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Archive | Voices and Views

Didn’t like cartoon

I am writing in reference to the cartoon on page 7 (of April 18 issue).
I feel this is in very poor taste for a newspaper to print.
I wonder how the families of the 3 people killed would feel about seeing this. You should actually be ashamed of yourselves. Being a Vietnam vet we have had enough of this type of stuff.

Donald Cronk, Solon Township
(Editor’s note: to see the cartoon from last week, download our free e-edition from our website at www.cedarspringspost.com)

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Review shows need for reform of overseas basing costs

By Sen. Carl Levin
Recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee, which I chair, completed a year-long investigation into the costs of maintaining our nation’s overseas military presence.  The investigation produced a bipartisan report that reaches some troubling conclusions.
I directed the review of our costs in Japan, South Korea and Germany. Together, those countries account for 70 percent of the roughly $10 billion we spend each year on overseas bases – a figure that doesn’t include personnel costs to pay and take care of our troops and their families.  All three countries are also key U.S. allies. In order to better sustain our presence in these important locations, we need to understand and control our costs.
Our review found that contributions from our allies are failing to keep up with rapidly rising costs, increasing the burden on U.S. taxpayers. At the same time, allied payments are increasingly coming as in-kind , rather than cash payments.
This shift to in-kind payments makes it harder to monitor how funds are used.  In fact, our review found that, in many cases, in-kind payments are spent without proper oversight, congressional notification or approval.   In some cases, in-kind payments are being used for projects that simply aren’t necessary.
Cost increases and the use of funds on projects that aren’t mission critical are unacceptable at a time when there is incredible pressure on the defense budget and the federal budget as a whole, and when cutbacks to bases in the U.S. are under debate.
Our review found that South Korean contributions are not keeping pace with the growth in U.S. costs. While South Korea’s estimated contribution grew by about $42 million between 2008 and 2012, U.S. costs increased by more than $500 million.
Japan’s contributions also have not kept pace with U.S. costs.  For example, at its peak in 1992, Japan’s contribution to funding for infrastructure and facilities amounted to more than $1 billion. That figure has fallen by 80 percent.
Our use of in-kind payments from South Korea and Germany is especially worrisome.
South Korea’s contributions to a program that supports the construction of U.S. military facilities amounted to about $339 million in 2012 alone – all of it in-kind. But projects built using these in-kind contributions are not reviewed at all by the Department of the Army and only undergo limited review at higher headquarters or at the Pentagon. Congress isn’t even notified, let alone given a chance to review and approve these projects. That lack of oversight increases the chance that funds will go to non-essential projects. In fact, our review found that plans for using in-kind contributions include a $10.4 million museum.
In Germany, we receive in-kind payments as compensation for facilities that we turn over to the German government as we reduce our military presence there. We found millions of dollars of in-kind payments from Germany earmarked for projects that simply don’t make sense. For example, $200,000 was spent on sunroom additions for senior officer homes.
We also have to take a hard look at the cost of our future commitments.
In South Korea, the Army has proposed a public-private venture to build housing for military families that, if approved, would add hundreds of millions of dollars to our costs. Setting aside questions about the wisdom of bringing additional families in the region while North Korea continues its belligerence, the plan is simply not affordable.
The Defense Department is also planning a series of troop movements in the Asia-Pacific region. We found that rough estimates provided for some items in the plan are highly speculative and do not account for potentially significant additional costs. Congress already has barred most spending on these projects until the Pentagon produces more detailed and useful estimates, and our review found no reason to set aside those conditions.
The military should always be careful with taxpayer dollars. There is never a good time for large construction projects to go forward with little or no oversight. But at a time when the military, and the entire federal government, are facing significant budget cuts, cuts that will damage our national security and important domestic programs, the current situation is simply not acceptable. I’m working with my colleagues on the Armed Services Committee to develop reforms that will increase oversight and help ensure that we only spend money on projects we really need.
Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.

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Gas tax and fee discussion worth having

By Michael D. LaFaive, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Michigan’s roads must be addressed, but the state government must first properly raise the funds.
Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed increased spending on Michigan roads, which is surely a discussion worth having. The Mackinac Center has long said the state should place a higher priority on roads and has authored two lengthy studies on the subject, in 1995 and 2007, respectively. But the question of how to go about raising the needed revenue to fund $1.2 billion in additional road spending needs to be answered.
It is wise to tie additional road funding to something akin to a true road user fee, but the hikes should be offset with dollar-for-dollar cuts to other financial burdens on taxpayers, such as state personal income taxes.
Last year, Gov. Snyder floated the idea of a tax on the wholesale price of gasoline and a major hike—67 percent increase by one accounting—in auto registration fees. These ideas remain on the table in 2013.
Two points about these proposed tax and fee increases must be stated up front.
First, gas taxes and car registration fees are very close to a true user fee and much better than funding road improvements through, say, a general sales tax hike. A user fee attempts to more closely tie the cost of a government service to those who most enjoy its benefits. Other related options, such as toll roads or some odometer-based user fees, have great merit, but probably not in the short-run. Michigan needs more and better infrastructure investment and making this policy a priority is a sound decision.
Second, a net tax and fee increase simply isn’t necessary. It is wise to tie additional road funding to something akin to a true road user fee, but the hikes should be offset with dollar-for-dollar cuts to other financial burdens on taxpayers, such as state personal income taxes. Ideally, the net result of such tax changes will be a cut in the burden, not merely a shift. Gov. Snyder has a record of such dramatic tax changes. It does not strain credulity to suggest that he could do so again.
Revenue losses from offsetting a personal income tax cut would require reducing government spending, but as the Center has pointed out time and again, the money is there to be had if only lawmakers are willing to make the cuts happen.
Let us start with one simple idea: Eliminate Michigan’s department of corporate welfare and crony capitalism, otherwise known as the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
The state could save a conservative $118 million by reducing MEDC expenditures and redirecting 21st Century Jobs money and Indian Gaming revenues to personal income tax relief (though this money will run out in 2015). The great irony in this is that investing these savings in state roads and bridges might actually produce a positive return on investment.
This is just one idea and it gets us almost 10 percent of the way to the $1.2 billion in road repair dollars Gov. Snyder is seeking. The fact is the Mackinac Center has made hundreds of suggestions over the years for saving (and in some cases, generating) billions of dollars in savings.
The Center has authored three formal budget studies, the last of which recommended more than 200 ideas for saving $2 billion without reducing the School Aid Fund. Since the last was published we have suggested even more ideas, big and small, controversial and not.
Two ideas for saving money listed in our 2007 transportation study include repealing the state prevailing wage law and competitive contracting for road maintenance. Prevailing wage laws artificially raise the cost of government construction projects. One conservative estimate published by the Center in 2007 was that the repeal of this law in 2002 could have saved Michigan taxpayers some $107 million in public construction costs that are not related to schools. Savings like that are worth chasing.
Michigan’s infrastructure system needs repair. We have been saying that in print for almost two decades. Tying the repairs, however, to a net tax increase is unnecessary. The best alternative is to offset hikes a fuel tax with spending and tax cuts elsewhere.
Michael D. LaFaive is the director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.

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More progress in the fight against tax abuses

By Sen. Carl Levin

 

In March, the Senate passed a budget resolution. This blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October represents an important step forward on an issue of great significance to American taxpayers: the need for balanced deficit reduction.

An important part of balanced deficit reduction is reducing the deficit without severely damaging important protections for and investments in American families. One way to do that is by ending unjustified tax loopholes and ending the damage they have inflicted on our budget. The budget summary released by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, decried “the sheer magnitude of the revenue lost to off-shore tax abuse, wasteful and inefficient loopholes, and other business tax breaks.”

For many years as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations I have focused on the maze of offshore schemes and complex gimmicks that are concocted to allow a privileged few to avoid paying the taxes that they owe. Our subcommittee has, on a bipartisan basis, filled volume after volume with damning detail on how these schemes work and the damage they cause.

Now we are at a moment in history when we can remove this blight. The pressures on the federal budget and the threat to economic growth and prosperity that they represent require action. We must close these loopholes. The relentless arithmetic of our budget situation compels it; fairness and justice demand it.

During the budget debate, a number of senators joined me on the Senate floor to speak about the need to close tax loopholes. We outlined the preposterous contortions that too many corporations and wealthy individuals employ to avoid paying taxes, and how those contortions contribute to a shift in the tax burden from corporations and the wealthy to middle-class families and small businesses.

The case for additional revenue and for closing tax loopholes as a source of that revenue is overwhelming. Serious deficit reduction requires more revenue, as everyone from the Simpson-Bowles Commission to the Domenici-Rivlin task force to the Concord Coalition to Fix the Debt, has recognized. Federal revenue remains significantly below its historic average as a percentage of the gross domestic product of our economy, and that revenue is, and under current trends will continue to be, below the levels we have needed in the recent past to balance the budget.

In particular, the loss of corporate tax revenues is an ongoing cause of deficits.  In 2006, corporate tax revenue made up about 15 percent of all federal revenue. In 2012, it had fallen to 10 percent. Somebody has to pick up the slack. In this case it has been average American families.

Why is corporate revenue a shrinking share of our Treasury even though the U.S. corporate tax rate, at 35 percent, is one of the highest in the developed world? It is because the top tax rate doesn’t tell the story. While our tax rate at the upper limit is 35 percent on corporations, the average U.S. corporate taxpayer’s effective tax rate was just 12 percent in 2011, which is the lowest in generations.

A recent study by two think tanks found that 30 of our largest corporations with combined profits of more $160 billion paid no income tax, zero, from 2008 to 2010.

The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations outlined in a report last year how three U.S. companies—Apple, Google, and Microsoft—used offshore gimmicks to avoid taxes on almost $80 billion in profits.

But momentum is building to stop these abuses. Earlier this year, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island joined me in introducing the Cut Unjustified Tax Loopholes Act. Our bill would help address some of these tax schemes and others as well. It is a powerful weapon in our deficit-reduction arsenal if we will use it.

During the budget debate, Sen. Whitehouse and I were joined by Sen. John McCain of Arizona in introducing a bipartisan amendment recognizing the need to close corporate tax loopholes. The Senate approved our amendment, putting the Senate on the record on the need to end offshore tax abuses by large corporations.

We can’t afford these loopholes. We can’t afford the budget deficits they help cause, and we can’t afford the damage they do to ordinary families and small businesses. I’ll keep working to strengthen the momentum for reforms that end these abuses.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.

 

 

 

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Cedar Springs High School Montage

On Thursday, March 21, Cedar Springs High School held their “Montage” event, which is their annual talent show. I was very impressed with the truly talented students that entertained at this event. There were many excellent singers and musicians that brought down the house. And who knew that a martial arts demonstration set to music could be that much fun to watch! The most unique act was a modern dance that used colored “glow balls” performed in near darkness—simply superb. (I was glad I wasn’t one of the judges because so many deserved to win.) If you missed out this year, watch for it next year and see what the young people of our community have to offer!

Cherri Rose, Sand Lake

 

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Women and Social Security

V-SS-VondaVantilBy: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

The Social Security program treats all workers—men and women—exactly the same in terms of the benefits they can receive. But women may want to familiarize themselves with what the program means to them in their particular circumstances.

One of the most significant things women need to remember about Social Security is the importance of promptly reporting a name change. Not changing your name with Social Security can delay your federal income tax refund.

When women start receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits, other family members may be eligible for payments as well. For example, benefits can be paid to a husband:

• If he is age 62 or older; or

• At any age, if he is caring for your child (the child must be younger than 16 or disabled and receiving Social Security benefits on your record).

• Benefits also can be paid to unmarried children if they are:

• Younger than age 18;

• Between 18 and 19 years old, but in elementary or secondary school as full-time students; or

• Age 18 or older and severely disabled (the disability must have started before age 22).

The family of a woman who dies may be eligible for survivors benefits based on her work.

For more information about women and Social Security, visit our special Women’s page online at www.socialsecurity.gov/women.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

 

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Sunshine Week OpEd

by Jane Briggs-Bunting, Michigan Coalition for Open Government

 

-V-OP-Ed-Sunshine-week-Jane-Briggs-Bunting-photo-60x80Welcome to Sunshine Week, and no, I am not talking about the fickle weather in the state. I am talking about the public’s right and responsibility to keep an eye on what our government at the local, state and federal level are up to–from our legislators to our bureaucrats, school boards, state universities, teachers, mayors, managers, department heads, council members, cops and others.

Sunshine Week, a national initiative to encourage discussion on the importance of open government and freedom of information, is celebrated annually in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s March 16 birthday.

Sunshine Week is also the official launch of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG). Michigan was one of just two states nationally (the other is Alaska) without an open government group.

MiCOG’s purpose is three-fold:

* to promote and protect transparency and accountability in state and local governments;

* to recommend significant freedom of information, open meetings and public access legal cases to the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) for financial support,

* and to create educational programs and information.

And MiCOG invites you to join its efforts.

Why? Citizens and journalists are having greater difficulty obtaining public documents from government agencies. They are deterred by long delays in responses and high fees. Most individuals and smaller news organizations do not have the resources to mount legal challenges in FOIA and OMA cases.

But MiCOG can help with that. MiCOG makes citizens and news media in our state eligible to access some of the $2M the Knight Foundation gave to NFOIC to fund worthwhile open access litigation. If the plaintiff prevails and recovers attorney fees and court costs (as required under Michigan’s FOI and OMA), that money goes back to the national group for future lawsuits around the nation. The NFOIC relies on state open government groups to recommend cases that could tap into the Knight funds. The national committee decides whether to back a case financially. One key role of MiCOG’s board is to make certain that only cases with good sets of facts go to court to make good law.

This type of support is necessary now more than ever. A 2010 survey by the NFOIC and the Knight Foundation concluded that the economic crisis plus declining revenues for print and broadcast media resulted in a sharp decline in FOI requests and litigation nationwide. In the past five years, the number of open government lawsuits filed by the news media in 23 states fell “dramatically.” Another eight states also reported declines. Nearly 80 percent of state FOI coalitions reported drops. Ominously, 85 percent said they expected FOI litigation to drop in the next three years.

Neither Michigan nor Alaska participated since both lacked open government groups, a deficiency MiCOG corrects.

Effective use of the FOIA is critical to keep tabs on public officials around the state.

The situation is critical for Michigan where ethics and anti-corruption laws barely exist. In 2012 Michigan earned a failing grade, ranking 44th of 50 states (http://www.stateintegrity.org/michigan) in a State Integrity Investigation (http://www.stateintegrity.org/) jointly done by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Michigan had a dismal showing for key transparency checkpoints: public access to information (D), ethics enforcement agencies (F); judicial, executive and legislative accountability (all F) and political financing/lobbying disclosure (both F).

Local governments from schools and universities to municipalities and police are usually just as non-responsive, as well.

If you want to help, please visit the MiCOG website at http://www.miopengov.org and join the effort to keep the governments of the people, by the people and for the people transparent and accountable to all of us.

 

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Taking on the challenges of the next two years

By Sen. Carl Levin

 

_V-LevinI have decided not to run for re-election in 2014.

This decision was extremely difficult because I love representing the people of Michigan in the U.S. Senate and fighting for the things that I believe are important to them.

As Barbara and I struggled with the question of whether I should run again, we focused on our belief that our country is at a crossroads that will determine our economic health and security for decades to come. We decided that I can best serve my state and nation by concentrating in the next two years on the challenging issues before us that I am in a position to help address; in other words, by doing my job without the distraction of campaigning for re-election.

Here are some of those issues. Years of bipartisan work by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that I chair have shed light on tax avoidance schemes that are a major drain on our treasury. The huge loss of corporate tax receipts caused by the shift of U.S. corporate tax revenue to offshore tax havens is but one example of the egregious tax loopholes that we must end. Thirty of our most profitable companies paid no taxes over a recent three-year period although they had over $150 billion in profits.

Tax avoidance schemes that have no economic justification or purpose other than to avoid paying taxes may be legal but they should not be. These schemes add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit. They lead to cuts in education, research, national security, law enforcement, infrastructure, food safety and other important investments in our nation. And they add to the tax burden of ordinary Americans who have to pick up the slack and accelerate the economic inequality in our country. I want to fight to bring an end to this unjustified drain on the Treasury.

Second, I want to ensure that the manufacturing renaissance that has led Michigan’s economic comeback continues. We’ve made progress in building the partnerships we need to help U.S. manufacturers succeed, but the next two years will be crucial to sustaining and building on that progress.

A third item I want to tackle is a growing blight on our political system that I believe I can help address: the use of secret money to fund political campaigns. Our tax laws are supposed to prevent secret contributions to tax exempt organizations for political purposes. My Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations needs to look into the failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections, eroding public confidence in our democracy.

Finally, the next two years will also be important in dealing with fiscal pressures on our military readiness. As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I am determined to do all I can to address that issue. I also believe we need to pursue the rapid transfer of responsibility for Afghan security to the Afghans. And, as our troops come home, we must do a better job of caring for those who bear both the visible and invisible wounds of war.

These issues will have an enormous impact on the people of Michigan and the nation for years to come, and we need to confront them. I can think of no better way to spend the next two years than to devote all of my energy and attention to taking on these challenges.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan. He announced on March 7, 2013, that he would not seek re-election in 2014.

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Student needs mementoes of Michigan

Dear Readers,

Good morning! My name is Sirriniti F. I’m a fifth-grade student at Harlan Intermediate School in Harlan, Iowa. My class is studying the history and geography of the United States. I would really appreciate it if you would send me your state rock, map and a souvenir. I am so glad I picked your state, Michigan. I picked Michigan because I don’t know much about it.

My teacher, Mrs. Newlin, would like a car license for a school project if possible. I appreciate your time! Thank you!

Sincerely,

Sirriniti F.

Mrs. Newlin’s S.S. Class

Harlan Intermediate School

1401 19th Street

Harlan, IA 51537

 

So, how about it readers? Can we give this young lady the items she’s asked for and maybe even a few unique to our hometown? If you’d like to send her something, bring it in to the Post over the next week (maybe with a short note), and we’ll mail a box with all the items.

– Judy Reed, Editor

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Fast-tracked disability process now has 200 medical conditions

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

V-SS-VondaVantil

With the addition of 35 new Compassionate Allowances conditions involving cancers and rare diseases, there are now a total of 200 disabling conditions that qualify for Social Security’s expedited disability process. The Compassionate Allowances initiative fast-tracks disability decisions to ensure that Americans with the most serious disabilities receive their benefit decisions within days instead of months or years.

In addition to increasing the list of eligible conditions, the agency has achieved another milestone. Since October 2008, nearly 200,000 people with severe disabilities nationwide have been quickly approved using the expedited process.

Compassionate Allowances allow us to quickly identify diseases and other medical conditions that, by definition, meet Social Security’s standards for disability benefits. These conditions primarily include certain cancers, adult brain disorders, and a number of rare disorders that affect children.

Compassionate Allowances permit Social Security to target the most clearly disabled individuals for medical approvals based on objective medical information that we can obtain quickly. Using the Compassionate Allowances criteria, most cases can be medically approved in less than two weeks. Compassionate Allowances conditions are added as a result of information received at public outreach hearings, comments from the Social Security and Disability Determination Service communities, input from medical and scientific experts, and research from the National Institutes of Health. We also consider which conditions are most likely to meet our current definition of disability.

For more information about Compassionate Allowances, including a full list of qualifying conditions, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionateallowances.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan. You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov

 

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