Thu, 28 Oct 2004
A friend writes:
What about the matching Fed $???? Use it or lose it - right?
The money is question is $30 million. We could have three times that much by restoring the income tax to the level of the bad old days of 1996. Did you know you got a 10% tax cut between 1997 and 2002? Most people didn't even notice. We ought to spend that money to get the federal funds, but we ought to do it by appropriating it and spending it, instead of bonding and eventually spending twice as much. What we do now is only digging us into a hole, just the same way my sister did with credit cards a few years ago. The reason our budget is in disarray is that we had competing tax giveaways in the 1990's, as both Almond and the legislature competed to see who could give away most. They had a golden chance then to put issues like this to rights, and they blew it.
14:56 - 28 Oct 2004 [/y4/oc]
Wed, 27 Oct 2004
In deference to the election coming up, we've rushed the October issue onto the web site a little early. There is a question about funding DOT bonds on the ballot (Question 3), and the newsletter is at least partly relevant.
The issue looks a bit at RIPTA's budgetary woes, and at DOT's. A comparison is made...
18:52 - 27 Oct 2004 [/y4/oc]
(Submitted to the Providence Journal, but to no avail.)
In a recent Journal op-ed, James Capaldi, the director of our state Department of Transportation claims that all road construction in Rhode Island depends on passage of the transportation bonds on Question 3 this November. But he is being slightly disingenuous. Road construction will not halt if the $66 million in bonds are not approved; the construction lobby employs too many people around here, and too many of them have friends in the administration and in the legislature. But what will happen if approval is not granted is that the state may have to come up with a more sensible way to fund road construction.
DOT has been funding routine construction with bonds for years, which makes it seem normal. But it's not. Among all the states, we are the exception, not the rule in the matter of debt. Lots of states borrow for this or that big road or bridge project, but we borrow $30 million every year, except for the years in which we borrow much much more (like this one). Projections have us borrowing the same amount each year into the foreseeable future.
The question is why? If we're borrowing $30 million every year, then there's no need to amortize, it's already amortized, at $30 million a year, and we should just budget for that. Roads are a kind of investment, but not one with returns--especially not roads built to replace existing ones, which is what most of the next decade's cost is for. Constant borrowing like this is a perfectly common financial strategy, but one that often ends in bankruptcy court.
The history of DOT's debt is a long one, started probably in the Garrahy administration, when a resort to borrowing was an easy way to avoid facing the true cost of the department. But successive Governors have made the problem much worse through malign neglect.
In the past ten years, DOT has dropped over 100 employees, and the amount of money it spends on construction has gone up very little: from $95 million in 1994 to $102 million in 2005. Maintenance activities over that same period have only gone from $26 million to $39 million. During that same time, federal highway funds, though they vary a lot from one year to the next, have roughly tracked inflation, going from $149 million to $207 million. But state dollars (DOT's budget minus the federal dollars, minus the money they pass along to RIPTA) going into the department have skyrocketed, going from $56 million to $104 million. We're getting a lot less for our money than we used to.
There are lots of little reasons for this--inflation, health care costs, pension adjustments--but the biggest reason is that DOT's budget is struggling under around $50 million in debt service, roughly double the $27 million from 1994. (Part of the debt service is accounted in the Department of Administration, but it's DOT's debt and is paid with gas tax money.) That is, at least half of the increase in state money applied to DOT goes to debt service. It would be much more, but for the serendipity of the tobacco settlement money, much of which was spent paying off DOT debt.
Mr. Capaldi will object that the amount of construction has actually gone way up, since last year we sold $216 million in GARVEE bonds, to be paid off with future federal highway money. This is the money going to build the access highway and freight rail to Quonset, the new Providence River bridge for I-195, and the new Sakonnet River bridge for Rt. 24. In one sense he would be correct. But construction on those projects doesn't do much for the bridge rotting away down the street from me or the intersection that needs signs near you. Nor does it do anything for the projects Mr. Capaldi lists as "likely" to be scheduled. The GARVEE bonds planned will require that one-third of the federal highway money we receive each year goes to their debt service for the next fourteen years. The DOT situation is like a family that's bought a house slightly too expensive for them: At best, they won't be eating a lot of steak in the next few years. At worst, they won't keep the house. We may finish those four projects, but all other construction is at risk for the next several years.
Six years ago, 36% of the gas tax collected went into the general fund, to fund state services like local education aid and protecting the environment. Today less than 7% goes to the general fund, a drop of more than $40 million in today's dollars. That sure would have been useful in last year's budget battles.
Mr. Capaldi knows all of this. In fact he was the one who explained it to me several years ago. But that was before he was running the department. It's not his fault that the Governor and the Legislature won't allocate the money necesary to fund necessary road construction, but he knows full well that debt isn't the only way to fund DOT, it's just the worst way.
Vote no on question 3, for saner state spending.
12:23 - 27 Oct 2004 [/y4/oc]
Thu, 21 Oct 2004
For the past four years, I have been touring around the country, to theatres and universities, with a one-man, one-robot show. It's been an incredible experience, and I've learned a lot, but some of what I've learned -- about airport security and air cargo -- is a bit unsettling.
Judy (the robot) is too big to fly with me as luggage, so she goes in her custom-made travelling compartment (some might call it a "crate") and flies air cargo. When she flies on airlines, she flies in the same airplanes you do.
After September 11, 2001, new rules were put in place, and in order for me to ship Judy air cargo, I had to become a "known shipper." I've passed this process three times now, for two major airlines and one air cargo company. This is what happens: an official of the airline comes to my house, and checks to make sure it exists. They ask me for a driver's license, to make sure I exist. Then we're done. They don't ask to see what I'm shipping, they don't ask what business I'm in, they don't ask for references.
This wouldn't be frightening if I knew that air cargo was being inspected, but it's not. My luggage that travels with me, containing cables, tools and computers, looks spectacular on an X-ray machine, and is routinely opened. I receive one of those little Transportation Security Agency courtesy slips, telling me that my luggage has been inpsected, every time I fly. I even invested in a new suitcase because the old one had to be tied shut, and the TSA guys, while I'm sure they're good at inspections, aren't so handy with knots. The new case is much easier to open, and it opens wider, making the inspections easier.
If my own luggage looks alarming on the X-ray machine, the robot itself would look much worse, should anyone bother to peek. Judy is 80 pounds of home-made electronics and oddly-shaped metal parts, built into a Salvation Army cabinet. She shares her crate with big coils of cable and little switch boxes I made to control her. I made it all in my basement, and it looks that way: duct tape, baling wire, scrap metal. It defies belief that anyone interested in airplane security has ever inspected that crate without my hearing about it or noticing it later.
In generous moments, I feel sure that my personal information must have been entered into some TSA database and I came out clean, and maybe that's why my shipments are deemed not worth inspection. I'm grateful, but it doesn't make me feel safer. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were clean, too.
So there you have our air safety rules: unlikely to prevent catastrophe, but they know who the shippers are. So they can blame them later? The TSA does officially acknowledge the risk, but three years after September 11, it hasn't made air cargo screening universal, and isn't planning to. Here are their words from their cargo security strategic plan released ten months ago:
TSA carefully evaluated the feasibility of physically screening 100 percent of all air cargo. Limitations of technology and infrastructure make such an undertaking impractical, from both a flow-of-commerce and resource point of view.
That is, we're not going to screen all the cargo, because it will cost too much, and it would be an inconvenience to businesses. Think about that the next time you get to the head of the long air security line and see a TSA official confiscate an elderly woman's tweezers.
I would like to live under a government that worked to address the real threats to our safety. But the evidence I see implies we live under a government interested only in the appearance of security. They don't inspect air cargo but they do make me stand in long lines and take away my nail scissors. They don't address the tremendous traffic in cargo container ships, but they do turn away Cat Stevens and muslim academics from Switzerland. They don't impose rules on chemical plant security, but they do demand access to my public library records.
President Bush's government seems to think the goal is merely to
inconvenience us enough to make us think that the real threats are
being addressed. For some reason, this doesn't make me feel safer.
23:06 - 21 Oct 2004 [/y4/oc]
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