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`Close Tax Loopholes:’ Fighting Words

By Steve Geissinger, MediaNews Sacramento Bureau

They’re so politically sacred, there hasn’t even been a formal name for $50 billion annually in — TAX BREAKS. Now blandly dubbed “tax expenditures,” they total more than three times the current, persistent state deficit and nearly half the entire general-fund budget.

Half.

And ending tax breaks can be restated as hiking taxes — read as, “political death.” (Read sister paper Torrance Daily Breeze’s editorial.) But a nonpartisan government think tank says end some tax breaks to help fix the structural deficit. Some private experts agree.

A very unscientific reader poll in a sister paper, the Contra Costa Times, says — surprise! — 42 percent agree with closing loopholes. Reader comments and phone calls have been passionate on both sides of the issue. For a time, it was the most e-mailed story. Another sister paper, the Los Angeles Daily News posted the story on its Sausage Factory political web site for comments. The story can be read in sister paper San Jose Mercury News.

Former Democratic Treasurer Phil Angelides, running for governor in 2006 against no-tax-hikes Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the last one to make a big deal out of what liberals attack as tax loopholes and conservatives praise as economic incentives.

(By the way, whatever happened to Phil?)

When Angelides started talking about messing with tax breaks, Republicans warned they’d actually be tax hikes. Democrats dove for cover. But they “boldly” inserted language in the last budget telling independent, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Liz Hill to study the tax-free cards the state’s been handing out for decades to certain interests.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle respect her, though may not agree with her suggestions for political or other reasons. Her office runs sort of like a computer program that crunches numbers and considers policy from a human but apolitical standpoint.

Hill dutifully provided a summary of recently enacted tax expenditures. Most were small and related to disaster losses. She assessed fuel-production tax loopholes but chose the state’s largest tax breaks to thoroughly analyze – mortgage interest deduction from personal income taxes. (At the same time, the governor’s Finance Department was required to add up tax breaks, including those for corporations, since nobody had dared to keep track before. The department found $50 billion-plus a year, and growing.)

In her report, Hill said what made sense to her: Time to drop the mortgage interest deduction, since it does the poor and middle-class little good, or remake it into a credit that helps the needy. The fat federal mortgage interest deduction would still be there, after all.

From Schwarzenegger’s office to the Legislature, nobody’s said tax breaks are off the table. Independent government, tax and housing experts have agreed Hill’s idea has some merit.

But nobody in power has really said it’s on the table for discussion, either.

At the same time, though, the deficit-plagued state has mostly run out of sensible but painful cuts, borrowing options and fiscal gimmicks.

The awful reality: The state is locked into spending more than it gets in revenue.

Everybody says something has to be done.

Are tax loophole closures less painful than tax hikes?

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Tauscher speaks out on Pakistan assassination

Ellen TauscherThe United States must take a “tough love” approach in Pakistan in the wake of today’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s candidate for prime minister who espoused secular democracy, said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, chairwoman of a House Armed Services Committee panel with oversight of strategic nuclear security.

Pakistan has been a key player in U.S. efforts to stabilize and reconstruct neighboring Afghanistan and its status as a nuclear power significantly heightens international concern that internal political upheaval could jeopardize security over its weapons arsenal.

“This is very, very bad,” Tauscher said from her Alamo home by telephone this morning. “This is a time for tough love. We must be significantly engaged with our allies to ensure that the vulnerability of the Pakistani people isn’t leveraged by others, whether they are outside terrorists or other people inside the country who don’t share the same goals of democracy and freedom.”

Tauscher she contacted Pentagon officials shortly after hearing of the assassination and sought repeated reassurance that the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has retained the “full care, custody and control of its nuclear weapons and that the people in charge of the program are apolitical and above reproach.”

But the congresswoman expressed deep concern about continued U.S. reliance on Musharraf in the fight against terrorism and the security of Pakistan’s nuclear complex.

She called Musharraf a U.S. ally born out of geographic convenience after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but who took power in a military coup and seeks to remain in power indefinitely.

It was Musharraf, she said, who pardoned Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb who turned around and sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and others. Pakistan’s failure to prosecute Khan precluded a full investigation and disclosure of the details of the massive security breach, Tauscher said.

“We cannot continually find ourselves associated by convenience with people like Musharraf,” Tauscher said. “He was someone we had chosen to embrace because of the geography (neighbor to Afghanistan) and he chose to embrace us, but to a certain extent, it was a relationship of convenience to expedite the recovery of Afghanistan.

“We have to make clear that Musharraf’s quest of limitless power is not in the best interests of the Pakistani people and that his means of doing it is degrading the stability of the country and the region.”

On a related item, those of you on-line with an interest in what’s happening in Pakistan may be interested in a story on the Poynter Institute website about how to find bloggers inside the country. (Poynter is an organization that provides professional training and assistance to journalists.) Most of the news accounts about the assassination and the reaction in the Pakistan is coming from outside the country because of restrictions on journalists, writes Poynter blogger Amy Gahran.

NOTE: Photo is of Rep. Ellen Tauscher as it appears on her web site at http://www.house.gov/tauscher/about.shtml

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Lynn Woolsey endorses Hillary Clinton

woolsey.jpgRep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, today announced her endorsement of U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, for president; in doing so, she has disagreed with her fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who has cast her lot with U.S. Sen Barack Obama, D-Ill.

The eight-term congresswoman, in a news release, cited Clinton’s commitment to ending the war in Iraq as the top reason for her backing: “Hillary Clinton is the candidate with the strength and experience to bring about the change that California families need. I trust Hillary to end the war in Iraq, bring our troops home quickly and safely, and regain our nation’s standing around the world.”

Said Clinton: “I am honored to receive Lynn’s support. She has been a tireless fighter for working families and has led the effort to end the war in Iraq.”

Other local representatives supporting Clinton include Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo; Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo; and Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater — notably, perhaps the three greater Bay Area Democrat considered most centrist, while “Woolsey” and “centrist” are hardly ever spoken in the same sentence. Meanwhile, Lee is the only California member of Congress on Obama’s endorsement list; that choice also set her apart from her political mentor, longtime Congressman and current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who picked Clinton.

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What they’re saying about Bhutto

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated, and the news releases are flying…

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, who has known Bhutto for many years and met with her a few months ago during her last visit to Washington before her return to Pakistan:

lantos.jpg“Today, the world has witnessed a tragedy in Pakistan. This was a cowardly attack by extremist elements. Madam Bhutto was a stalwart of moderation, a force for democratic values, and a personal friend. I express my sincere condolences to her family, to her many friends, and to the people of Pakistan for the loss of one of their daughters.

“This atrocious attack should compel the United States to renew our commitment to the people of Pakistan and to the voices of moderation. Although one of those voices has been prematurely silenced today, it is up to all of us to make sure that those who have perpetrated this hideous act are brought to justice, and that those who continue to spew the venomous, hate-filled rhetoric of extremism are vanquished.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.:

feinstein.jpg“I met Benazir Bhutto when she was Prime Minister and came to this country, and the women of the Senate organized a breakfast with her. She was a brave woman who had the courage to return to Pakistan in the face of death threats, and she survived a previous attack on her life just two months ago. My heart and thoughts go out to her family and to the people of Pakistan, and I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. This indeed is a very difficult and tragic moment. My hope and prayer is that the Pakistani people will pull together, and allow the country to proceed on its road to democracy.”

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.:

obama.jpg“I am shocked and saddened by the death of Benazir Bhutto in this terrorist atrocity. She was a respected and resilient advocate for the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people. We join with them in mourning her loss, and stand with them in their quest for democracy and against the terrorists who threaten the common security of the world.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney:

romney.jpg“We are still learning the details of today’s tragic events in Pakistan, but this is a stark reminder that America must not only stay on high alert, but remain actively engaged across the globe. Pakistan has long been a key part in the war against extremism and radical jihadists. For those who think Iraq is the sole front in the War on Terror, one must look no further than what has happened today. America must show its commitment to stand with all moderate forces across the Islamic world and together face the defining challenge of our generation – the struggle against violent, radical jihadists.

“At this difficult time, our thoughts and prayers go to the family of Benazir Bhutto, and to all the people of Pakistan who are fighting against extremist forces that would commit such heinous acts as the whole world has witnessed today.”

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio:

kucinich.jpg“This is a very dangerous moment for the world. Prime Minister Bhutto represented the forces of reform and the hope for an end to repression in a troubled region, and her death is a major loss to those efforts.

“This terrible tragedy also underscores the need for the United States to adopt a new foreign policy toward the entire region because our current policy is all wrong. Our interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan has opened wide the doors of repression and violence. At this very moment, we should be working with leaders of the region to convene a meeting at the highest levels to begin a new effort towards stabilization and peace.

“The United States must take a new direction in Pakistan and throughout the region. I met her several times, both in Washington and New York. She was deeply and genuinely dedicated to Pakistan. This is a tragic loss.”

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Pinole to have recall debate

Stephen TiltonMaria AlegriaUPDATE 1/2/07: The Pinole Chamber of Commerce is not and never was a sponsor of this event. It was mistakenly listed when someone used as a template a prior version of an invitation to an event in which the chamber was a sponsor but failed to take its name off the new letter. As many of you know, the chamber’s former executive director, Yvette Ricco, is a candidate for the vacant seat on the Pinole council.

I have revised the blog entry below to reflect the accurate list of sponsors.

A debate and candidates’ forum on the contentious Pinole recall election has been set for 6-9 p.m. on Jan. 10 at the city’s senior center.

Sponsored by the Contra Costa Times, Common Cause and the West Contra Costa chapter of the League of Women Voters, the event is a chance for the city’s 9,000 registered voters to hear from all sides prior to making their decision on Feb. 5.

I will moderate both the debate and the candidates’ forum.

The public may attend the event in person at the Pinole Senior Center at 2500 Charles Ave., Pinole, or watch it later on television. The event will be taped and aired on Channel 26, Pinole’s government access station. (Check the station’s web site for times and dates.)

Here’s how it will work.

In the first hour, sponsored by the Times and Common Cause, Pinole Councilwoman Maria Alegria and Mayor Pro Tem Stephen Tilton, the targets of the recall, have been invited to debate recall proponents Jeff Rubin and Cindy Trego.

The participants will deliver opening statements. I will follow with a series of questions that both sides will have the opportunity to answer and rebut. (Neither side will see the questions in advance.) The debate will conclude with closing statements from each participant.

Tilton, Trego and Rubin have all accepted the invitation to participate. Alegria, in an interview late Friday, said she is considering it.

During the candidates’ forum segment from 7-9 p.m., the Times and the League will invite Alegria, Tilton, the candidates who seek to replace them and two people running for a vacant seat to participate in a moderated discussion about citywide issues.

Running for Alegria’s seat, if she is recalled, are Roy Swearingen and Steve Denlis. John Bender withdrew but he took action too late for election officials to remove his name from the ballot. Running for Tilton’s post, if he should be recalled, is Virginia Fujita.

The candidates running for the vacant seat are Debbie Long and Ivette Ricco. (The seat opened earlier this year after David Cole resigned in order to serve in the U.S. Army.)

The participants will be asked to deliver opening statements. I will follow with a series of questions designed to illuminate the candidates’ views on various citywide issues. (No one will be provided with the questions in advance.) The audience will also be permitted to submit questions in writing during the forum. The evening will conclude with closing statements from the targeted elected officials and the candidates.

The league is in the process of sending invitations, so it’s unknown at this time who will agree to participate.

But I am hopeful that Alegria, Tilton and all the candidates will show up and make their cases to the voters. It has been a hotly contested campaign that will only escalate in the coming weeks before the election and the voters deserve to hear directly from the opponents and the proponents.

On a related note, some of you will have noticed that the recall debate and the candidates’ forum have a common moderator but different sponsors.

This came about because the good volunteers of the West Contra Costa chapter League of Women of Voters feared becoming involved with a too-controversial ballot question, given the high level of passion associated with the campaign on both sides. I can’t say as I agree with their decision — the more contentious, the more we need voter education — but it was their decision to make.

Fortunately, Common Cause stepped forward and will co-sponsor the recall debate segment and provide voters with the opportunity to see and hear both sides in a moderated discussion.

Speaking of heightened emotions, folks who plan to attend on Jan. 10 should be aware that this is a voter education event and not a political rally. That means no banners. No buttons. No T-shirts declaring support or opposition for any candidate. No catcalls or booing or otherwise disruptive behavior will be permitted.

Note: Photos are of Pinole Mayor Maria Alegria and Mayor Pro-Tem Stephen Tilton as they appear on the City of Pinole’s website, http://www.ci.pinole.ca.us/admin/meet_reps.html

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Report warns of race card in 2008 elections

History shows race-baiting — both implied and overt — may loom large over the 2008 elections, according to a new report by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and Goldman School of Public Policy.

Race-Bait ’08: Lessons Learned from the Political Dirty Dozen” reviews 24 years of campaigning and examines 12 campaigns in which the use of race made the difference; candidates who played the race card to mobilize or drive away voters soundly defeated their opponents, often coming from behind to win.

“It’s not only Barack Obama who will have to combat race-based tactics,” said Berkeley Law School Dean Chris Edley, an Obama supporter who co-sponsored a Piedmont fundraiser for the candidate in June. “Any politician who backs positions that appeal to minorities is vulnerable.”

In coming to grips with this political tactic, Edley — who was among Obama’s teachers at Harvard Law School — says it is vital to understand how appeals to racial bigotry, both subtle and unsubtle, have been used in the past. And it’s critical to assess how—with new media, new messages and new messengers—the race card may be used in the 2008 campaign.