers getting paid twice by taxpayers

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Politicians want to put an end to the loophole that allows state employees to collect both a pension and a paycheck, a highly-charged topic nationwide on pension reform agendas.

A bill introduced Tuesday aims to end the state’s “retire-rehire” policy, by which state employees can “double-dip” and earn both a salary and a pension by going back to work shortly after retirement. The bill is sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla.

Hewitt says that given the budget crisis and the underfunding of state pension plans, Washington cannot afford to pay these employees twice.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and other lawmakers have proposed closing the loophole.

An investigation by The Seattle Times last year found that 2,000 state employees were collecting both a pension and salary, costing taxpayers about $85 million yearly.

Hewitt’s bill will be heard in the Senate Ways and Means committee.

The Associated Press

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Pension reporting legislation would force States to declare massive liabilities

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Ca.) wants states to calculate their pension shortfalls more conservatively.

New legislation that would force states to report more accurate unfunded pension liabilities is being pushed by House Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Public Employee Pension Transparency Act was introduced on Feb.9 by California Rep. Devin Nunes, and would require states and municipalities to report more accurately on the financial health of public-employee pension funds. Under proposed rules, most states would be forced to report even larger funding deficits than already disclosed.


If passed, the law would require that states provide a more conservative calculation on investment earnings, which they now typically estimate at 8 percent per annum. Under new rules, a second calculation would be conducted using a 4 percent investment earnings assumption. Private companies generally use a 6 percent factor.

States would be required to file annual reports with the Treasury on the status of their funds. Failing to do so would cost them their ability to issue tax-exempt bonds which they rely on for infrastructure and other projects.

The bond-rating agency, Moody’s Investor Service, expressed support for the legislation, saying it “would provide new incentives to state and local governments to take action to ensure public-employee pension plans’ long-term viability.”

Predictably, state government officials expressed opposition for the legislation.

“Transparency is not the issue here,” said Jeffrey Esser, executive director for the Government Finance Officers Association. “The effort is designed to make public-employee pension plans look bad.”

The legislation would also explicitly ban the federal government and the Federal Reserve from bailing out insolvent public pension plans. Although states and municipalities contend they are not looking for the federal government to do so, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s recent proposed budget plan suggested that the state may consider “seeking a federal guarantee of the debt” to help stabilize its massively underfunded plans.

Republicans hope the bail-out provision will prevent states from counting on the feds to step in to prop up sick pension funds. “You still need to put that policy out there so that the states know that there’s not going to be any bailouts coming,” said Mr. Nunes.  “We don’t want to get in a position to where people even think that that’s an option.”

The Pew Center on the States recently calculated state and local pension plans had unfunded balances of $1 trillion based on 2008 data, although some sources estimate the shortfall is now closer to $3 trillion.

The Wall Street Journal

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Wisconsin Democrats still hiding to evade vote on union reform legislation

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The Wisconsin State Patrol was dispatched Friday to find a Democratic state senator who fled the Capitol to delay the near-certain passage of a bill to end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for public workers, a measure that’s attracted thousands of protesters for four days.

With Democrats saying they won’t return before Saturday, it was unclear when the Senate would be able to begin debating Gov. Scott Walker’s measure meant to ease the state’s budget woes. Democrats who disappeared Thursday at first kept their whereabouts secret, then started to emerge to give interviews and fan the protests.

Senate Republicans convened briefly Friday morning to renew a call to find the Democrats, then recessed. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters he has asked the governor to send two state troopers to Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller’s suburban Madison home. He said he believes Miller may be there – he did not elaborate on why he thought that – and Walker agreed to dispatch the officers.

Early Friday, an Associated Press reporter went to Miller’s home in Monona, but no one answered the door. In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Miller said the Democrats “had left the state so we were out of reach of the Wisconsin State Patrol.”

The Wisconsin Constitution prohibits police from arresting state lawmakers while the Legislature is in session, except in cases of felonies, breaches of the peace or treason. Fitzgerald said he’s not looking to have Miller arrested, but he wants to send a signal about how serious things are becoming in the Capitol.

Fitzgerald said he spoke with Miller by phone late Thursday night and asked him to bring his caucus back to Madison for a vote on Friday morning, but Miller refused. Meanwhile, the protests are growing so large that Capitol workers and lawmakers’ staff cannot safely move through the halls, he said.

The situation has become “a powder keg,” he said.

“I’m starting to hold Sen. Miller responsible for this,” Fitzgerald said. “He shut down democracy.”

The protests have attracted teachers, grade school children, college students and other workers over four days. Police report they have been largely peaceful, with only nine people cited for minor acts of civil disobedience as of Thursday night.

While the Senate was paralyzed, the Assembly met briefly on Friday. Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said the Assembly would vote on the bill later in the day after Democrats have had a chance to meet privately.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca vowed to fight to the “bitter end,” in a speech delivered on the Assembly floor after Republicans had turned off the microphones and left.

“This is wrong!” Barca shouted to wild applause from the packed gallery. “Desperately wrong and we will not stand for it!”

Under Walker’s plan, state and local public employees could no longer collectively bargain over any issue except wage increases that are no higher than the Consumer Price Index. It would also make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. State employees’ costs would go up by an average of 8 percent. The changes would save the state $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Unions could still represent workers, but they could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized. Local police, firefighters and state troopers would retain their collective bargaining rights.

Several hundred protesters were in the building early Friday and their ranks were growing. Many had spent the night in the Capitol and another large rally was planned around noon.

As many as 25,000 students, teachers and prison guards have turned out at the Capitol this week to protest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the building’s hallways, sitting cross-legged across the floor and making it difficult to move from room to room. Some brought along sleeping bags and stayed through the night. Union organizers expected yet more to gather Friday.

The protesters chants of “Kill the Bill!” and “Recall Walker Now!” could be heard throughout the day and long past dark. They beat on drums and carried signs deriding Walker and his plan to end collective bargaining for state, county and local workers, except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.

Hundreds of teachers have joined the protests by calling in sick, forcing school districts – including the state’s largest, Milwaukee Public Schools – to cancel classes.

Some signs seen at the Capitol compared the governor to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down last week after weeks of mass protests against his three-decade rule. On read, “Impeach Scott Mubarak!” and another said, “Walker like an Egyptian.” Others compared to Walker and his supporters to boy wizard Harry Potter’s nemesis and his evil minions, calling them “Governor Voldemort and his DeathEater Legislators.”

Despite the groundswell of support, it seems Democrats are merely delaying the inevitable – Republicans say they have the votes to pass the bill – yet the protesters are undeterred.

“I always expect the worst, but at the least I figure this would lead to such larger strikes that it would be a bad move for Republicans and Scott Walker,” Graupner said.

In an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ, President Barack Obama compared Walker’s bill to “an assault on unions.”

Senate Republicans planned to try for a vote again Friday. With 19 seats, they hold a majority in the 33-member chamber, but they are one vote short of the number necessary to conduct business. The GOP needs at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. The measure needs 17 votes to pass.

Speaking on CBS’ “The Early Show” on Friday morning, Walker urged the Democrats to return to Madison and face the vote.

“The state senators who are hiding out down in Illinois should show up for work, have their say, have their vote, add their amendments, but in the end, we’ve got a $3.6 billion budget deficit we’ve got to balance.”

Senate rules and the state constitution say absent members can be compelled to appear, but it does not say how.

“We left the state so we were out of the reach of the Wisconsin state patrol, which has the authority to round us up and bring us back to the legislature,” state Sen. Mark Miller told ABC’s “Good Morning America” from an undisclosed location Friday.

Sen. Tim Cullen said he and other Democrats planned to stage their boycott until Saturday to give the public more time to speak out against the bill.

“The plan is to try and slow this down because it’s an extreme piece of legislation that’s tearing this state apart,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who was with Democratic senators in northern Illinois on Thursday before they dispersed.

Walker, who took office last month, called the boycott a “stunt.” He vowed not to concede.

“It’s more about theatrics than anything else,” Walker said.

Some Democrats elsewhere applauded the developments as a long-awaited sign that their party was fighting back against the Republican wave created by November’s midterm election.

“I am glad to see some Democrats, for a change, with a backbone. I’m really proud to hear that they did that,” said Democratic state Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre of Oklahoma, another state where Republicans won the governorship in November and also control both legislative chambers.

Thursday’s events were reminiscent of a 2003 dispute in Texas, where Democrats twice fled the state to prevent adoption of a redistricting bill designed to give Republicans more seats in Congress. The bill passed a few months later.

The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.

In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage – increases Walker calls “modest” compared with those in the private sector.

Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve – $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

The Associated Press

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New San Francisco law will bar construction workers from surrounding communities

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SAN FRANCISCO-The San Francisco local-hire law that was enacted in December is being challenged by a California legislator that says taxpayers will have to foot the bill for increased costs of public projects.

San Mateo Assemblyman Jerry Hill is introducing legislation today that would limit the reach of the bill by prohibiting the use of state monies on San Francisco local-hire projects, and prevent the ordinance from being applied to projects that are within 70 miles of San Francisco.

The local-hire ordinance, created and passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, requires that city-funded construction projects over $400,000 must employ at least 20 percent of workers that live in San Francisco, with the total rising to 50 percent within 7 years.

Officials in surrounding communities called on Mayor Gavin Newsom to veto the measure, saying it would hurt construction workers who live there.  Newsom didn’t sign the bill, but did not veto it either. He said he would like to have seen some reciprocity arrangements with surrounding communities.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, whose district includes much of the Peninsula and Silicon Valley said “If local governments choose to tackle their challenges through myopic self interest, regional problems relating to employment, the environment, education, and transportation will not be solved for the betterment of Bay Area residents.”

The Sacramento Bee

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Illinois gets tough on sales tax for online purchases

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While the Illinois state legislature waits to see if Gov. Pat Quinn signs a bill into law requiring out-of-state Internet retailers to collect a 6.25 percent sales tax on purchases made by Illinois residents, the Illinois Department of Revenue is moving ahead with its own plan to put the taxpayers on the hook for the tax, requiring it be paid alongside the state’s income tax.

Critics say that the move puts ordinary residents at risk of being tax evaders if they don’t keep track of all the items they purchase online, or pay an estimated tax suggested by tax officials.

Illinois tax authorities have discovered a novel way to collect Internet sales tax from the state's residents.

Other states are likely to adopt the Illinois plan, if legislators in other financially-troubled states see it as an easy way to collect more revenues from taxpayers.

Currently, federal law protects online retailers from having to collect sales tax on goods they ship to states in which they do not have a physical presence. A 1992 court decision, Quill v. North Dakota, established the law, which at the time applied to catalogue sales, although has been interpreted to also include Internet sales.

Existing laws in Illinois and many other states require that companies or individuals report online purchases for which no sales tax was paid, and pay a “use tax.”

In Illinois, a use tax return, Form ST-44, is used by those wishing to report the tax. According to the Illinois Department of Revenue, about 5,000 to 6,000 taxpayers file the form annually and pay about $6 million in use taxes.

Starting this year, state tax officials plan on putting a separate line on its income tax form, highlighted in bright red, requiring individuals to report their online purchases or pay an estimated tax based on a schedule provided by the state.

In order to avoid penalties, taxpayers will have to sift through credit card records and report all online purchases, or cough up an estimated tax, which at $100,000 of gross income, amounts to $52.

Accountant James Funkhouser, head of TTS Tax Services, called it a “stealth tax.” He said that it’s another incidence of the cash-starved state “raking through their old records looking for anything that pops up and sending out a bill.”

Others say that the state is merely collecting tax that it is rightfully owed. State Rep. Don Moffit, said “It’s voluntary. There’s no new penalty, fine, or fee, no new enforcement. It’s a way in get new money without raising taxes.”

However, the instruction guide for this year’s individual Illinois income tax return describes it a bit differently, how they intend to enforce the tax:  “If we find that you owe additional tax, we may assess the additional tax plus applicable penalties and interest. We conduct routine audits based on information received from third parties, including the U.S. Customs Service and other states.”

The state is also offering amnesty for taxpayers for sales or use tax that they did not report in previous years. Those wishing to take advantage of the amnesty program can fill out form ST-44, including all the Internet purchases made between July 1, 2004 and December 31, 2010, write “Amnesty” on the top of the form, and pay the tax due by Oct. 15.

A spokesperson at the Illinois Department of Revenue, Sue Hofer, said authorities won’t be chasing after taxpayers for minor purchases such as a pair of shoes. However, “if you go online and buy a boat…in Florida, we have a number of ways to learn about that transaction.”

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