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By Elaine S. Povich,

WASHINGTON — Maybe New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should borrow a pair of crutches. They might have helped Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s cause.

Dayton, a Democrat, hobbled into the state Capitol five weeks after major hip surgery and blasted lawmakers for holding up the tax cuts he wanted. After quarrelling over his spending proposal, including a spat over funding for a new legislative office building, the Democratic-controlled legislature approved a $443 million tax cut, without the office building rider. Dayton pushed hard for the cuts, in part, because some are retroactive to 2013, meaning tax filers who are preparing returns now could take advantage of them and see refunds soon.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is locked in a battle with the legislature and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over whether to increase taxes to fund prekindergarten education in the city and state. The mayor wants to raise the surcharge on city earners making more than $500,000 annually, from 4.25 percent to 4.45 percent. The state has to approve city tax increases.

Fellow Democrat Cuomo said finding money for pre-K can be accomplished without a surcharge on the wealthy. Instead, he wants tax cuts, including a property tax reduction that he said would save the average homeowner about $350 a year. The legislature is struggling with the tax increase proposal and has not acted, but the Republican-controlled Senate is not inclined to give de Blasio what he wants. Both Dayton and Cuomo are running for re-election.

At least 30 states are considering some kind of tax change this year, mostly tax cuts, as the economic recovery takes hold. In states where revenues have failed to keep up with estimates, some lawmakers are considering raising taxes.

In Delaware, where revenue projections are down from earlier estimates, there is talk of corporate tax increases. The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council projected that revenues in the current fiscal year that ends in June will fall $107 million short of a previous projection in December, due mostly to lower revenues from corporate income taxes. That has led Democratic Gov. Jack Markell to propose an increase in corporate taxes — ironic for a state that is viewed as the most corporate-friendly in the U.S.

In New Jersey, however, where revenues are estimated to be lagging as much as $400 million behind projections, Republican Gov. Chris Christie has not proposed new taxes in his fiscal year 2015 budget.

A trial balloon by Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak to increase the state’s gasoline tax to fund infrastructure repair has stirred up a firestorm, causing him to lower the proposed increase from an extra 24 cents a gallon to 15 cents.

A recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University showed 72 percent of those surveyed opposed increasing the gas tax, while 63 percent called for a higher tax on millionaires instead.

Republican governors are having an easier time with tax cuts, particularly in states where the GOP also dominates the legislatures, but squabbles remain in many states in the thick of legislative sessions this spring.

A survey of state lawmakers by the National Conference of State Legislatures found tax policy topping the agenda in about a dozen states this year and being a significant part of the discussion in many more. At the same time, states still worry about the economy.

“We still have high unemployment, and there are a lot of unknowns about when the next downturn will occur,” Democratic Sen. Richard Devlin, chair of Oregon’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, said in the NCSL survey. “We are better off than a few years ago, but we are reluctant to use the word ‘stable.’ There is nothing to celebrate.”

Still, tax cuts are on the table. Cuomo traveled around New York this week pressing for his property tax reduction. “Homeowners get it. Taxpayers get it. The politicians don’t get it,” Cuomo said in a press conference in DeWitt.

He is urging local jurisdictions to make up for the lost property tax revenue by finding ways to combine services to save money. “The easy answer for government is raise taxes. If the choice is change how you are doing things, find economies of scale, get creative, work with local governments in a way you’ve never done before,” he said. “Raising taxes is always the easy answer. That’s why we have the highest taxes in the nation. That’s why people are leaving upstate New York.”

In Minnesota, the tax cuts provide $57 million in retroactive tax relief on returns filed for 2013, meaning that up to 270,000 state taxpayers will get some of the $49 million in income tax cuts in their tax refunds this year, according to the state Department of Revenue. About $8 million of the cuts go to businesses. The cuts partially make up for a $2.1 billion tax increase passed in Minnesota last year.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, has also been battling local governments over cutting taxes. Pence signed a bill this week that reduces the corporate income tax from 6.5 percent to 4.9 percent in steps by 2021. He signed the bill despite opposition from local governments, which get $1 billion annually in corporate tax revenue.

Pence said the law “does not unduly burden our local governments. It gives our local governments the ability to make decisions for themselves about what would enhance their ability to attract investment.”

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin also inked a tax cut bill this week that will give state residents an average income tax cut of $46 each in April 2015, and homeowners an average cut of $131 each on December 2014 property tax bills, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan budget office.

Farmers and factory owners would also get a total $36.8 million in cuts. Walker and the Republicans see this reduction as an incentive for businesses to stay or locate in Wisconsin. Democrats in the divided legislature considered it a giveaway to the state’s wealthiest residents.

In Arkansas, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe had his veto of a sales tax break for sand used in oil and natural gas drilling overridden by the Republican-dominated legislature. The state Department of Finance and Administration had removed the exemption, and the legislature decided to put it back. The governor supported his agency’s decision, but the legislature had other ideas.

Arkansas state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, who chairs the committee that drove the override, said, “I’m not sure it really increases how much we’re competitive (with other drilling states). It does reflect our willingness to want to have industry in the state.” Dismang stressed that the tax exemption is not new and had been on the books since the 1960s, before the department decided to scrap it.

In Oklahoma, the Republican-controlled House and Senate have passed dueling tax cut bills, both triggered only when state revenues rise to certain levels. In the Senate bill, the highest income tax rate would be cut from 5.25 percent to 5 percent, if projections for the state’s general fund revenue reach a level high enough to offset the revenue loss. The rate could drop again, to 4.85 percent, if revenue growth continues enough to make up for the additional cut.

The House bill does not have the second tier in it, but includes a corporate income tax rate cut from 6 percent to 5 percent, and also includes revenue growth triggers. The earliest the reductions could take place is 2016. The chambers are attempting to reconcile differences in their bills before the session ends in May.

“There’s a 50-50 chance we will have an income tax reduction,” Republican Rep. Earl Sears, vice chair of the appropriations and budget committee, said this week, noting that the bills are quite similar. Last year, the Oklahoma legislature tried a similar tax cut, but it was tied to repair and restoration of the state Capitol and was thrown out by the state Supreme Court, which ruled it was “logrolling,” or trading of favors, Sears said.

This year, there’s no mention of the Capitol repairs. Democrats would like to reallocate any surplus to other programs, but Sears said he is treating the taxpayers “like a state agency. Just like we fund any other agency, we’re funding back to our citizens.”

In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn called for making the “temporary” income tax hike instituted three years ago permanent. Besides opposition from the legislature, Republican Bruce Rauner, Quinn’s opponent in his re-election bid, is against the measure. Without action, the personal income tax rate is scheduled to drop back to 3.75 percent from the current 5 percent, costing the state treasury an estimated $4 billion.

Tax cuts are easier to accomplish when states are seeing higher revenues. An analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts (which funds Stateline) found that, after adjusting for inflation, total tax revenue for the 50 states combined finally recovered from its plunge in the recession in the middle of last year. But recovery varied widely. Only 20 states were back to their peak levels by the second quarter of 2013.

According to data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau, state tax revenue has continued to rebound, showing growth for 16 straight quarters through the end of 2013, which is midway through most states’ current fiscal year. Tax revenue in each quarter was higher than the same quarter of the previous year.

Photo: Pat Arnow via Flickr


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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template

In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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Photo by Tom Williams via Reuters

The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.

The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.

When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.

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