Thursday, October 11, 2012

Drug-Screen the Corporate-Welfare Queens!

Get this. States across the country are instituting drug screening as a condition for welfare benefits. You read that right. You want goodies at taxpayer expense? You have to prove you haven’t injected, ingested or inhaled any of the government-demonized plant products of the day. Private employers check for illicit drug use before hiring. Ought we not to demand the same of those feeding at the public trough?

Consider the great state of Michigan. Not so great lately: with unemployment hovering around 14 percent, plenty of Michiganders find themselves so feeding. To wit, 20 percent of residents are on food stamps, cash assistance or disability. The straining safety net and declining tax base have catapulted public debt. In 2010 dollars, the level of State debt per capita jumped from $724 in 1979 to $2,430 in 2010. Money set aside for unforeseen emergencies, which came to $1.2 billion in 2000, stands well-nigh depleted. According to the 2011 Citizen’s Guide to Michigan’s Financial Health, “At $2.2 million, the balance in the ‘Rainy Day Fund’ is not enough to cover government operations for 30 minutes.”    

Governor Rick Snyder and the State Legislature have responded by implementing a number of austerity measures, including changes in the tax treatment of pension and retirement benefits. (Unlike the federal government, the State of Michigan has no Federal Reserve to monetize its debts; it has no choice but to decrease spending or increase taxes.) Effective January 1, 2012, Michigan law requires pension trusts to withhold income tax on payments to all pension and annuity recipients born on or after January 1, 1946. These payments had been exempt. For those failing to file a Form MI W-4P, the Withholding Certificate for Michigan Pension or Annuity Payments, a default tax rate of 4.35 percent applies.

Tough times call for tough measures. For fixed-income residents of Michigan, the new tax law surely qualifies.

To be sure, austerity has not affected all Michigan residents equally. Take superstar first baseman Prince Fielder, who signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers in January—mere days after the new tax law took effect—for the princely sum of $214 million. He’ll not be collecting public assistance anytime soon! This is not to begrudge him the lucrative terms and conditions of his employment. Fielder brings scarce and much sought-after skills to the marketplace; professional baseball generates ample revenue to reward him for them.

Aside from that, nobody put a gun to Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch’s head. He freely entered into his contract with the slugger.

What’s that? Well, no, the same can’t be said about Michigan’s taxpayers, and yes, it so happens the State did put a gun to their heads, at Ilitch’s behest, to fund a capital development project for his enterprise some years earlier. You see, the Tigers’ owner collected a princely sum all his own, in 2000: a $189 million public subsidy to build a new ballpark for the Tigers. Money being fungible, the sweetheart deal freed up resources he could then apply toward payroll and other expenses. For all intents and purposes, the State extorted (“taxed”) funds from its beleaguered wage earners—washed-up pension analysts, beaten-down autoworkers, single moms waiting on tables—and transferred them to him, one of the richest men in the state.

He had those funds at his disposal when he negotiated the terms of Prince Fielder’s contract. In a very real sense, both of these fabulously wealthy men are beneficiaries of public largesse.

Now you might find this kind of Robin-Hood-in-reverse arrangement morally and fiscally troubling. You might discern better uses for $189 million in “public” expenditures. You might even deem sweetheart deals like this an egregious abuse of the public trust. But this only goes to show your woeful lack of imagination. For how can anyone put a price tag on the overriding public interest advanced by a new playground for millionaire baseball players and their billionaire employer?

Never mind that Detroit had a classic, cozy, historic, venerable and architecturally sound venue in Tiger Stadium.  Never mind that its successor, Comerica Park, is a tacky and soulless monstrosity.  Never mind that Mike Ilitch never had to pass a drug test to collect his $189 million welfare handout.  

The proposed law to drug-screen aid applicants can make quick work of all that. For the Tigers’ owner is now poised to send an edifying message to drug abusers and the growing legions of welfare recipients alike.

It can all start with a reenactment of Comerica Park’s 2000 groundbreaking ceremony. Governor Snyder can pass the ceremonial shovel to Ilitch, who can proceed to turn over the ceremonial first shovel-full of dirt. Then, amidst fanfare and ribbon-shearing, as the citizens of Michigan sing hosannas to the commissars’ boondoggle and the broken-window jobs created in its wake, a DEA agent can hand Ilitch a urine-specimen bottle and march him to a nearby port-a-johnnie. To add a salutary war-on-terrorism flavor to the extravaganza, a TSA officer can subject him to a freedom-fondle before he enters the commode.

Having peed all over the taxpayers of Michigan, Ilitch can then proceed to pee in the bottle. His 83 years notwithstanding, a clean drug screen is far from a foregone conclusion. By all accounts, the public teat imparts a heady nectar all its own.


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