Friday, February 25, 2011

Column for Feb. 24, 2011

Well, Governor Bev Perdue finally did it. She submitted her budget and proposed to cut spending and jobs. All it took was a little discipline and courage. It isn't really all that hard. We had to do the same thing in our household. My wife has been out of work for two years now and we are living almost entirely on my salary. Some extra spending had to go. Essential items get paid for first, then other bills. If there is anything left over, then we contemplate our charitable giving budget, our dining budget, gift giving, and the like. The state of North Carolina should be no different in its approach.

The governor and I do not agree on all of the areas in which to cut spending. Just recently, I took the governor's budget cutting challenge that was on a state web site. I not only was able to balance the budget by cutting $2,633,800,000 in spending, I was also able to create a surplus of $1,233,800,000 according to the computer model. According to the model, I cut 27,027 jobs from the state's payroll.

Of course I believe that the computer model is purposely biased. There were options for increasing class size in K-12 schools by one, two, or three students. The same option was available for secondary education. I Seriously doubt that adding another few students per class is going to be detrimental to the education system and I seriously doubt the accuracy of the model. Somehow I have a hard time believing that by increasing class size by an average of 3 students per classroom, I would be cutting 18,027 jobs.

I understand the fears that many families have when being faced with job cuts. I was a state employee myself for several years. I have friends and family who work for state government. If layoffs come, who knows if they would be affected? Under the governor's plan, many unfilled job slots will be eliminated. 3,000 jobs will be cut from the state payroll that are presently filled by employees. The state is bloated with employees in some areas and lean in others. I know several state employees that are swamped with work while I have personally witnessed other positions that are overkill and unnecessary.

We have to determine what services are vital and what ones are not. That is what the governor promises to do in this budget, eliminating funding for 68 of what Perdue labeled as "nonessential programs". If they are "nonessential", then why were we paying for them to begin with?

Though I will give Beverly Perdue kudos for looking to cut the budget, I am still not as optimistic as many that we will actually end up with the sort of spending level we truly should have. I will say that at least our state executive seems to be more up front and honest about the problems of government spending that our national executive.

President Barack Hussein Obama has threatened to veto deep spending cuts proposed by Congress. Though the President was just on television giving lip service to responsible spending, he is threatening against responsible spending. What sort of double standard is that? You can not have it both ways. Either you support budget cuts or you don't. You can not be directly responsible for the most reckless spending that we have seen in the history of America, call for responsible spending, then take action against responsible spending. That is just political double-speak and twaddle. When the Department of Health and Human Services budget alone is bigger than the entire federal budget under Lyndon Johnson, something is seriously wrong.

We have far too many people dependent upon government for their means of supply. Whether that supply be the result of employment or social welfare programs, we can not maintain the previous levels of spending. If I borrowed 45% of everything I spent in my household on a consistent basis, I would rapidly be filing bankruptcy. The difference is that the government can print more money and issue more bonds and I can not.

If we had more people in elected office who cared more about the population in general rather than their own level of power and those who are most likely to help them attain it, we would have the very thing that James Madison wrote about our republic. Speaking of a government that applies both to the elected and the general population, he wrote,
"It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny."
(Federalist Papers # 57). We have reached that degeneration already.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Column for Feb. 17, 2011

I hope that your experience with income taxes will be more pleasant than mine this year. If you are one of those people who don't pay income taxes or gets back more than you pay into the system, just stop reading now. For those who work their tails off all year long, follow the rules, and pay more than their fair share of taxes, continue to paragraph two.

If you itemize your deductions as we do, the federal government would not even accept tax returns until Monday because of the need to retool their software. This was caused by lame duck session, end of the year tax legislation changes. The Internal Revenue Service could not keep up with the tax code changes in order to start accepting tax returns.

The State of North Carolina took our return on time, no problem. Or so I thought, anyway. I saw a reminder about how I can check the status of my return on the State Department of Revenue web site. I figured I would make use of that service this morning, since no refund had made its way to my checking account yet. Upon entering my identifying information, I got a message that said, "Please call [their phone number] about your refund amount." My first thought was that there was some attachment to my refund for some unknown past bill with the state. That has happened to myself and to others before.

I called the state IRS and spent some twenty minutes on hold only to be told that my return was still being processed and that I should expect it to take 45 days to process my return. OK, let me get this straight. The State of North Carolina is so technologically retarded that they can not put up a simple web page message that my return is still being processed, even though I know it was received. Then I wasted all that time on hold just to find out that information that could have been told to me in an instant over the internet.

What floored me was that the state is telling me that it will take a month and a half to process my tax return. I prepared my returns on my computer. I paid for the software and state e-filing fee so that the process could be faster and smoother. I even signed up for direct deposit so that the process could go even faster still. If it is going to take 45 days to process an electronic form that can be done instantly by their computer system, then why did we bother with the extra expense of filing electronically? We could have printed out the forms and mailed them for the cost of a postage stamp if it was going to take six weeks to process.

I am none too impressed with electronic transactions lately. When I send a payment through PayPal or other electronic service, the transaction is handled relatively instantaneously. When I pay bills through my bank's web site, sometimes it is rapid, sometimes not so much. Obviously the state Department of Revenue is in the "not so much" category.

The real slap in the face is that my refund is going to be somewhere around $1800 or more. That means that I am going to have to pay tax on that money yet again next year. The State of North Carolina hoses anyone who gets a tax refund by making us claim that refund as income the following year. This is money that was already taxed once. The money is a refund of an overpayment of taxes, not income. When that overpayment is returned to me, I am forced to count it as income yet again. That is just plain unethical.

I have more money withdrawn from my paycheck than needs to be. This is not so much so I will get a refund, since I don't enjoy lending the government my money, interest free. Rather I do that so that I don't have any surprises once a year and have to pay them. It is a personal choice. Still, that should not be counted as income twice. The state is not going to repay my money with interest. However, if I am late with a payment to them, they will charge not only interest but late penalties as well.

The government that can't process a computer transaction in a timely fashion is the same state government that is several billion dollars behind in its budget, has billions of dollars in fraud and waste, and double charges us on either tax over payments or underpayments. The state government wants to trust them with more projects, education, and our hard earned money WHY?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Column for Feb. 10, 2011

"Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right."
- John Adams

That quote has stuck with me since I read it recently. It has been my personal conviction for years. I remember a friend of mine telling me years ago (when we were discussing matters of interpersonal organizational politics within the Church), “That is what I like about you. You can walk into a room and tell everyone that they are wrong.” When I know I am right (and when I have such a conviction, I usually am, especially on principle, even if not on the minutia of details), I am stubborn that way. It is precisely that conviction that has sustained me through over four and a half years of writing this column, my internet radio show, and more recently, my television show.

I only wrote this because it was on my mind for a couple of days now. When you know you are correct about your convictions in matters of theology, history, politics, and the affairs of life, stand by them. Be open to correction where you are askew and ready to learn, but still be resolute. OK, on to the regularly scheduled column, already in progress, with a couple of topics in mind.

It was with sadness that I read of the death of Wilson’s Mills Fire Chief, Ricky Barbour. From my friends in the fire service, I saw pictures of the honor shown him upon the return of his remains to Johnston County. I was glad to see that his brethren showed him such an honor via pictures posted on Facebook. I’ve had several occasions to talk with Chief Barbour over the years, and found him to be intelligent, articulate, resolute, and having common sense. I never worked with him or knew him well, but these were my impressions of him each time I had the pleasure of speaking with him. The comments I read on posted by others were a testament to his leadership. I can only hope that the Town of Wilson’s Mills will have such a class act to follow his lead.

Did you have as big a reaction as I did when you opened your most recent electricity bill from The Town of Selma as I did? When I got my most recent paycheck, I started to write out a weekly budget for how to spend my earnings, as I do every two weeks. I figured that the billing period covered may be a heavy usage month, so I thought, “I’ll budget close to the highest payment I have ever had to make for my utility bill.” I had a few choice words to say when I opened the mail and looked at the amount owed. I was on vacation and out of the country for one of the weeks covered by that bill and it was 25% higher than the highest bill I ever got from this town.

I have read in newspapers for a while that hopefully the upcoming merger between Progress Energy and Duke Energy will result in lower utility bills for their customers. I pray that is the case, because I can not afford to get many more bills like this one. I make a decent wage. I make more money now than I have ever made in my life and I still struggled to be able to budget for this huge electricity bill. When my utility bill gets to be almost as big as my mortgage payment, something is seriously wrong.

One thing that I wish would come of the utility company merger is the nullification of the Electricities contract. I wrote about a year ago about how much more I was paying through the town for electricity (who buys from Electricities, who buys from Progress Energy) than I would have if I bought directly from Progress Energy as a retail customer. I am sure that this month’s bill would be even more than that $100 differential. In all fairness, my current bill was for 36 days of service rather than just 28 or 30. Still, that is a lot with which to sandbag customers.

If the town wants to attract more businesses and residents, then they have to do something about the high utility prices. Clayton, Smithfield, Benson, and other public power communities face the exact same problem. The highest prices for public power are paid by the small town of Hobgood in Halifax County. Hobgood has fewer people than Micro but is $2.2 million in debt on its electricity system, so the residents of Hobgood pay a high utility rate. According to one newspaper report, a $139 monthly bill in Smithfield would run $185 in Hobgood. Some residents have gotten bills of up to $900. My bill wasn’t $900, but it was sure getting there. Selma is not Hobgood, but something has got to give.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Column for Feb. 3, 2011

I am sitting in front of my computer with a raging head cold. My sinuses have been inflamed to the point that it feels like I have cement poured in my skull and I am just shy of coughing up my left lung. My wife has a cough that has lasted over three weeks, not responded to antibiotics, and today she came down with a fever. My seven-year-old had to stay home from school today with a migraine headache. My toddler has started to get a runny nose. I have to get to bed early because in the morning I have to take my toddler to UNC Children's Hospital for treatment of a birth defect. We are still dealing with my toddler's first but most stubborn ear infection that has lasted a solid month. If the infection does not go away, we may be looking at surgical intervention.

For over a week, we have been putting up with people spreading gossip, lies, and sowing family discord. My wife has had to endure a friend of the family passing away, an elderly family member passing away, and her childhood best friend dying of cancer. Granny has been in the ICU unit for days. One of my best friends just got into an auto wreck, and my water heater is on its way out.

My tax software purchase I had made prior to the beginning of the year to save a few dollars on the purchase price was canceled by the company for some unknown reason, so I had to purchase it again…at the higher price. One stream of income in our household is about to come to an end.

Have you ever had one of those days where you think to yourself that when you get to Heaven, you want to go up to Adam and Eve, punch him in the nose and slap her across the jaw? Then sarcastically thank them very much for ruining the perfect Earth created for us all? Then maybe follow that by, "What were you thinking???" Yeah, it has been that sort of week.

Ironically enough, a friend of mine posted on Facebook (while I was typing this column) "Ever want to say: try that again and they'll be tracing you in chalk!" The timing brought a chuckle to my heart. I wrote back, "If you only knew how this evening has gone, you would know how well that fits."

The bizarre thing is that some people would actually take the "they'll be tracing you in chalk" comment as a real threat rather than have a sense of humor about it. I just ran across that very thing last week. I said to someone who was running their mouth, (after emphatically requesting that this person desist from gossiping) "I could pimp slap you!" as a way of conveying my level of annoyance and desire that this person would just be quiet. The next thing I knew, people were accusing me of threatening violence upon this individual. I guess that people never heard of colloquialisms and sarcasm before.

I have a lot of unanswered questions in life. I hope that some day, God will answer a lot of questions that we still have when we get to see Him. I keep asking questions here on Earth. Sometimes he answers them, sometimes not. Sometimes I don't get an answer for years.

All right, so why did I write all of this? Quite simply, it was to say this. Through it all, we have not lost faith in God, in His goodness, or His provision. We will make it, regardless of what life throws at us. Everyone has tribulation to go through in life. We have our own to endure. The things I endure now are greater than before, but I also handle them differently. As I grow older I tend to have a different perspective on life and now consider many things petty that I used to think were insurmountable or extremely important.

There are some battles worth fighting and some trials worth enduring. It is how we grow and learn as people.