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Updated: 55 min 57 sec ago

Disruption can be a good thing

10 hours 20 min ago

The ideal of a staid, heavily regulated industry that offers blue-collar jobs with respectable wages, pensions and strong community ties—usually lamented as a thing of the past by observers on both the left (Elizabeth Warren, Paul Krugman) and the right (Pat Buchanan, Rick Santorum)—does still exist. To find it, one need look no further than America’s electric utilities.

Whether they are stockholder-owned colossuses or customer co-ops, utilities operate mostly under regulated rates that guarantee profits. They face little competition. In 33 states, consumers have just one power provider to choose from in their region. Nationwide, more than 80 percent of residential power comes from monopolies or former monopolies.

These utilities pay nice dividends to stockholders, offer jobs for life to many employees and provide generous support for everything from civil rights organizations to art museums. Historically, the case for their status as “natural monopolies,” where competition would do more harm than good, has been so strong that it’s literally used as an example in major economics textbooks.

But new technologies—in particular, the growing availability of affordable, efficient rooftop solar panels—threaten to disrupt utilities’ business models in unpredictable ways. While this forthcoming disruption of the power grid may offer more good than bad, it also creates real uncertainties that policymakers will need to confront.

The major driver of change is that rooftop solar has finally come into its own. When first brought to market in the 1970s, rooftop solar panels generated power at a cost of more than $70 a watt. By the end of this year, low-cost manufacturers in China will begin offering panels that produce energy at a cost of around 40 cents a watt. Combined with leasing arrangements that let property owners install panels at little-to-no out-of-pocket cost and net-metering agreements that let them sell unused energy back to utilities (albeit under a variety of pricing schemes that are both complicated and controversial), the decision to install solar panels is becoming a simple one for many homeowners.

One recent study from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank whose board is heavy with alternative energy investors, applies a rigorous model to conclude that, within two decades, solar will be fully cost competitive in many markets and for huge numbers of consumers. As one example, the study projects that, within 15 years, as much as a quarter of the power generated in New York’s Westchester County will come from solar panels. This could be a big problem for utilities. Rocky Mountain estimates they could lose nearly $35 billion in revenue. This amounts roughly to last year’s total revenues for the two largest electric utilities and is greater than the 20 largest utilities’ combined profits for 2014.

Even much smaller drops in revenue could be a big problem. The technology and business model of rooftop solar are most competitive in the areas where utilities make most of their profits. Because they generate the most energy during the sunny midday peak, when power generation is most costly and most profitable at the margin, even modest consumer use of the existing, relatively expensive solar panels can cut into some utilities’ bottom lines. Since they provide a direct substitute for some power plants run by existing utilities, rooftop solar panels establish a ceiling that would make future rate increases harder to sustain. Finally, since they reduce the need for some new types of power infrastructure, rooftop solar makes it harder for utilities to make the case to build new generation capacity. This is a potential problem because, in regulated markets, most of the cost of new infrastructure investment, plus a profit margin to reward investors, is built into utility rates according to a set formula.

Broader use of solar panels will reduce air pollution and the output of climate-change-causing greenhouse gases. It also likely will cut the bills consumers currently pay to utility-scale power companies. But this shift will cause real dislocations.

We live in an era of disruptive technologies, and in nearly every case, one can identify ways in which the new technology is inferior to what it replaced. Mobile phones supplanted more reliable landlines. Ridesharing services often provide smaller cars than taxicabs. Jet airplanes replaced more comfortable sleeper trains.

In this case, solar panels generate power only when the sun shines. Technologies to allow cost-efficient storage of solar energy at home are immature. Even with cutting-edge battery technology, few households will ever get all of their power from the sun. A system that combines widespread rooftop solar panels with a power grid hooked to major utility-scale power plants almost certainly would be less likely to suffer true blackouts than the current, totally centralized model. But individual rooftop solar systems can’t possibly include the elaborate redundancies of a typical utility power plant, much less the grid as a whole.

Undermining utilities’ business model also could have serious implications for the grid as a whole. A University of Minnesota study found overall electric power reliability dropped steadily between 1995 and 2010, though it has rebounded slightly since then. A profit and revenue shock to the utilities likely would limit resources available for basic care of the grid. Their guaranteed profits traditionally have allowed monopoly utilities to take on money-losing but beneficial activities, like running power lines to poorer areas. Existing utility regulations place a premium on both reliability and access. As access to cost-competitive solar power becomes more widespread, there may be a need for new funding mechanisms to assure these services get provided, or at least a simple recognition of the trade-offs involved.

New business models—like the “integrated grid” proposed by the Rocky Mountain study—may address some of these issues, but there’s no assurance they will work.

Whatever happens, utilities probably won’t end up in the poorhouse (they already manage to profit against stiff competition in wholesale markets), and the grid is very unlikely to collapse. But widespread rooftop solar inevitably will cause bumps in the road and leave some pining for the “good old days.” This doesn’t mean regulators should stand in the way of rooftop solar power. History shows that efforts to strangle disruptive industries almost never succeed anyway. But it does mean policymakers need to be aware that rooftop solar power is likely to have a broad range of impacts, some of them bad, most of them good, all of them disruptive

Testimony on fraud in Texas hail claims

10 hours 34 min ago

Chairman Frullo, members, my name is Josiah Neeley and I am Texas director of the R Street Institute. R Street is a nonprofit, free-market think tank that specializes in insurance and other issues. I’m here today to speak in support of H.B. 3646.

H.B. 3646 is a timely attempt to deal with emerging problems of fraud and abuse in property insurance claims involving hail. Hail insurance claims have increased 84 percent since 2010,[1]

and between 2010 and 2012, Texas generated more than 320,000 hail insurance claims, double that of any other state.[2]

Not all of this increase can be blamed on changes in the weather. While Texas accounted for 16 percent of all hail claims from 2010 to 2012, 28 percent of the questionable claims during that period were filed in Texas.[3] Storm intensity also cannot explain why litigation over hail claims is becoming so much more common. Historically, only around 2 percent of property insurance claims result in a lawsuit.[4] Yet according to attorneys G. Brian Odom and Tyler McGuire, in Hildalgo County, 35 percent of recent hail damage claims have resulted in a lawsuit.[5]

H.B. 3646 is a modest attempt to reign in this abuse. The committee substitute to the bill provides enhanced notice requirements and helps to isolate the amount in controversy for purposes of attorneys’ fees and penalties, which will reduce the incentives for frivolous litigation.

While there are some elements of the bill with which we have concerns (for example, the tightening of licensing requirements for public adjusters), on the whole, H.B. 3646 is a positive step to ensure both consumer protection and the rule of law.

I would be happy to answer any questions.

[1] National Insurance Crime Bureau, “Number of Hail Damage Insurance Claims Up 84% Since 2010,” Insurance Journal, July 18, 2013. http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2013/07/18/298895.htm

[2] David Fennig, “2010-2012 United States Hail Loss Claims and Questionable Claims,” National Insurance Crime Bureau, June 25, 2013. https://www.nicb.org/File%20Library/Public%20Affairs/2010-2012-US-Hail-Loss-Claims-and-QCs—Public.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Supra, note 1.

[5] Ibid.

2016 presidential truck stop buffet: Plenty of options with reheated ideas

11 hours 22 min ago

Most of us don’t talk about it, but we’ve been there. It’s late at night, way past the time when we should be eating. Then you see it up ahead on the horizon glowing in the dark night, Zeke’s Truck Stop Buffet…open 24 hours.

The choices are endless: brown chicken goop, almost dehydrated fried rice and even tuna sandwiches precariously situated over ice that melted several hours ago. At the end of the line, you’re greeted with Jell-O cubes and imitation Nilla Wafers.

You’ve seen it all before. In fact, you knew what you were getting into the moment you pulled over. But hey, you were hungry and this was your option. The bad news is that most of said options smell like sweaty feet.

Presidential politics aren’t much different than a truck-stop buffet. The campaigns already feel familiar, tired and conspicuously similar to the buffet’s refried beans that have been reheated one too many times.

I get it. This time, Hilary Clinton is more inevitable than the last time she was inevitable. At the same time, even my liberal friends are pining for some different choices that share their perspectives.

On the Republican side, we can see the circular firing squad forming. Most candidates know what they don’t like (i.e., things Obama does), but they also don’t have a specific plan to lead. The strategy has been the same for the last few cycles: Act more conservative than you really are and then run to a magic middle to have a chance in the general election.

Here’s a new idea for all the candidates: Try being the person you really are rather than who you think voters want you to be. Voters are craving authentic leadership. We don’t want someone to simply stir the warmers at the truck-stop buffet to make the options look more appealing; we want something different.

By this point, we know all the talking points. We expect Clinton to talk about her love of the middle class, the rich paying their fair share (more) and more government oversight of the marketplace. Republicans will likely talk about liberty, opportunity and all of the above energy.

Just like those imitation Nilla wafers, all of us know we’re not getting a taste of the real candidates.

So whether it’s Clinton, Cruz, Paul, Rubio or Warren, please give us a reason to keep driving past the presidential truck stop buffet. For the right leader, we just might be willing to pass the truck stop and keep on driving through the night into a new morning for America.

Testimony on Texas Windstorm Insurance Authority reform

11 hours 55 min ago

Chairman Frullo, members, my name is Josiah Neeley and I am Texas director of the R Street Institute. R Street is a nonprofit, free-market think tank that specializes in insurance and other issues. I’m here today to speak against H.B. 696 and H.B. 2245.

I would like to commend the committee, Chairman Hunter and Rep. Bonnen for taking up this important issue. While TWIA’s financial situation has improved greatly in the last few years, it is still in need of serious reform to return it to its original role as a true insurer of last resort along the Texas coast.

However, several of the provisions in H.B. 696 and H.B. 2245 risk undermining even the progress that TWIA has made. For example, TWIA’s rates are, by its own calculations, 22 percent below what is necessary to be actuarially sound. It was only a few years ago that TWIA’s rates were 40 percent below this necessary minimum. TWIA has managed to make up the difference through small but regular annual rate increases. Both H.B. 696 and 2245 would restructure TWIA’s board in a manner that would likely preclude further rate increases. Instead, the bills mandate increased reliance on assessments of insurance companies and non-TWIA policyholders, who do not benefit from the program.

Rather than making it harder for TWIA to reach financial stability, reform legislation ought to build on the progress TWIA has already made. Right now, for example, TWIA is restricted from charging different rates within its territory based on geography. Simply allowing this tool would go a long way toward achieving actuarial soundness. TWIA has also launched a “depopulation portal,” a special website that makes it easier for private insurers to take on current TWIA policies on a voluntary basis. One company has already announced its intention to make offers on nearly 60,000 policies via the portal. Other states such as Florida and Louisiana have had a lot of success in using depopulation portals to get people back into the private insurance market, and Texas should look to strengthen the portal along similar lines.

I would be happy to answer any questions.

R Street praises Florida Legislature for limiting exposure faced by Citizens

April 23, 2015, 2:20 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (April 23, 2015) – The R Street Institute praised the Florida Legislature today for its unanimous passage of H.B. 715, sponsored by Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo.

The bill clarifies a provision enacted in 2013 that protects taxpayers and Florida’s environment by restricting new policies Citizens Property Insurance Corp. can write in the state’s riskiest and most environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

The bill stipulates that any structure built within a federally designated coastal wetland or seaward of the Coastal Construction Line after July 1, 2015 is not eligible for coverage under Citizens. Existing structures are exempt from this prohibition, unless their total square footage is subsequently increased by more than 25 percent. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, sponsored the companion bill in the Senate.

This concept, initially proposed by R Street in a January 2013 study titled “Coastal preservation through Citizens reform,” eliminates the government-subsidized incentive to develop areas most prone to wind and flooding, encourages smarter and more resilient development and prospectively reduces the amount of risk carried by Citizens, which will reduce the likelihood or severity of post-hurricane taxes to cover the state-run insurer’s future losses.

“Government should not provide incentives for development along the state’s riskiest, most environmentally sensitive areas by providing subsidized property insurance coverage to new beachfront condos and vacation homes,” said R Street Florida Director Christian Camara. “We salute Rep. Raschein and Sen. Benacquisto for shepherding this good bill through the process, and encourage Gov. Rick Scott to sign it into law.”

Tobacco control is getting it wrong

April 23, 2015, 9:51 AM

From CSPNet.com:

Anti-tobacco campaigns are getting it wrong, Dr. Brad Rodu, professor of medicine and holder of the endowed chair in tobacco harm reduction research at the University of Louisville, said during his presentation at the NATO Show in Las Vegas.

The American anti-smoking campaign is approximately 50 years old. Yet, by the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s own numbers, there are still 42 million smokers and 400,000 smoking-related deaths per year, a figure Rodu said the CDC is not underestimating.

“Those numbers have not changed in the 20 years I’ve been involved in harm reduction,” Rodu said.

A big problem with the anti-smoking and anti-tobacco crusades is that they embrace an abstinence-only rhetoric. Even Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-approved nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) are intended for only short-term use. Although, as Rodu pointed out, those “replacements” aren’t exactly a raging success.

“FDA-approved NRTs work for just 7% of smokers,” he said. “Can you think of another FDA-approved medication that works for just 7% of people? What if aspirin worked for less than 10% of people with headaches?”

What does work, according to Rodu and his 20 years of research, is the concept of a nicotine risk continuum—educating adult smokers on potentially less-harmful ways of consuming nicotine and giving them the choice.

“Smokers aren’t sick,” said Rodu. “They don’t want to be treated. They just want to have options.”

Unfortunately, too often, the public at large is not properly educated on reduced harm alternatives. During his NATO Show session, Rodu looked at the fallacies and realities of two such alternatives currently on the market: smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

The Real Risk of Smokeless

Rodu is an oral pathologist who has spent his entire career working in medical and cancer centers.

“I’d been taught smokeless tobacco use was basically a death sentence through mouth cancer,” he said. “But I wasn’t seeing this link in the people I was treating.”

This realization set in motion research that would define Rodu’s career as an alternative tobacco advocate. He came to find that moist and chewing tobacco use carry virtually no mouth cancer risks: only powder dry snuff. Rodu’s research showed that out of 100,000 people, three non-smokeless users might get mouth cancer, three moist or chewing tobacco consumers might get mouth cancer; for powder dry snuff, that number is more like 12.

“The link between powder dry snuff and mouth cancer was reported in 1981 and was applied to every single smokeless tobacco product,” said Rodu. “Anti-tobacco groups are still avoiding this truth. Everyone thinks it’s an enormous risk—it’s not.”

Same Campaign, New Product

Unfortunately, similar misconceptions are being spread about the e-vapor category.

“The same unscientific and irresponsible campaign against smokeless tobacco is now starting to be conducted with e-cigarettes,” Rodu said, and proceeded to debunk some of the biggest myths reported about the category:

  • The ingredients are poisonous. There are very few ingredients in e-liquids: nicotine, water, flavoring and propylene glycol. “Propylene Glycol is what produces fog at a rock concert,” Rodu said. “It’s considered a generally safe agent by the FDA.”
  • They produce formaldehyde. “This doesn’t happen at normal levels,” said Rodu. “They cranked the voltage way up to levels that would have created a horrible taste. No vaper would do that. You would get similar formaldehyde levels from eating charred toast from a toaster.”
  • They are a gateway for teens to smoking. “In fact, we are witnessing a historic decline in teen smoking, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “It’s clear that e-cig use is growing (in teens)—but look at how drastically smoking rates are declining. If e-cigs were a gateway, wouldn’t it be the other way around?”

Ultimately, Rodu expressed optimism about the future of tobacco alternatives and the role retailers can play.

With two decades of experience in the world of tobacco research and policy, some 40 scientific articles in the field of harm reduction and authoring a successful blog and book on tobacco harm reduction, Rodu said it’s actually tobacco retail events like the NATO Show that excite him.

“I’m a little nervous. I’ve been waiting 20 years to make this presentation,” he said, while also marveling at the very thought of a cancer researcher presenting at a tobacco trade show.

“I’ve been trying to reach out to consumers to show them options and alternatives for using tobacco in a different way,” said Rodu. “It has been very difficult given the anti-tobacco campaigns we’ve all experienced. I see reaching out to retailers as really, really important.”

He concluded, “This transformation is taking place. The winners are consumers, public health … and the tobacco industry and retailers. If you endorse and embrace this transformation of tobacco, you can help your consumers live longer and healthier lives, you can keep them satisfied and you can also pay the bills.”

Meet the NSA’s ridiculous recycling mascot, ‘Dunk’

April 23, 2015, 9:45 AM

The National Security Agency will likely get a gift from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week: a massive reauthorization of their metadata collection and surveillance program, codified in the PATRIOT Act. Even though the NSA’s practice of invading privacy to collect cell phone information is uniformly unpopular with both parties, and measures have been taken to reform the process and even interrupt the NSA’s authority, in pursuit of a perfect record of completion for the Senate, McConnell is bypassing objectors and shoving the bill through. It could allow the NSA to keep scanning your phone bills for evidence of your terrorist activities through 2020.

Not everyone is pleased. After all, measures were already in place to take on NSA reforms over the summer, and this bill would supercede those efforts, bipartisan or not. And while the NSA has had internal debates over whether collecting cell phone users’ data in bulk was a worthwhile practice, they’ve since switched their focus to other efforts: namely, getting kids to recycle using a vaguely menacing-looking 3D animated recycling bin named, of all things, “Dunk.”

Recycling might not be the first thing people think of when they hear about the National Security Agency, but the spy agency wants to change that.

The Fort Meade, Md., institution has a new pro-recycling mascot named “Dunk” that it’s using as part of an effort to get students in Maryland schools to cut down on their trash.

In a new eight-minute video released ahead of Wednesday’s Earth Day, Dunk — a blue, anthropomorphized recycling bin — explained the NSA’s commitment to recycling. Then, it offered students a project of their own.

“To keep as much material out of local landfills as possible, NSA has operated recycling programs for decades,” Dunk says in the video, noting that the agency recycles about 13 million pounds of garbage every year.

Does the NSA really need to spend money convincing schoolchildren that their surveillance programs are environmentally friendly? Why is it the responsibility of the National Security Administration to promote recycling? Are we really that close to a Mad Max-style water shortage that would threaten the very fabric of our fair nation? And has anyone filled those same children in on what, exactly, the NSA is recycling? And who approved this expenditure? I fear we may never know, because like most things involving the NSA, the information surrounding Dunk’s introduction is scarce.

Fortunately for Dunk, however, he’s not the only animated creature in residence at the NSA. Thanks to a generous grant from the federal government, the NSA has several characters that, as friendly neighborhood spies, aim to teach kids about the exciting world of cryptography. Decipher Dog and Crypto Cat, two of the NSA’s top animated agents, are the stars of the NSA’s CryptoKids program, where they teach students about various code-cracking methods. Dunk, of course, is not a cryptographer, and his lessons teach more “traditional” NSA methods, like sorting through someone else’s garbage

The video urges school students to perform a “waste audit” by analyzing trash to find how much can be recycled instead of sent to a landfill. Then, they should come up with ways to reduce the amount of trash, such as using reusable plastic bottles or lunch bags.

Free-market groups support fast-track trade authority

April 23, 2015, 8:00 AM

Dear Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell:

On behalf of the free-market, taxpayer advocacy, and limited government grassroots and public policy organizations listed below, we urge you to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) as soon as possible.

TPA is a necessary step to get Congress moving on a long-stalled trade agenda. Without it, there is little hope that this Congress will make any progress on advancing free trade, a conservative public policy goal which all our organizations support.

TPA gives the executive branch the authority needed to finalize trade agreements, while Congress retains a robust amount of control, oversight, and transparency; ultimately Congress has an up-or-down vote on every specific trade agreement.

By definition, the term of this TPA will extend beyond the current administration and into the next one—the goal here is to advance America’s free trade agenda this century, and not to be mired in the stalled trade failures of the recent past.

We believe that tariffs are taxes on trade, and ultimately would like to see a world free of government interference in international commerce. Passing TPA is a necessary step toward getting the ball rolling on that long term policy goal, and we therefore urge you to pass Trade Promotion Authority.

Sincerely,

Amy Noone Frederick
60 Plus Association

Phil Kerpen
American Commitment

Dan Schneider
American Conservative Union

Stephen DeMaura
Americans for Job Security

Grover Norquist
Americans for Tax Reform

Jeffrey L. Mazzella
Center for Individual Freedom

Chip Faulkner
Citizens for Limited Taxation

Iain Murray
Competitive Enterprise Institute

April Ponnuru
Conservative Reform Network

Thomas A. Schatz
Council for Citizens Against Government Waste

Steven J. Duffield
Crossroads GPS

Katie McAuliffe
Digital Liberty

Brian Baker
Ending Spending

George Landrith
Frontiers of Freedom

Louie Hunter
Georgia Center Right Coalition

Andrew Langer
Institute for Liberty

Brian McClung
Minnesota Center-Right Coalition

Brandon Arnold
National Taxpayers Union

Lori Sanders
R Street

Paul Gessing
Rio Grande Foundation

David Williams
Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Mike Thompson
Thomas Jefferson Institute For Public Policy

 

SmarterSafer letter on federal flood standards

April 23, 2015, 7:00 AM

To Whom It May Concern:

SmarterSafer, a coalition of environmental organizations, taxpayer advocates, insurance representatives, housing and mitigation groups is pleased to submit comments on the Federal Flood Risk Management Standards. SmarterSafer supports the adoption of standards designed to protect taxpayer investments when federal funds are used in flood hazard areas and looks forward to working with the Administration as the standards are implemented.

Natural disasters wreak havoc on communities and their residents. The scale and cost of natural disasters has been on the rise; so too has the federal share of disaster costs and the amount the federal government spends to clean up and rebuild after a disaster strikes. Unfortunately, while the federal spending post-disaster has dramatically increased over the last few decades, spending on proven, pre-disaster planning and mitigation still falls woefully short of what is needed to better protect people and their property. We know that mitigation, and smarter safer building protects facilities and people and their property. For every one dollar spent on disaster mitigation, four dollars are saved on post-disaster recovery and rebuilding. Investing in strengthening communities today is cost-effective and proven to reduce damage and resulting costs post-disaster.

The Federal Flood Risk Management Standards seek to better protect people from harmful flooding in areas that face flood risks. By establishing standards that incorporate the best science on flooding, and requiring federal funds only be used to build at safe elevations, not only are people and property better protected, but federal investments are protected for the long-run. When federal funds are being used to build or rebuild structures or to subsidize structures, the government should ensure the taxpayer investments are being made in safe, resilient ways.

The Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, coupled with a renewed focus on mitigation, including nature-based approaches, could help protect taxpayers’ investments from having to be spent to repair that facility again in the next event. SmarterSafer, supports the adoption of these standards, however, we urge you consider flexibility in application of the standard to ensure that communities can best prepare for changing requirements. In addition, it is critical that implementation take into account the increased cost on low-income communities and low-income families, if these standards are applied to affordable housing programs and funding.

Thank you for considering our comments,

SmarterSafer

MEMBERS

Environmental Organizations

American Rivers
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES)
Ceres
ConservAmerica
Defenders of Wildlife
Natural Resources Defense Council
National Wildlife Federation
Sierra Club
The Nature Conservancy

Consumer and Taxpayer Advocates
Coalition to Reduce Spending
R Street
National Taxpayers Union
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Insurer Interests
Allianz of America
Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers
The Chubb Corporation
Liberty Mutual Group
National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC)
National Flood Determination Association
Reinsurance Association of America
SwissRe
USAA

Mitigation Interests
Natural Hazard Mitigation Association
National Fire Protection Association

Housing
National Housing Conference
National Leased Housing Association

ALLIED ORGANIZATIONS
American Consumer Institute
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Center for Clean Air Policy
Friends of the Earth
Institute for Liberty
Property Casualty Insurers Association of America
Union of Concerned Scientists
Zurich

Whether they like it or hate it, conservatives must look to California

April 22, 2015, 2:11 PM

The State of California is fun to mock, easy to condemn and, particularly for many conservatives and libertarians, simple to write off. A little perspective from outside the state is an excellent reminder of just how far off it has been written.

Last week, on a flight to Arkansas from Los Angeles, I was seated next to a young woman with a southern-fried accent as thick as the region’s famously stifling midsummer humidity. She was pleasant to chat with. However, her regional charm faltered when I asked her what she thought of her time in the Golden State.

Rolling her eyes and assuming a sober expression, she quickly ran through this list: “It’s too expensive, needlessly thirsty, often broke and always preachy.”  

Her critical evaluation of California, amusing at the time for the intensity of its delivery, neatly summarized the case against the prevailing statist governing philosophy in Sacramento. Sadly, she was correct.

The high cost of living; the increasingly desperate water situation; the state’s mercurial budget; and its ever-present sense of a social mission are all products of that portion of the California electorate that pines to impose fairness and give order to the world, from the top down.

Unsurprisingly, no conservative red-stater and certainly no conservative southerner, wants any part of the California experiment. In fact, there is always glee when California’s shortcomings and problems make news. And yet, California should not be abandoned by conservatives from other parts of the country.

While the state is rife with the fringy left, more conservatives live in California than in any other state. While that’s a largely pointless statistic from a local political perspective, it underscores the larger idea that the national voice of conservatism is incomplete without California conservatives.

That voice will be significant because, though California conservatives long have been politically marginalized within their own state, they are better-positioned than any other subset of the movement to develop a policy-driven vision for a sustainable national right-wing coalition. For example, how better to deal with national issues regarding water diversion, high-speed rail and carbon taxes than by seeking the counsel of California conservatives?

What’s more, California is coping with an increasingly strained infrastructure brought about by years of political shifting of dedicated funds and unmanageable obligations to public employees with outsized political clout. This fate awaits the rest of the nation, and given its unfortunate precociousness, California may be where conservatives will write their policy playbook for the next 20 years.

In short, while California conservatives are outnumbered, don’t think that they are naïve or unproductive.

Toward the end of my flight, I asked the woman if she would ever willingly come back to California.

Of course,” she said. “I live in San Jose.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Why disaster policy matters

April 22, 2015, 12:09 PM

A major plot point of the most recent season of Netflix’s House of Cards saw fictional President Frank Underwood try to exploit the Stafford Act’s vague definition of a “disaster” to divert the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s entire budget toward an equally ill-defined job-placement and wage-support program called “America Works.”

This being Hollywood, the plan was, of course, absolutely ridiculous and would spark congressional lawsuits – if not, indeed, impeachment proceedings – should any real-life president ever attempt something similar. But kudos to the show’s producers for shining a light on the little-known Stafford Act. America Works would be a terrible idea, but the notion that American disaster-response policy needs a major overhaul is not.

Originally passed in 1974 to provide a rational process for appropriating federal disaster-response funds, replacing the largely ad hoc responses that previously had been the norm, use of the Stafford Act has exploded in recent years. The number of federal disaster declarations spiked from 16 in 1988 to 242 in 2011. Moreover, as a new report from the SmarterSafer Coalition shows, with each new catastrophe, the proportion of the cost of recovery borne by federal taxpayers continues to grow.

This is not a coincidence. The more the federal government spends on cleaning up disasters after the fact, the more businesses and individuals are encouraged to build in, and move to, disaster-prone areas. The vicious cycle continues as more and more risk is transferred from the private sector onto the backs of taxpayers.

The facts are incontrovertible. Research by Erwann Michel-Kerjan at the Wharton School’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center shows pretty definitively that federal disaster assistance crowds out private insurance coverage. In an April 2014 paper, Michel-Kerjan estimates that residents in zip codes that receive significant disaster aid subsequently reduce their insurance coverage by an average of $17,000. Individuals who receive direct assistance from the federal government drop about $6,400 in coverage for every $1,000 in aid they receive.

The Stafford Act, which leaves the federal government on the hook for 75 percent of the cost of post-disaster aid, isn’t the only problem. The U.S. Forest Service has seen the percentage of its budget devoted to managing fires shoot up from 13 percent in 1991 to 40 percent in 2012, as the overall federal bill for wildfire maintenance has grown from $440 million in 1985 to $1.7 billion in 2013. The National Flood Insurance Program, which makes use of outdated flood maps and charges inappropriately low rates for older and frequently flooded properties, is now $23 billion in debt to federal taxpayers, with virtually no prospect to ever pay off that debt.

Even leaving aside the potential impacts of climate change, current disaster policy undoubtedly has contributed to what was already a massive shift in settlement patterns toward disaster-prone areas. The 1990s and 2000s saw 2.2 million new housing units built in coastal regions, with roughly a third of the U.S. population now living in low-lying, flood-prone areas along the coast. In the West, housing units in “wild-and-urban” interface regions have grown 52 percent since 1970, with 1.2 million of those homes at high risk of wildfires.

Clearly, these trends are unsustainable. At the current rate of growth, federal disaster spending through programs like the NFIP and Federal Crop Insurance Corp. is expected to grow by between 54 and 110 percent by the end of the century. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects the number of acres burned by wildfires each year to double by 2050. Taking into account both current spending and settlement patterns, and rising sea levels, by 2100, areas deemed to lie in floodplains could grow by 45 percent for rivers and 55 percent for coastal areas; flood damages could reach $360 billion and hurricane damages could reach $422 billion.

These aren’t just the paranoid Chicken Little fantasies of the environmental left. They are the hard-nosed, dollars-and-cents calculations of the global insurance industry, which as of 2012 found itself on the hook for $10.6 trillion of U.S. coastal property, up 20 percent from $8.9 trillion just five years earlier. And with a huge and growing portion of these costs actually borne by taxpayers, they should be a serious concern to anyone who considers himself or herself a fiscal conservative.

It is that overlap of concerns, from elements that might ordinarily be considered “strange bedfellows,” that explains the genesis of SmarterSafer, of which R Street (originally in our previous incarnation as the Heartland Institute’s Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) is a founding member. Our new report, “Bracing for the Storm,” represents the final product of nearly a year of deliberations and debate among our 30 very disparate members – everyone from environmental organizations like American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation to budget watchdogs like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Taxpayers Union to major insurers and reinsurers like Allianz, Chubb, Liberty Mutual, Swiss Re and USAA.

The report contains a number of detailed recommendations, but they all come down to the two basic themes of removing federal subsidies for risk-taking and shifting federal investments to mitigating the risk of disasters before they happen, rather than merely responding to them after they occur. As the following chart makes clear, this is the precise opposite of federal spending priorities today.

Beyond that general focus, the report also calls for three crucial reforms:

  1. Tie the federal share of disaster-response spending to concrete mitigation and preparedness benchmarks, so that communities that better prepare receive more post-disaster aid and communities that don’t receive less.
  2. Shift more flood risk back to the private insurance market, phasing in accurate rates for the National Flood Insurance Program and reserving subsidies solely for those who can’t afford insurance premiums.
  3. Create a central, high-level federal office dedicated to coordinating among multiple levels of government resources that go toward disaster preparedness, rather than simply disaster response.

One hopes that’s an agenda that proves much more palatable to our real-life lawmakers than America Works did in Frank Underwood’s fictional Washington.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Patent coalition says TROL Act doesn’t go far enough

April 22, 2015, 8:51 AM

Dear Chairmen and Ranking Members:

We, the co-chairs of United for Patent Reform, on behalf of the coalition members represented below, acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of the Energy and Commerce Committee to mitigate the devastating impact that patent trolls – and specifically demand letters – cause the American economy.

Unfortunately, the discussion draft of the Targeting Rogue and Opaque Letters Act (“TROL Act”) falls short of addressing the urgent need for strengthened enforcement of demand letter abuse. We support the goal of reducing the number of bad faith demand letters that our businesses receive, but this bill falls short.

The drain on commerce and innovation that vague, misleading or deceptive letters have on businesses across many sectors of the economy is well understood, and we have encouraged the subcommittee to make changes to the draft legislation that would help alleviate the problem.

Regrettably, none of the changes many of us sought to the 2014 draft have been adopted. We once again encourage the committee to make the following changes.

  1. Remove the requirement of a “pattern of practice of sending” demand letters. The pattern of practice language creates unnecessary ambiguity about the number of letters that constitute a pattern of practice.
  2. Remove the definition of “bad faith.”  Regardless of the intention of the sender, misrepresentations or omissions can be harmful to consumers.
  3. Remove separate “bad faith” requirement from listed factors. Requiring a demonstration of bad faith could nullify the act’s provisions.
  4. Separate third-party licensees and prior knowledge of infringement from factor 1, which requires a separate showing that assertions were made without a reasonable basis in fact or law.
  5. All demand letters should identify the allegedly infringed claims. Failure to include such information is evidence that the assertion is objectively baseless and thus made in bad faith.
  6. Remove affirmative defense.

We acknowledge and appreciate the attempts of Chairman Upton, Chairman Burgess and all the subcommittee members to address the devastating impact that patent trolls and specifically demand letter abuse cause the economy, but regret that the current legislative product does not alleviate those concerns.

We hope that the subcommittee will revise the draft legislation and see fit to address our concerns, but as currently written, we must oppose the TROL Act.

Is Alabama broke or just stupid?

April 22, 2015, 8:17 AM

This may be difficult, but let’s start with the facts about Alabama’s current budget crisis before we start talking about our feelings on things like taxes, gambling and expanding Medicaid.

In March, the Legislative Fiscal Office briefed the Alabama Legislature on the state’s fiscal situation. The major takeaway was that the state’s General Fund faced a $290 million projected shortfall and the state’s Education Trust Fund anticipated a $287 million surplus.

In short, if we did not have two separate major budgets, we would not have a budget crisis. We would be able to simultaneously fund education in Alabama and our other government obligations.

That means we’re not broke.

If you want to argue about the funding level for education being insufficient, feel free. That’s not the issue we’re talking about. On a purely budgetary level, we should have the money we need.

We have known all along that our state budget structure is causing the vast majority of our budgetary issues. Almost all of the taxes that recover with the economy are earmarked for the ETF. That leaves the General Fund threadbare, while trying to deal with prison infrastructure issues and Medicaid.

It is not a secret, yet most of our political leaders are not even trying to solve the structural problem they all see. To Gov. Robert Bentley’s credit, he has tried to move growth revenues into the General Fund, but he has done little to promote that effort.

The truth is that the state’s politicians are scared to death of being accused of taking money from students and teachers.

It is a silly political game that was perfected by the Alabama Education Association (AEA) under Paul Hubbert’s reign. Any politician even suggesting that we should consolidate our budgets and remove earmarks faced the wrath of the state’s most powerful political machine.

To Hubbert’s credit, he was so effective that many of Alabama’s more senior legislators have a version of Stockholm syndrome, where those past political realities still hold sway.

The funny thing about it is that education spending isn’t really tied to the budget structure. We can spend the same, more or less on education within a consolidated budget. The argument that combining the budgets necessarily means less money for education simply doesn’t hold water. Voters would still be able to hold legislators accountable for their education-spending choices.

But that doesn’t seem to matter to Alabama’s political leaders.

Rather than repairing the actual problem, Alabama’s legislators are likely going to give the people a choice between some combination of tax increases, significant government cuts or legalizing gambling in the state. That will only put a short-term bandage on the General Fund until the next time we run short on funds because of our goofy budget structure.

No, we’re not broke; we’re just either too stupid or too unwilling to solve the real problems we face.

Coalition tells Congress to let the Export-Import Bank expire

April 22, 2015, 7:49 AM

Dear Members of Congress:

On behalf of our groups and organizations, together representing millions of Americans, we urge you to oppose the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. It unfairly hurts domestic companies and risks billions of taxpayer dollars.

By paying foreign companies to buy American exports, the Export-Import Bank tilts the playing field away from mid-sized and small businesses in favor of large, politically connected corporations. The Airlines for America, for example, estimates that the bank’s recent loans to foreign airlines have killed as many as 7,500 jobs for domestic airlines in the United States. Eliminating the Export-Import Bank would level the playing field and allow U.S. companies to compete for business on their merits rather than the strength of their political ties to the bank.

Not only does the Export-Import bank interfere with the free market, it also jeopardizes billions of taxpayer dollars. According to a 2014 report from the Congressional Budget Office the bank will costs taxpayers $2 billion over the next decade despite claims that it pays for itself. This discrepancy is because the bank does not use fair-value accounting, a method widely used by private finance organizations. These risky loans and poor accounting practices are harmful to taxpayers, who are left footing the bill.

America deserves an international trade policy that is based on free-market mechanisms, not paying foreign companies to buy exports from large corporations with political connections. We, the undersigned organizations, urge you to oppose reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.

Sincerely,

Brent Gardner, Vice President of Government Affairs
Americans for Prosperity

Marc Short, President
Freedom Partners

Jim Martin, Chairman
60 Plus Association

Susan A. Carleson, Chairman/CEO
American Civil Rights Union

Phil Kerpen, President
American Commitment

Dan Schneider, Executive Director
American Conservative Union

Sean Noble, President
American Encore

Thomas J. Pyle, President
American Energy Alliance

Coley Jackson, President
Americans for Competitive Enterprise

Peter J. Thomas, Chairman
Americans for Constitutional Liberty

Richard Manning, President
Americans for Limited Government

Grover Norquist, President
Americans for Tax Reform

Scot Mussi, President
Arizona Free Enterprise Club

John Tate, President
Campaign For Liberty

Kristin Fecteau, Co-Founder
Campaign to Free America

Tina Pisenti, Executive VP and COO
Cascade Policy Institute

David McIntosh, President
Club for Growth

Tom Brinkman Jr., Chairman
Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST)

Lawson Bader, President
Competitive Enterprise Institute

Pete Hegseth, CEO
Concerned Veterans for America

Chris Prandoni, Interim Executive Director
Cost of Government Center

Thomas A. Schatz, President
Council for Citizens Against Government Waste

L. Brent Bozell III, Chairman
ForAmerica

Matt Kibbe, President and Founder
FreedomWorks

Evan Feinberg, President
Generation Opportunity

Michael Scupin, Vice President
Georgia Grassroots Coalition

Michael A. Needham, Chief Executive Officer
Heritage Action for America

Mario H. Lopez, President
Hispanic Leadership Fund

Kimberly Fletcher, President & Founder
HomeMakers for America Inc.

Carrie Lukas, Managing Director
Independent Women’s Forum

Heather Higgens, President and CEO
Independent Women’s Voice

Andrew Langer, President
Institute for Liberty

Seton Motley, President
Less Government

Colin A. Hanna, President
Let Freedom Ring

Dee Hodges, President
Maryland Taxpayers Association

Amy Ridenour, Chairman
National Center for Public Policy Research

Lew Uhler, President
National Tax Limitation Committee

Pete Sepp, President
National Taxpayers Union

Gov. Gary Johnson, Honorary Chairman
Our America Initiative

Kimberly Wold, Executive Director
Prosper

Andrew Moylan, Executive Director and Senior Fellow
R Street Institute

Mike Stenhouse, CEO
Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity

Paul Gessing, President
Rio Grande Foundation

William Whipple III, President
Secure America’s Future Economy

Teri Christoph, Director of Digital Media
Tami Nantz, Co-founder
Smart Girl Politics

Stephen Ellis, Vice President
Taxpayers for Common Sense

David Williams, President
Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Judson Phillips, Founder
Tea Party Nation

Brett Healy, President
The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy

Daniel Garza, Executive Director
The LIBRE Initiative

Morton Blackwell, Chairman
The Weyrich Lunch

Carl Bearden, Executive Director
United for Missouri

Rose Bogaert, Chair
Wayne County Taxpayers Association

Bracing for the storm

April 21, 2015, 4:19 PM

The attached report was co-authored jointly by members of the SmarterSafer Coalition.

Hurricanes, floods, fires, and heat waves resulting in millions of dollars of damage are no longer unusual events. They are now a fact of life, posing increased risk to life and property while driving up the costs of recovery. Both catastrophic and smaller-scale floods have been on the rise in communities throughout the country. The Western wildfire season has grown longer as warmer temperatures and longer periods of drought have become more common, and tropical storms and hurricanes have brought catastrophic damage to the U.S. over the past two decades. Disasters with a price tag exceeding $1 billion, previously limited to one or two per year, now occur at least five to 10 times per year. Recent payouts for events like Superstorm Sandy have shattered previous records, taking a toll both on the federal budget and on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is now more than $23 billion in debt.

As the frequency, severity, and cost of these disasters grows and federal spending on recovery rises, individuals, communities, and state and local governments must do everything possible to ensure they can withstand the next storm.

Our current natural disaster policy framework focuses heavily on responding to disasters, rather than putting protective measures in place to reduce our vulnerability and limit a disaster’s impact. This needlessly exposes Americans to greater risks to life and property and results in much higher costs to the federal government.

Over the past few decades, the financial burden of disaster response has fallen increasingly on the federal government. Federal funds are provided post-disaster, with few standards to define the parameters for federal intervention or rules to ensure funds are used in an efficient way. The problem is also evident in the chaotic passage of aid following a disaster, which often results in significant new outlays that have little to do with emergency relief.

Neither the states nor the federal government devote sufficient resources to preparing communities and citizens for these growing risks. The ready availability of government aid after a disaster actually reduces individual and community incentives to invest in mitigation and makes it less likely homeowners and businesses will insure their property for disaster.

These problems are also embedded in the National Flood Insurance Program, which has long used federal insurance subsidies to mask the true risks of flooding. This federal program now faces a multibillion-dollar debt to US taxpayers as a result of increasingly powerful storms and hurricanes.

Moreover, there is little coordination between federal, state, and local governments and agencies, as well as private businesses and industry groups, when it comes to preparing for and mitigating before a storm or other disaster.

Rather than continuing on this course, the federal government must begin overhauling current disaster policies.

This report identifies several reforms that could move the policy framework in a more sustainable direction.

Encourage Planning and Mitigation:

  • Shift some federal resources to pre-disaster preparation to help communities plan for and mitigate risk.
  • Provide disaster assistance on a sliding scale to incentivize communities to ramp up pre-disaster preparation, particularly through the use of natural infrastructure and smarter safer building.
  • Ensure disaster spending is linked to concrete results, smarter safer building, and the mitigation of long term risks.
  • Encourage the use of natural infrastructure such as marshes and dunes wherever possible to absorb storm surges and riverine flooding, and lessen the impact of waves.
  • Explore the use of public-private finance options to pay for disaster mitigation.
  • Ensure FEMA’s limited hazard mitigation funds are being spent on mitigation efforts that truly reduce disaster losses rather than expensive floodwalls, levees, and other so-called “grey infrastructure” that is within the purview of other agencies with larger budgets.

Fortify Infrastructure:

  • Protect federal infrastructure with the development and enforcement of smarter and safer mitigation standards, including adoption of recently updated federal flood risk management standards.
  • Require communities that access pre- and post disaster funds to have plans in place to rebuild or repair public infrastructure in smarter safer ways.
  • Explore the use of private-sector financial tools such as insurance and catastrophe bonds to shield publicly owned infrastructure from catastrophic, taxpayer-funded liabilities in case of disaster.

Reform Flood Insurance:

  • Phase in National Flood Insurance Program premiums to risk based rates and ensure flood maps are accurate and informed by the best available science.
  • Provide subsidies only for those who truly cannot afford risk-based rates through a means tested, time-limited and transparent system outside of the rate structure.
  • Encourage mitigation by expanding the Community Rating System and increasing the number of enrolled communities.
  • Ensure that private sector insurance can compete to cover a greater share of risks in disaster-prone communities.

Ensure Equity:

  • Mitigate the cost of flood insurance rate hikes with targeted, means-tested, temporary, and paid-for assistance that is outside the rate structure.
  • Ensure low-income communities and households are able to fully participate in federal mitigation efforts and implement a clear plan to help lower-income communities bear the cost of planning, preparedness, and mitigation and make sure disaster relief flows to areas of greatest need.

Improve Coordination:

  • Establish a central, high-level federal office to better coordinate emergency response and preparedness.
  • Set clear roles for federal government, state and local governments, community organizations, and individuals when it comes to disaster activities ranging from planning to mitigation, response and recovery.
  • Better bridge silos among advocates working in water quality, climate change, and floodplain management.

This report lays out a roadmap to a more rational approach to federal disaster policies that will save taxpayer dollars, protect the environment, and better prepare all Americans for the risks they face. With all signs pointing to a more dangerous, disaster-prone future, it is vital that the federal government starts preparing for these changes immediately.

Coalition letter on NSA surveillance reform

April 21, 2015, 2:44 PM

Dear Chairman Goodlatte, Ranking Member Conyers, Chairman Grassley, and Ranking Member Leahy:

We urge you to end mass surveillance of Americans. Among us are civil liberties organizations from across the political spectrum that speak for millions of people, businesses, whistleblowers and experts. The impending expiration of three USA PATRIOT Act provisions on June 1 is a golden opportunity to end mass surveillance and enact additional reforms.

Current surveillance practices are virtually limitless. They are unnecessary, counterproductive and costly. They undermine our economy and the public’s trust in government. And they undercut the proper functioning of government.

Meaningful surveillance reform entails congressional repeal of laws and protocols the executive secretly interprets to permit current mass-surveillance practices. Additionally, it requires Congress to appreciably increase transparency, oversight and accountability of intelligence agencies, especially those that have acted unconstitutionally.

A majority of the House of Representatives already has voted against mass surveillance. The Massie-Lofgren amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act garnered 293 votes in support of defunding “backdoor searches.” Unfortunately, that amendment was not included in the “CRomnibus” despite overwhelming support. We urge you to act once again to vindicate our fundamental liberties.

End the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone information under the USA PATRIOT Act.

Mass surveillance conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act is antithetical to Americans’ exercise of their civil liberties. Section 215 has been interpreted by the executive branch as providing for the collection of virtually unlimited personal information, from gun records and financial records to our physical locations and with whom we talk. All the worse, this intrusive collection is not only unconstitutional; it is unnecessary. The president’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded that not a single instance exists “involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” Others have reached similar conclusions. Even the NSA considered ending the program because “the costs outweighed the meager counterterrorism benefits.” Additional provisions that may be interpreted to allow bulk collection—whether under Section 214, via National Security Letters, or elsewhere—must also be addressed.

End the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333 mass surveillance programs.

Congress must end mass surveillance programs purportedly authorized under the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333. These programs are incredibly broad. For example, they include the acquisition of vast amounts of information sent privately over the Internet (e.g., “upstream collection” under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008). They also include any information or communication, by foreigners and Americans, that is ever transmitted outside the physical boundaries of the United States (e.g., as authorized by Executive Order 12333). Section 702 results in the unnecessary collection of innocent Americans’ domestic communications, and EO 12333 raises troubling concerns about the scope of “authorized” collections.

Restore accountability for bad actors in the intelligence community.

Accountability starts with truth. Members of Congress, both on the left and the right, must have access to documents necessary to know the full story. They must be able to trust those they oversee. When they are misled, as occurred in statements by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, there must be consequences. In addition, the intelligence committees and members of Congress must have the staff, resources, clearance and cooperation necessary to provide vigorous oversight. A special committee should investigate and publicly report on intelligence community transgressions since Sept. 11.

Mass surveillance is counterproductive.

The evidence shows mass surveillance costs outweigh any tangible benefits. Furthermore, the misdirection of resources undermines support for the analysts who must connect the dots.

Mass surveillance harms our economy.

Mass surveillance will cost the digital economy up to $180 billion in lost revenue by 2016. Law enforcement efforts to subvert the integrity of technology—in particular by attacking privacy and security mechanisms built into technology—threaten the profitability of American manufacturers, entrepreneurs and software companies. Already, 30 percent of all American adults report changing their online behavior in response to surveillance fears.

Americans want mass surveillance to stop.

Americans oppose domestic mass surveillance. 57 percent of American adults deem it unacceptable for government to monitor communications of U.S. citizens, according to a 2015 Pew survey. 61 percent of Americans are losing confidence that surveillance efforts serve the public interest.

Mass surveillance is a red herring for effective anti-terrorism policies.

America can lead the world in civil liberties. But to do that, we must:

  • Ensure a probable cause-based warrant requirement for acquiring and searching the communications of U.S. persons;
  • End bulk and “bulky” (i.e., broadly defined, e.g. by location) information collection;
  • Inform the public about the scope of surveillance by requiring each intelligence collection agency—and allowing companies—to release granular information about collections;
  • Prohibit the government from weakening security and privacy technology;
  • Provide pathways for and protect whistleblowers who report problems;
  • Slim down the role of the FISC, which has expanded from its original mandate;
  • Publish “secret law,” including documents that interpret the law on matters of national security, except to the extent it contains facts that risk the viability of investigations;
  • Require independent audits of intelligence agencies’ compliance with the law;
  • Strengthen and empower congressional oversight;
  • Legislatively address and limit the state secrets privilege; and
  • Conduct a full accounting of post-Sept. 11 intelligence community activities with substantial public reporting.

For more information, please contact Josh Withrow, legislative affairs manager at FreedomWorks at 202.783.3870 or jwithrow@freedomworks.org; Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress at 202.577.6100 or daniel@demandprogress.org; or Sascha Meinrath, director of X-Lab, at sascha@thexlab.org.

Sincerely yours,

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Amicus
Appar
Arab American Institute
Augur
Automattic
Badger Maps, Inc.
Bill Binney
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Boing Boing
Constitutional Alliance
Contextly
CREDO
Dan Ellsberg
Data Foundry
Defending Dissent Foundation
Demand Progress
Diane Roark
Distinc.tt
DuckDuckGo
Earbits, Inc.
Ed Loomis
Fight for the Future
Foundry Group
Freedom of the Press Foundation
FreedomWorks
Friends Committee on National Legislation
GitHub, Inc.
Golden Frog
Government Accountability Project
Grid
InXile
J. Kirk Weibe
John Tate, President, Campaign for Liberty
Law Office of Elaine Mittleman
LawGives
Liberty Coalition
Linknovate
Media Alliance
National Security Counselors
OpenTheGovernement.org
PadMapper
Participatory Politics Foundation
Project On Government Oversight (POGO)
R Street Institute
Recrout
Restore The Fourth
Reylabs, Inc.
Rhode Island Coalition to Defend Human and Civil
Rights
RootsAction.org
Sonic
Statwing
Student Net Alliance
Sunlight Foundation
TechFreedom
TheNextWeb.com
Thomas Drake
ThoughtWorks
TouchCast
X-Lab

E-cigarette taxes aren’t the answer to Louisiana’s budget woes

April 21, 2015, 1:24 PM

Louisiana is facing a $1.6 billion deficit, according to the most recent estimates, and state lawmakers are looking at various ways to close the deficit.

One popular option among state legislators is to increase tobacco taxes. But disturbingly, some are looking to expand those taxes to include e-cigarettes.

Currently, e-cigarettes are subjected the 4 percent sales tax, plus whatever local rate is charged. If H.B. 515 – sponsored by state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa – were to become law, e-cigarettes would be charged an additional excise tax of 5 cents per milliliter of liquid nicotine solution. It also provides for taxing vapor products, but it’s unclear if they’ll be subjected to excise taxes or merely charged state and local sales taxes.

While Louisiana is constitutionally obligated, like most states, to have a balanced budget at the end of its legislative session, this is a poor plan to close that deficit. It would take a valuable “stop smoking” aid out of the hands of poorer Louisianians and harm the state’s health.

One of the reasons Ritchie says he is pushing numerous tobacco tax increases is to help people, including himself, to quit smoking

He authored House Bill 119. It would take the current 36-cent cigarette tax and raise it an additional $1.18,

bringing the state’s tax to $1.54. That is said to be current national average per pack.

‘As most of you know, I’m a smoker,’ said Ritchie. ‘Started when I was a teenager.’

Ritchie said he hopes a higher tax would help him quit smoking.

He says the increase would generate $223 million in annual state revenue. Supporters of Ritchie’s bill say an increase would also mean fewer smoking related deaths.

I don’t doubt Ritchie’s sincerity in wanting to reduce tobacco-related deaths. He has watched family members die due to smoking-related illnesses. Ritchie also runs a funeral home, so I’m sure he’s overseen the funerals of many others who have died because of smoking.

I, too, have watched firsthand the carnage that tobacco-related illnesses cause. My father lost his leg due to a condition that was aggravated by tobacco use. My mother suffers from COPD and heart disease that was caused by smoking for more than 30 years. I can sympathize with the goal to reduce tobacco deaths and illnesses, but Ritchie’s tax increases on e-cigarettes is not the way.

E-cigarettes reduce the harm caused by tobacco use. When someone “vapes,” they take in nicotine without nearly as much of the carcinogens and other chemicals that cause health problems. E-cigarettes also do not produce the toxic smoke that tobacco smoke does, putting bystanders at risk. The FDA has told Congress that e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking, so it does not make sense to tax them punitively under the excise tax structure.

If the goal is to reduce tobacco-related deaths, Ritchie and the Louisiana legislature should embrace e-cigarettes. Studies have shown that e-cigarettes have helped people quit smoking. A British study found that people who use e-cigarettes were 60 percent more likely to quit than by using nicotine patches or gum.

E-cigarettes have been found to be used primarily by smokers looking for a lower-risk alternative to get their nicotine fix. There is literally no evidence that young people use it as a gateway to smoking.

Earlier this year, New Orleans has already made a wrong-headed decision on e-cigarettes by including them in their public smoking ban. This was despite the fact that e-cigarettes do not pose the health risk to non-smokers that tobacco smoke does. The State of Louisiana should not follow in the city’s footsteps.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

TPA: Trading up for a better deal

April 21, 2015, 11:20 AM

I have the National Football League draft, set to start April 30, on my mind this week. As fellow Philadelphia Eagles fans know, there is major speculation about whether head coach Chip Kelly will trade up for a chance to land Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

Against that background, it is fitting that Congress is set to address the question of international trade agreements. After years of negotiation, congressional leaders have finally introduced trade promotion authority legislation to establish a workable game plan for imminent trade deals, including the Trans Pacific Partnerhip and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

A bicameral bill called the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 looks to set down congressional objectives that current and future administrations must follow when entering into and managing trade talks with foreign countries. This blueprint also requires increased transparency, granting Congress access to important information about the deals. Within the guidelines, the legislation would once again enable this and future presidents to “fast track” trade negotiations and submit proposed trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

While opposition to trade liberalization was always expected from certain elements of the political left, surprisingly, some on the right have voiced opposition suggesting that TPA is simply a “power grab” by President Barack Obama.

The claims of executive overreach couldn’t be farther from reality. The fact is that the TPA proposal would re-establish the same sort of trade negotiation framework that was in place from 1974 to 1994, and then again from 2002 to 2007, enabling both the legislative and executive branches to work together to develop trade policies that are consistent with the Constitution. As Cato Institute scholar Daniel Ikenson explains:

Congress does not relinquish its authority. It reiterates its authority by setting boundaries for the president.

This is not to say that the proposed TPA is perfect. While the blueprint has its merits, such as provisions to limit restrictions on the flow of data, it unfortunately also pushes forward a less-than-ideal approach to intellectual property. In an effort to establish stringent intellectual property protection and enforcement, the proposal does not offer a balance to reflect other parts of U.S. copyright law upon which the Internet sector depends.

R Street’s Mike Godwin summed up the concern, explaining:

Our government’s TPA and its treaty negotiations need to reflect the needs of all stakeholders, including technology companies and ordinary users. The current language seems to suggest that only copyright holders’ interests matter.

This is the benefit of the TPA legislation, giving Congress an opportunity to openly debate its trade priorities. While I hope legislators will look to amend their approach on intellectual property, it is essential that Congress moves forward on a free-trade, free-market framework.

The United States is still trying to move on from the Great Recession. Efforts to remove trade restrictions should be moved forward to expand economic opportunity. Far too often, Congress has punted on policy. Here is an opportunity for our elected legislators to push for more than a few yards and a cloud of dust.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

R Street praises Gov. Brownback for vetoing damaging ridesharing bill

April 20, 2015, 5:38 PM

TOPEKA, Kan. (April 20, 2015) – The R Street Institute praised Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for heeding consumer concerns and vetoing S.B.117, a bill that would have placed burdensome restrictions on ridesharing companies and may have forced them to cease operations in the state.

Recognizing the need for innovation to spur economic growth, Gov. Brownback said in his veto statement that placing these burdens on an emerging industry would invite more problems, not less.

“While we applaud the Kansas Legislature’s initiative to advance full legalization of transportation network companies operating in Kansas, this effort must be undertaken in a manner that promotes competition and innovation, rather than impeding it,” said R Street President Eli Lehrer. “While well-intentioned, the restrictions in the bill would have limit innovations that could help significantly reduce costs.”

Many of the nation’s leading insurance trade associations, along with transportation network companies, have reached an accord about what exactly constitutes a comprehensive, yet flexible insurance framework for ridesharing.

“We encourage the Legislature to start from scratch and craft legislation that follows the compromise model that is already under consideration in numerous states across the country,” said Lehrer.

 

Copyright could be stumbling block in trade bill

April 20, 2015, 4:09 PM

From The Hill:

Woodworth’s sentiment was echoed by advocacy groups including the Center for Democracy and Technology, R Street and the American Library Association.

“Ensuring our Internet platforms are successful both at home and abroad is integral to growing the global economy, which is why exceptions and limitations consistent with U.S. law should be included in trade agreements,” they said in a joint statement.