Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Ohio newspapers:

The Picture of a Broken Tax System

The New York Times

Sept. 28

In the years before he became president, Donald Trump lived lavishly while paying little in federal income taxes. The Times reported on Sunday that Mr. Trump paid no taxes in 10 of the 15 years immediately preceding his run for the White House. In each of the following two years, 2016 and 2017, he paid the token sum of $750.

Remove Mr. Trump’s current job from the picture, and what remains is a story that still demands attention. The portrait of a man who earned hundreds of millions of dollars, lived a life of comic excess and yet, in many years, paid nothing in federal income taxes is an indictment of the federal income tax system. It illustrates the profound inequities of the tax code and the shambolic state of enforcement.

The government has sharply reduced the share of income that it collects in taxes from the wealthiest Americans. One recent study found that the 400 wealthiest households paid 70 percent of their total income in federal, state and local taxes in 1950, 47 percent in 1980 and 23 percent in 2018. The cuts in tax rates have come mostly at the federal level.

The government allows income to be sheltered from taxation for hundreds of different reasons, but real estate investors have long enjoyed a particularly sweet set of loopholes. A homeowner can write off the interest payments on a mortgage loan, but the owners of commercial buildings get a host of other benefits, too. It’s relatively easy for real estate investors to use past losses to offset income, to defer income and to avoid reporting some kinds of income. Best of all, the law lets investors claim a building is depreciating in value — a theoretical loss of money — even as the actual value increases.

“I love depreciation,” Mr. Trump said during the 2016 campaign.

Moreover, the formidable complexity of the tax code makes it difficult to tell when wealthy taxpayers have crossed legal lines. For the rich, taxation often becomes a kind of structured negotiation between the taxpayer’s experts and the government’s experts.

It’s not a fair fight: The rich keep getting richer, while the Internal Revenue Service keeps getting smaller. Republicans in Congress have slashed funding for the I.R.S., stripping the agency of expertise, resources and authority. The number of I.R.S. auditors has fallen by one-third since 2010. The government employs fewer people to chase deadbeats than at any time since the 1950s.

The share of all tax returns subject to an audit declined by 46 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Astonishingly, the decline was even steeper for millionaires — the audit rate fell 61 percent over the same period.

Legend has it that the bank robber Willie Sutton said that he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. The I.R.S. has been reduced to going where the money isn’t. As ProPublica has reported, the government now audits lower-income households that claim the earned-income tax credit at roughly the same frequency as high-income households. It’s easier for the depleted agency to pick on people who can’t afford to hire expensive tax attorneys.

The result? On current trends, the federal government will fail to collect $7.5 trillion in taxes over the next decade — about 15 percent of the total amount owed.

Cracking down on rich tax cheats is law enforcement. It is a basic function of government to ensure that people are playing by the rules. Tax cheating is not a victimless crime. Every dollar hidden from the government is that much less money to spend on education, roads and research. The rich are benefiting at the expense of everyone else.

It would be relatively easy to start collecting some of that money. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in July that adding $40 billion to the I.R.S. budget over the next decade would yield $103 billion in otherwise uncollected federal income taxes.

The methodology of that estimate is extremely conservative, as Natasha Sarin, an assistant law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lawrence Summers, an economics professor at Harvard, noted in a July paper. Dr. Sarin and Dr. Summers estimated that fully restoring I.R.S. funding, and modernizing collection techniques, would allow the government to collect $1 trillion of the unpaid taxes.

Strict enforcement should start with the president, to show that no American is above the law.

Mr. Trump claimed a tax refund of $72.9 million in 2010, according to the Times report; the government paid the claim, and then opened an investigation. If Mr. Trump loses, he could owe the government more than $100 million in repayment, interest and penalties. It should not take federal authorities more than a decade to determine whether Mr. Trump has paid the full amount he owes. The government must move urgently to resolve this question.

On Tuesday night, when Mr. Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, take the stage for their first presidential debate, both men should be asked what steps they will take to ensure that all Americans pay the full amount they owe.

And Congress should restore every penny of funding stripped from the I.R.S. since 2010 — plus whatever is necessary for the agency to perform its critical work.

Paying taxes is a civic duty, and the government needs the money. Most Americans try to pay what they owe, even if they wish they owed less, and they take comfort in the assumption that most of their neighbors are conducting themselves in the same way.

Americans deserve to know that the president has paid his taxes, too.



Trump is on a dangerous path


Sept. 30

Of the many lowlights in Tuesday night’s train wreck of a presidential debate, the most significant came at the bitter end, when the president of the United States refused to say he would accept the results of the November election.

No previous president has tried to subvert our elections in the 230 years our nation has successfully conducted them. By continuing to sow distrust with false attacks on mail-in voting, President Donald Trump is traveling a dangerous road. Free and fair elections are foundational to our democracy. Destroying their integrity risks destroying our democracy.

There are many election topics worthy of debate, from the coronavirus and the Affordable Care Act to the Supreme Court, the economy and climate change. But 33 days from Election Day, the most consequential issue on the table is the legitimacy of the election itself.

For months, without citing any actual evidence, Trump has railed against mail-in voting, which is being embraced this fall by tens of millions of Americans worried about the pandemic. Mail-in voting has worked well for years in Democratic and Republican-led states where it is the routine method of voting. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress that the agency has seen no evidence of any national effort at voter fraud.

Will there be problems? Probably. There are in any vote. But they typically are isolated, evidence of neither conspiracy nor fraud but rather the mistakes that happen in such a massive endeavor.

Trump’s debate-night call for poll watchers to look for fraudulent voting had an ominous tone. Trump supporters recently disrupted early voting in Virginia with chants, flag-waving and a human barricade outside the polling site that voters had to walk around to cast their ballots. State governors need to safeguard polling stations against such intimidation, and keep anyone with weapons, especially unconcealed ones, far away. Poll watchers are needed in any contest but they must be people with skills to do the job, not random residents threatening to turn the constitutional right to vote into running a gauntlet.

These are not hypothetical worries. Asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News to tell his supporters to remain calm as mounds of mail-in ballots are counted, Trump declined. Worse, as part of his disgraceful refusal to condemn white supremacy and allied hate groups, Trump delivered a chilling message to one such group with a history of street violence, the Proud Boys. “Stand back and stand by,” Trump said. Stand by for what?

Trump tried to clean up his remarks on Wednesday, but his inconsistency on the topic risks emboldening these groups who are preening from the newfound attention. Incendiary language that boosts skepticism and anger risks starting a fire Trump might not be able to put out.

The president has a clear duty: to assure the nation that he will accept the results of the election, whatever they are and whenever they are announced. The oath he took demands it. Our democracy depends upon it.



The City Should Program Its CDBG Funding Into Something Beneficial


Sept. 28

Why is Jamestown proposing to spend $50,000 of its CDBG funding on a civic engagement fund?

The money, according to the city’s 2020 CDBG draft plan, would pay for technical assistance, training and events or promotions to engage residents in the community development and leadership process. In another area, the plan says civic engagement money would pay for ongoing public participation, civic training and neighborhood-led leadership opportunities.

We thought that the Jamestown Renaissance Corp. had someone doing a lot of this already, paid for by private foundations and with a pretty good record of engaging previously-dormant neighborhood groups. The best part of the JRC position is that it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

Now, consider that the proposed Community Development Block Grant spending plan spends roughly the same amount ($57,517) on one code enforcement officer and $55,000 on a lead poisoning prevention. Those are programs we can get behind. A code enforcement officer is in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods every day working to clean up neighborhoods. And we know full well that Jamestown has battled lead paint issues for decades. We’d think either of those programs could use another $50,000 given the problems the city has with blight in its neighborhoods and with lead paint in its housing stock.

We’re sure city officials think they need a civic engagement program. We don’t think they’re deliberately trying to waste taxpayer money. But proposing to spend $50,000 of taxpayer money on a program that is, at best, fuzzily described in the federal plan sure looks like waste, especially when you consider that the city’s elected and appointed officials have, as part of their jobs, civic engagement.

The city should reprogram this $50,000 into something that actually benefits city residents.



NY can’t continue to ignore the deficit in the room

The Auburn Citizen

Sept. 29

As New York state continues to operate under a budget deficit of about $8 billion, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature are going to have to do more than cross their fingers and hope for a bailout from Washington.

Seven months after the coronavirus pandemic threw New York’s economy into a tailspin, Cuomo has repeatedly called for federal assistance from Congress to help the state — and its municipalities — weather the storm. On Tuesday, the governor reiterated his stance that failures by federal officials are to blame for the devastating effects of COVID-19 in New York.

“The federal government is liable. They are going to pay that bill, not us,” Cuomo said. “It’s Donald Trump’s deficit.”

But with no help having come from the Trump White House, Cuomo now appears content to wait for the results of the presidential election. There’s absolutely no guarantee, of course, that the presidential election goes in a way the governor would like, and even if the election does go the way Cuomo is hoping, the earliest a Democratic Congress and president could do anything is January.

The state’s budget deficit will only continue to grow and become more difficult to fix in the meantime, but Cuomo and the Legislature are reluctant to sit down and consider cutting state spending or raising taxes, and Cuomo has thrown cold water on the idea of allowing municipalities to engage in long-term borrowing to help them get by.

New York is going to have to start working on this problem, because the longer these decisions and actions get put on hold, the more difficult it becomes for all the municipal governments, school districts and nonprofits to budget.

As it stands now, town and county governments around the state are formulating their 2021 spending plans — they need some concrete guidance from Albany to get that work done. They can’t be expected to continue to wait — and hope — for help from Washington.



Following pandemic rules is saving thousands of lives

The Post-Star

Sept. 26

It’s easy to make fun of COVID restrictions like the recent placement of Washington County in Vermont’s yellow zone, but these are the sorts of rules that have made the Northeast one of the safest places to be in the last few months during a pandemic that has wounded the entire country.

Vermont puts regions in zones based on a formula that considers the number of positive COVID cases, the number of people sick with the disease and other factors. Washington County had been in the green zone, but was moved to yellow on Friday of last week.

Despite notices that went out, a lot of people were unaware of the change, and about 20 students in the Slate Valley Unified School District in Fair Haven, Vermont, ended up in quarantine because they took part in weekend activities including apple-picking, baseball and dance lessons in Washington County.

It’s terribly inconvenient for those students and their families, and it’s easy to mock the rules and point out inconsistencies. Crossing the border to shop for groceries is allowed, for example, while apple-picking, which takes place outside and is probably safer, leads to quarantine.

But that is the way rules are — they have an arbitrary quality. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and the necessity of grocery-shopping is a factor here. Families have to have food to eat, but they can forego a fun trip to the orchard.

You will always be able to find inconsistencies and absurdities in a law. An experienced driver in a well-maintained car is a lot safer going 66 on the highway than a new driver in a worn-out car going 65. But each mile per hour faster gets a little more dangerous, and since speed can be measured, it is subject to legal restriction.

If we set the speed limit at 95 mph, the highways would be strewn with blood, and if states set no pandemic rules, including on movement from one area to another, our morgues would be overflowing.

Limits have to be set, even though we know that, sometimes, people will ignore them, and other times, people will be forced to quarantine who really don’t have to.

We are dealing with unpredictable human beings, some of whom are doing their best in uncertain circumstances. We are also dealing, unfortunately, with people who are not doing their best but are flouting the rules without regard to the danger that creates for others.

We have seen, in dramatic fashion, what strict rules and coherent enforcement can accomplish. Early on, New York was in the worst shape in terms of infection and death. The huge improvement in our circumstances can be credited to an aggressive state response and the millions of New Yorkers who have stayed home, worn masks and generally been careful.

It’s likely the terrible outbreak in New York City in the spring scared New Yorkers and inspired us to take the virus seriously. Now, with many people back at work and students returning to school, we have to try just as hard to keep it at bay.

We are also entering flu season. Coming down with the flu and COVID-19 would be a nightmare for anyone, and if COVID-19 is seasonal like other coronaviruses, the pandemic could worsen in the next few months.

All this mask-wearing and social-distancing is hard, and it’s a hassle, but we have to soldier on. The great influenza of 1918 persisted for two years but did, finally, fade. COVID-19 will fade, too, but in the meantime, we have to keep fighting.