Sneaking Suspicions
 
Archives-- February 26-March 11, 2006


This page includes posts from February 26-March 11, 2006 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

March 11, 2006
Shameless Self-Promotion

This morning I posted my newest golf book review, which you can read here.

Roland Merullo's Golfing With God: A Novel of Heaven and Earth brings together the notion of reincarnation with the act of playing golf, along with a host of other intriguing theological concepts.

March 10, 2006
131-1

Watching the new short movie about the Georgia State University students and their 55 mile per hour experiment on the Atlanta beltway proved to be inspirational.

This afternoon I decided to stick to the speed limit for the entire 41-mile commute from my office to home. Almost all of this travel is on Route One, where folks are supposed to go no more than 55 mph.

As if.

Instead of blocking traffic with a buddy in the other lane, however, I decided to go for something a bit less dangerous. I would simply count the number of vehicles that passed me, as well as the number of cars that I passed.

The title of this post is the combined score--131 cars and trucks passed me in about 50 minutes, while I passed a single car during that time.

I've been making this commute for a long while, but that result is still a bit startling.

By the way, at least four of the passing vehicles were police cars.

March 8, 2006
Sure sign of spring

On the way home from work this evening I saw one of my favorite signs of the coming spring:

Farm tractor with sea gulls

This farm tractor was disking up a field along Route 1 near Milton.

Dozens of sea gulls followed closely behind, eating the worms and other bugs made available from the newly turned-over earth.

A larger version of this scene is available at this link.

March 7, 2006
This post brought to you by

The New York Times ran an interesting story describing how major companies and public relations firms and major companies are using blogs to spread a targeted message to a broader audience:

Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.

But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers.

But some bloggers have posted information from Wal-Mart, at times word for word, without revealing where it came from.

The report generated a lot of commentary, and several intriguing posts are quoted and linked here.

I wonder if the NYT would have thought this story was fit to print if the primary example was a business that is not such a routine target of blue state wrath.

Nonetheless, in my estimation the bloggers who didn't make sure their readers knew the source of their Walmart-friendly material simply screwed up. Who did they think they were, regular reporters who routinely crib from press releases without attribution?

PR firms don't often send material to me for potential use at this site. It's far more common for me to receive these kinds of entreaties for my golf column.

Here are two examples of how I use PR stuff for my golf pieces. As these show, it's not hard to be transparent and continue to use your own voice. In addition, you maintain your credibility with your readers with the right kind of attribution practice.

March 6, 2006
The White House is reading the blogs

Glenn Reynolds, N. Z. Bear, and other influential bloggers have been making a big deal about pork-busting parts of the Federal budget for some time now.

Based on today's press release issued by the Bush Administration, it looks like the White House has been reading these anti-earmarking bloggers.

Today, President Bush sent to Congress line item veto legislation that is designed to rein in wasteful spending, reduce the budget deficit, and improve accountability. The proposed legislation is also consistent with the Constitution.

  • Legislative Line Item Veto Act: Special, fast-track procedures would be created to guarantee an up-or-down vote by simple majority in Congress on a proposal by the President to rescind specific spending or tax legislation that has been passed. Leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties, in the House and the Senate, have supported this approach in the past.

In addition to the usual political arguments about past line-item veto proposals and the fact that most state governors possess some version of this power, the release also explained how this version is an improvement over similar Clinton-era legislation:

In its 1998 ruling striking down the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, the Supreme Court concluded that the Act "g[ave] the President the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes." The Legislative Line Item Veto Act does not raise those constitutional issues because the President's rescission proposals must be enacted by both houses of Congress and signed into law.

I think one aspect of this legislation shows how the White House is depending on bloggers and other non-traditional media to gain support for the eventual rescission requests contemplated by the proposed legislation.

There are two fairly short deadlines in the process.

The White House can’t dilly-dally in picking out appropriations to cut from omnibus spending bills, and Congress must vote up-or-down on the rescission legislation on a similar fast-track schedule.

Major media outlets might not devote sufficient resources to recommend particular cuts or pump up the opposition.

On the other hand, this proposal presents a perfect opportunity for a swarm of highly interested, highly focused bloggers to create significant public backing for these rescissions, even on the tight deadlines set in the President’s proposal.

It’s certainly well worth a try.

It also shows that the White House is adept at picking up on the growing anti-pork sentiment across the country.

March 5, 2006
Recommended reading, with a sidenote

Mickey Kaus has a nice way of zapping NYT columnist and alleged economics professor Paul Krugman in a post about the very, very rich.

Krugman's column, whose internet edition you can pay for (!) if you'd like, mentions possible ways to limit the increasing wealth of folks who already have that status, such as placing compensation limits on Fortune 500 CEOs.

I usually dismiss that kind of talk as a subspecies of the politics of envy--and since envy is among the seven deadly sins, this never seems like a great path to take in developing social policy.

Kaus points out that there's a more pressing risk to society on which some more thinking is deserved--if the folks in the top 20% income bracket as a group began to separate themselves, in significant wealth terms, from the remaining 80%.

Here's the passage that resonated the most:

We're Americans--we don't mind people getting rich. We do mind richer people lording it over less rich people, or even thinking they're better than less rich people.  And if that's what you care about, what happens to a tiny minority at the top--CEOs, baseball players, Bill Gates and Steve Rattner--may not matter as much as what happens in the vast affluence of the top 20%. There's a limit to how many people the top tenth of a percent can boss around, after all. But if the top 20% of Americans suddenly get enough relative wealth to wall themselves off from everyone else, or to start hiring maids and butlers and other servants (after decades when the number of houses with servants declined), that could in itself be a big and unwelcome shift in the tone of everyday life.

He has a point. Go read the rest of it.

In addition, however, I think it's also important to keep in mind the remarkable fluidity of wealth for individual Americans and their succeeding generations. If you look or ask around, there are plenty of examples of the first generation creating the wealth, the second generation building on that wealth, and the third generation blowing it all away.

There are no guarantees that storyline will be repeated in every family's economic history, but it happens often enough that the number of actual family dynasties in this country is incredibly low compared to a lot of other places.

March 5, 2006
Be careful what you wish for

The Bush Administration appears to becoming more serious about leaks and the effect of those unofficial press releases on national security.

Not so long ago, many members of the national media editorialized in favor of this enforcement policy, as detailed at remarkable length by Tom Maguire and others following the Plame saga.

Now, however, the NYT's Bill Keller and others are not so keen on this approach to enhancing the country's defense against those seeking to do it harm:

"There's a tone of gleeful relish in the way they talk about dragging reporters before grand juries, their appetite for withholding information, and the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public's business risk being branded traitors," said New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, in a statement responding to questions from The Washington Post. "I don't know how far action will follow rhetoric, but some days it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values it professes to be promoting abroad."

Interesting choice of rhetoric--aggressively challenging the good faith of this administration--that's never happened before, has it?

One wonders how many times these folks need to be reminded to be careful what they wish for.

On the other hand, nobody should look to the Times for a consistent approach to public policy.

March 1, 2006
Additions to the Delaware Blog Roll

The home page now includes an updated blog roll of Delaware-based bloggers.

Check 'em out!

February 28, 2006
An electrifying suggestion

Much of Delaware is now in an uproar about a large scheduled increase in electricity rates by Delmarva Power & Light Company, which services most of the state.

To some observers, the controversy is the natural fallout of a long-term freeze on rate increases that the company accepted as part of the bargaining for an ill-fated deregulation bill enacted by the General Assembly.

The notion that deregulation and competition for electricity would improve electric prices for the eventual direct consumers was essentially correct—but only for large industrial users, who had sufficient market power to take advantage of actual competition. The idea never worked for the normal everyday retail customers—who now constitute a huge contingent of not very happy voters, facing an attempt by DP&L to play catch-up in a big way.

The General Assembly is now scrambling to do something about the issue, and the Governor issued an executive order directing various agencies to find ways to ameliorate the impact of the rate increases.

Here’s one idea that I thought of earlier today and then worked on for a bit this evening—creating electric power generation facilities on state-owned land, using wind and/or solar power technologies. Making its own electricity would reduce the state’s dependence on local utilities, and perhaps free up some capacity for the rest of its citizens.

My clients at DelDOT and other state agencies already own property that could potentially be useful for producing either wind or solar power, and in locations that would not necessarily produce NIMBY-like opposition to the presence of a dozen or so graceful windmills, or several acres of solar panels, or both.

To show you how it could be done, what follows below is a very rough draft bill that I’ll send to my local legislators. It’s based on a current Washington State law that seems to share many of the same basic goals—if you can pardon the horrible pun.

"House/Senate Bill No. ___

An act amending title 29 of the Delaware Code relating to electric power generation for state agencies

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Delaware:

Section 1. Amend title 29, Delaware Code by creating a new chapter 40 thereof, to read as follows:

Chapter 40. Development of electric power generation projects for state agencies.

Section 4001. Legislative findings.

The General Assembly finds as follows:

(1) State agencies compete directly with the citizens they serve in the purchase and use of electric energy resources.

(2) The cost of energy is a major element in the annual operating budget of state government, and due to a wide variety of factors not within the state’s control, subject to significant price fluctuations.

(3) State agencies own properties and facilities throughout the state that may prove feasible for the development and implementation of cost-effective, high efficiency electric energy resources using wind and/or solar power technologies.

(4) Delaware has long been in the forefront of developing alternative energy source technologies, especially with respect to solar power, and the private sector has also indicated that wind-generated electric power generation is also potentially feasible in the state.

(5) Therefore, the General Assembly declares that the state government should should investigate and, if appropriate, pursue development of cost-effective opportunities for electric power generation using wind and/or solar power technologies for existing or new state facilities.

Section 4002.  Lead agency.

The Office of Management and Budget (“Office”) established under Chapter 63A of this title shall:

            (a) assist state agencies in identifying, evaluating, and developing potential electric power generation projects using wind and/or solar power technologies at their facilities or other state-owned properties;

            (b) notify state agencies of their responsibilities under this chapter;

            (c) apprise them of opportunities to develop and implement such projects; and

            (d) provide technical and analytical support.

The Office shall recover costs for such assistance through written agreements, including reimbursement from third parties participating in such projects, for any costs and expenses incurred in providing such assistance.

Section 4003.  Feasibility studies.

(a) The Office shall identify priorities for electric power generation projects using wind and/or solar power technologies at state facilities or on other state-owned property, and, where such projects are initially deemed desirable by the Office and the appropriate state agency, the Office shall notify the local electric utility serving the state facility of its intent to conduct a feasibility study at such facilities or property locations. The Office shall consult with the local electric utility and provide the local electric utility an opportunity to participate in the development of the feasibility study for the state facility or state-owned property it serves.

(b) If the local electric utility has an interest in participating in the feasibility study, it shall notify the Office and the state agency whose facility or facilities it serves within sixty days of receipt of notification pursuant to (a) of this subsection as to the nature and scope of its desired participation. The Office, state agency, and local electric utility shall negotiate the responsibilities, if any, of each in conducting the feasibility study, and these responsibilities shall be specified in a written agreement.

(c) If a local electric utility identifies a potential electric power generation project using wind and/or solar power technologies at a state facility for which it intends to conduct a feasibility study, it shall notify the Office and the appropriate state agency. The Office, state agency, and local electric utility shall negotiate the responsibilities, if any, of each in conducting the feasibility study, and these responsibilities shall be specified in a written agreement. Nothing in this section shall preclude a local electric utility from conducting an independent assessment of a potential electric power generation project at a state facility or other state-owned property.

(
d) Agreements written pursuant to (a) and (b) of this subsection shall include a provision for the recovery of costs incurred by a local electric utility in performing a feasibility study in the event such utility does not participate in the development of the project. If the local electric utility does participate in the project through energy purchase, project development, or ownership, recovery of the utility's costs may be deferred or provided for through negotiation on agreements for energy purchase, project development, or ownership.

(e) If the local electric utility declines participation in the feasibility study, the Office and the state agency may receive and solicit proposals to conduct the feasibility study from other parties. Participation of these other parties shall also be secured and defined by a written agreement which may include the provision for reimbursement of costs incurred in the formulation of the feasibility study.

(f) The feasibility study shall include consideration of agency and local electric utility needs for power, the cost and certainty of fuel supplies, the value of electricity produced, the capability of the state agency to own and/or operate such facilities, the capability of electric utilities or third parties to own and/or operate such facilities, requirements for and costs of standby sources of power, costs associated with interconnection with the local electric utility's transmission system, the capability of the local electric utility to wheel electricity generated by the facility, costs associated with obtaining wheeling services, potential financial risks and losses to the state and/or state agency, measures to mitigate the financial risk to the state and/or state agency, and benefits to the state and to the state agency from a range of design configurations, ownership, and operation options.

(g) Based upon the findings of the feasibility study, the Office and the state agency shall determine whether an electric power generation project will be cost-effective and whether development of the project should be pursued. This determination shall be made in consultation with any third party that may have participated in the development of the feasibility study.

Section 4004. Electric power generation facility contracting.

(a) The Office may enter into contracts through competitive sealed proposals under Section 6924 of this title for the development, ownership, and/or operation of an electric power generation facility. In determining an acceptable bid, the department and the state agency may consider such factors as technical knowledge, experience, management, staff, or schedule, as may be necessary to achieve economical construction or operation of the project.

(b) The Office shall comply with the requirements of subchapter VI of chapter 69 of this title when contracting for engineering services relating to electric power generation facilities.

Section 4005. State ownership of electric power generation facilities.

(a) The state may own and/or operate an electric power generation facility using wind and/or solar power technologies at a state facility or on state-owned property, subject to the provisions of this section.

(b) No political subdivision of the state shall exercise any power, authority or jurisdiction over any such facility, including but not limited to the exercise of the police power or the exercise of the power of condemnation, without the consent of the Office and the affected state agency.

(c) Unless the electric power generation facility using wind and/or solar power technologies is determined to be cost-effective, based on the findings of the feasibility study, the Office and the affected state agency shall not pursue development of the project as a state-owned facility. If the project is found to be cost-effective, and the Office and the state agency agree that development of the electric power generation project should be pursued as a state-owned and/or operated facility, the Office shall assist the state agency in the preparation of a finance and development plan for the project. Any such plan shall fully account for and specify all costs to the state for developing and/or operating the project.

(d) It is the general intent of this chapter that electric power generation projects developed and owned by the state will reduce the cost to provide for the projected energy load of state agency facilities over the useful life of the projects. The principal purpose and use of such projects is to supply electric energy for state facilities, and not primarily to develop generating capacity for the sale of electricity. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to authorize any state agency to sell electricity on a retail basis.

So what do you think?

And as a matter of fact, I do know that I am a policy wonk. Why do you ask?

February 27, 2006
More fun with Rehoboth taxes

Two weeks ago I received an intriguing email from William Wan, a Washington Post reporter.

He’d read this blog and was doing some research on the City of Rehoboth Beach and its property tax issues, about which I have written a post or two.


    

    

Wan asked for an interview, and shortly thereafter we had a fine long conversation about this and that.

Among other things, I explained how the town exports some of its operating expenses to the tourists through its parking meters, and how new residents make an outsized initial contribution to the city’s coffers through the realty transfer tax, collected at settlement.

The result of this and other conversations Wan had with some other Rehoboth folks can be read in today’s Metro section of the Washington Post.

It's well written and worth reading, even if you're not from either Rehoboth or the DC area. In addition, here’s one passage that sounded really familiar:

For many years, the tax burden in Rehoboth -- a Hebrew word that means "room for all" -- has been exported to tourists and newcomers. The city makes more money annually through its summer-only parking meters than from property taxes.

Another leading contributor to city coffers has been Rehoboth's transfer tax on property sales . Three percent [actually 1.5%] of each property sale price goes to the city -- an especially significant sum as the city's newer mini-mansions and even its older, smaller cottages regularly sell for seven figures.

But although home values in some areas have tripled and quadrupled in the past decade, their assessed values in the city's financial books have largely stayed the same. The city still uses assessment formulas from 1968 -- when the median annual household salary was $7,743 and a gallon of gas sold for 34 cents, a time when a man walking on the moon was still a dream and the New York Jets had a shot at the Super Bowl.

"It's crazy. Everyone knows it's crazy," City Manager Greg Ferrese said. Walking along Rehoboth's boardwalk last week, he pointed out several beachfront mini-mansions and rattled off their tax bills and assessments.

"Something like this could go for up to $5 million today," Ferrese said, nodding toward a small mansion with a blue-tiled roof and glass windows all along its ocean-side view. The home last sold for $3.1 million in 2001, but as far as the city's concerned, it is still worth $143,680.

A startling graphic accompanies the article, showing the huge differential between the property taxes charged in Rehoboth and what is typically collected in the DC suburbs.

No wonder the newbies from the Capital region think they’ve found nirvana.


   

Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969
USA

fschranck-at-sneakingsuspicions.com


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