Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Pinning Romney down on taxes

Steven Brill
Jul 19, 2012 21:23 UTC

The press is missing a trick in continuing to ask Governor Romney only whether he’s going to release more than his most recent tax returns. That allows him to say either yes or no (for now, it’s no), which produces no information. So no news gets made. But there are lots of other ways to get at the Romney tax issue by asking him a variety of different questions, for which even a refusal to comment would be news.

All these questions should begin with something like this: “Governor, we know you feel that releasing additional tax returns will invade your privacy and that of your family and, as you have asserted, allow the Obama campaign to pick through thousands of pages and come up with more distortions and half-truths. So if you are not going to release the returns, could you just tell us this:

Reporters could then choose from among these follow-on questions:

1. In the last 10 years have you ever paid less than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income in federal income taxes? If you don’t know offhand, could you ask your accountant to tell us? (On different days reporters could substitute 7 percent, 5 percent or 2 percent as the benchmark.)

2. Governor, in the last 10 years what is the highest tax rate you have paid? If you don’t know, could you ask your accountant to tell us?

3. Governor, could you ask your accountant simply to release the percent tax of your adjusted gross income you paid in each of the last 10 years? Or could he simply release the two pages of your form 1040 for each year, but to preserve your privacy redact everything on all pages except your signature and line 37 (adjusted gross income) and line 61 (total tax owed); we will calculate the percentages.

Soaring college costs and the Penn State private plane

Steven Brill
Jul 17, 2012 12:41 UTC
1. How high are universities flying?

I was amazed to see this sentence in the piece the New York Times’s ever-amazing Jo Becker wrote last week about all the goodies outgoing Penn State football coach Joe Paterno negotiated in a new contract even as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was imploding around him: “He would also have the use of the university’s private plane…”

Penn State has a private plane? Sure, the school probably charters a jet when the team travels. But do the university executives have their own jet? How many other universities have perks like this?

As this article from Bloomberg.com documents, the relentless rise in higher education tuition and other costs has trapped students in debt from readily available student loans backed by us taxpayers. It is fast becoming a national scandal akin to the mortgage crisis. Which means we need some tough, fresh reporting finally holding university leaders accountable for spending and management efficiency.

The tax man who could change the 2012 campaign

Steven Brill
Jun 26, 2012 13:00 UTC

1. The IRS bureaucrat who could upend the campaign finance money flow:

Here’s an idea for a story about an obscure government bureaucrat whose decisions could have a major impact on the 2012 elections and on the entire issue of campaign finance reform going forward.

As this article in Roll Call, the Washington weekly, reports, there is increasing controversy surrounding super PAC-like groups that fashion themselves as coming under the Internal Revenue Service’s 501(c)(4) classification as a “social welfare organization.” Under IRS rules, 501(c)(4)’s are not only tax-exempt but also don’t have to disclose their donors. This means that they can spend unlimited sums on political advertising – including corporate contributions, following the Citizens United decision – but unlike super PACs, they can do so while keeping the sources of the money completely secret.

That’s why many of the big super PACS, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads – which are simply non-profits that engage fully and unabashedly in political activity but must disclose donors – operate companion 501(c)(4)’s that can take undisclosed donations. In the case of Rove’s super PAC,  the companion 501(c)(4) is called Crossroads GPS.

A hidden Gulf economy, Romney’s old taxes, and patent wars

Steven Brill
Mar 6, 2012 13:15 UTC

1. An underground economy in the Gulf?

I was interested to read these paragraphs in a recent New York Times story about the processing of claims being made by victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; pay special attention to the part I have underlined:

Glenn Poche, a shrimper, said he had lost 90 percent of his retail business. Despite official assurances that seafood pulled from the Gulf of Mexico is safe, many of his customers “want to wait a couple more years” to be sure….

Diane Poche, Glenn Poche’s wife, said she had received $30,000 from the fund — “just a little drop in the bucket of what we’ve lost” — but her claims for more had been refused, she said, her voice rising. “I sent in paperwork over two inches thick!”

Super PAC cash, immigration rules, and Businessweek’s revival

Steven Brill
Feb 28, 2012 13:57 UTC

1. The business of super PACs:

With super PACS having altered the dynamics of federal campaigns, it’s time for a look at how they’ve changed the fortunes of political consultants, pollsters and others who feed off of campaign money. With the cash flow this Republican primary season shifting from political organizations run by the candidate to independent — or at least ostensibly independent — entities, giving them much more money than the campaigns themselves, has the talent followed the dollars? Wouldn’t pollsters or ad-makers rather work for an organization with $100 million to spend than one with $10 million? And how do the people who run these super PACs get paid? How do the IRS rules governing the finances of non-profit entities apply to super PACs? Can someone like Karl Rove take a cut of the tens of millions he’s raised and dispensed for America’s Crossroads the way private equity funds take management fees? Who decides how much Rove or other super PAC executives or staffers make? Articles like the one in Sunday’s New York Times have pointed out the overlaps among staffers. So who ferrets out conflicts if, for example, someone running a super PAC steers business to his or her ad agency or consulting or polling firm?

2. Rick Santorum’s father and a Mexican laborer: A tale of two immigrants

I doubt that I’m the only one who doesn’t know the basics of America’s immigration laws and rules, despite the fact they have become a staple of current political debate. For example, whenever I hear Rick Santorum talk about how his father, Aldo, was an immigrant from Italy who came to the United States in 1930, I wonder if he came in legally and, if so, under what rules. I assume Aldo Santorum couldn’t simply pick up and come here today from Italy, right? (I wondered the same thing about Rudy Giuliani when he ran for president in 2008.)

My curiosity was piqued by a recent editorial in the Washington Post that took President Obama and all of his would-be Republican opponents to task for saying that illegal immigrants should “get to the back of the line” in applying for citizenship. In fact, the Post pointed out, when it comes to most illegal immigrants, there is no line — and no possibility of applying for citizenship. As the Post explained, “a large majority of the 11 million illegal immigrants are unskilled or low-skilled Mexicans [who] have no relatives over age 18 who are either U.S. citizens or permanent residents in possession of green cards,” and that would make them ineligible for visas, let alone citizenship status.

Scoring healthcare insurers and getting campaign spending right

Steven Brill
Feb 21, 2012 13:53 UTC

1. When health insurers say no:

Like probably every other family in America, ours regularly has claims we submit to our health insurer rejected — with little or no explanation and no recourse from the company’s always-on-hold telephone hot line. Yet lately I’ve been seeing ads from health insurers projecting friendly, caring images. My favorite is the television and print campaign from United HealthCare featuring a girl who develops asthma but is shown swimming and even surfing because United, which sells insurance under the Oxford and other brands, has gotten her “specialists, lots of doctors, lots of advice…that help her pediatrician coordinate your child’s care and make sure all doctors are on the same page….” The ad trumpets United’s “more than 78,000 people looking out for 70 million Americans. That’s HEALTH IN NUMBERS,” the ad concludes.

Speaking of numbers, what percentage of customer claims for medical care or prescription drugs does United HealthCare reject? How does that compare with its competitors? Why can’t some reporters ask?

A cursory search on Google turns up little more than a 2009 Huffington Post piece reporting that: “Data on how often insurance claims are denied — and for what reasons — is collected and analyzed by the insurance companies themselves. But except in California, the companies aren’t required to provide those records to any state or federal agency.” The article quotes Karen Pollitz, a professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, as saying: “The number is knowable, but not known by regulators or policy makers or patients.”

Romney’s ads, the Komen firestorm, and a Foxconn book

Steven Brill
Feb 14, 2012 12:53 UTC

1. Tracking Romney’s ad buys:

Look at the remaining Republican primary calendar dates and the candidates’ respective strengths and do the math: There are certain states where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich seem to have the best chance later this winter and spring (assuming one or both stay in the race) of winning enough delegates to deny Mitt Romney the majority he needs to lock up the nomination before the convention. These include Georgia (76 delegates, Super Tuesday – Mar. 6), Ohio (66 delegates, Super Tuesday) Tennessee (58 delegates, Super Tuesday), Alabama (50 delegates on Mar. 13), Texas (a huge 155 delegates on Apr. 3), Pennsylvania (72 delegates on Apr. 24), and California (an enormous 172 delegates on June 5).

Here’s an angle on these contests that could provide not only a heads-up on where the most dramatic showdowns might occur but also another dimension to the story of how outside money and negative ads have pretty much taken over the process: Some smart political reporting unit should be bird-dogging the ad sales people for local television stations in markets in those states, looking to find out if the Romney campaign and allied super PAC are buying enough ad time right now to carry out against Santorum or Gingrich the same kind of carpet bombing they did in Florida, where a reported $15.3 million ad buy buried Gingrich.

Following the scare produced by the loss in South Carolina, the Romney team proved in Florida that it could and would spend whatever it takes to snuff out the strongest not-Romney contender. To take one example of what it would mean for Romney to use that formula in upcoming contests, it costs more to blanket Texas with ads than it does Florida, and there is a longer run-up to that race than there was between South Carolina and Florida. That could translate into an ad spend of $40 million or $50 million across the Lone Star State.

The Dodd-Frank effect, unions and private equity, and Newt’s expenses

Steven Brill
Jan 31, 2012 13:19 UTC

1. The Dodd-Frank effect: Good, bad or both?

Although the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the mega-agency created by the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill, has only been in existence for about six months, all of the Republican presidential candidates and GOP congressional leaders have slammed the agency and called for its abolition. Their central charge is that the regulations it has already promulgated are strangling the financial system and disabling banks from making the kinds of loans to small businesses and potential homeowners that would reignite the economy.

For example, in the Jan. 23 Republican presidential debate Mitt Romney said he had spoken to a banker in New York who said he had “hundreds of lawyers” tied up trying to navigate the new regulations.

Some sophisticated financial reporter, or team of reporters, needs to dig into that – with specifics. What exactly is the new agency requiring that is gumming up the works? What new rules are drawing the most persuasive complaints? How burdensome are they? How many lawyers and others are actually involved who were not working on the same types of regulations before? What abuses are the new rules intended to prevent? Which ones, if any, really do seem indefensible and which ones, if any, seem smartly crafted and worth the extra burden?

More primary math, Boeing’s second chance, and DHS mission creep

Steven Brill
Jan 24, 2012 13:50 UTC

1. Time to look at the late primary states and “favorite son” rules:

Two weeks ago, I suggested a story examining how the new rules requiring more proportional representation in awarding Republican primary and caucus delegates might force a deadlocked or brokered convention, because they could prevent even a front-runner like Mitt Romney from arriving in Tampa with the necessary majority of delegates even if he wins an overwhelming majority of the state contests. With it looking likely at least for now that Romney may not even be able to rely on winning most of the primaries and caucuses, the probability that a majority will elude all candidates seems higher.

So it’s time for stories about the rules and the candidates’ prospects in the large states with nominating contests that come after Florida and even after the much-heralded Super Tuesday on Mar. 6. For example, Texas, Maryland and Wisconsin come on Apr. 3 – and will award more than twice the delegates at stake in the four contests held through next week’s Florida primary. New York and Pennsylvania happen on Apr. 24; Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia are on May 8; and California and New Jersey, among others, are on Jun. 5.

I’m looking for a story that explains, among other things, the rules regarding delegates pledged to one candidate being shifted to another. To take the obvious example, if Rick Santorum builds up even a modest number of delegates that could put someone else over the top, to what extent could he persuade them to move to Gingrich or Romney? (Suppose one of them hints at the vice-presidential spot for him.) If Santorum could deliver delegates to Gingrich, then the notion of him having to drop out to help Newt overcome Romney would be wrong; it would be better to have two anti-Romney flavors out there to choose from for a while.

Campaign questions, the world’s worst government agency, and medical lobbies

Steven Brill
Jan 17, 2012 14:28 UTC

1. Mitt’s tax bracket:

Note to television producers or editors about to do interviews with Mitt Romney on the campaign trail: The tax rate for the lower-middle class and middle class (joint filers earning roughly $17,000 to $70,000) is 15%. So any of your reporters doing an interview with Romney should ask him if he paid more than 15% of his total income in federal income taxes last year, or more than 25% — the bracket for income from $70,001 to $142,700.

Because of preferential treatment of capital gains, of “carried interest” income earned by people in the private equity business, and of money derived from offshore investments, as well as other tax breaks, there’s a good chance that Romney didn’t pay at a rate of 25% or even 15%. Be sure to use “total income” in the question, which would be Romney’s income before taking deductions for many of the tax breaks not available to average wage earners. Update: Shortly after this column was published, Romney was asked precisely this question, and told reporters that he paid “closer to the 15% rate than anything.”

Romney’s likely answer, based on what he has said so far, will be that he has not decided to release his tax returns but that he may do so later.

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