Friday, July 7, 2017

AUBREY DUNN: BE HONEST AND DECENT WHEN TALKING ABOUT BEING HONEST AND DECENT

Progressives have been loud and clear in talking about Donald Trump’s competence and character—fair enough: competence and character count for a lot, if not everything, in assessing a political person.  But, when I analyzed the competence (proven) and the character (dubious) of Craig Fenske, a candidate for Supervisor of the Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District, in a widely circulated email, local Progressives refused to allow the same standard to be applied to one of their own.  Some responded with name-calling or trumped-up charges.  Las Cruces City Councilor Gil Sorg replied that I am a “jerk,” and Dael Goodman alleged that I had sent her “abusive emails.”  Others will have to decide whether I am a jerk, but I can say that one email nine months earlier telling Dael “no” to future emails from her is neither plural nor abusive.

So I know whereof State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn speaks when he writes a guest column “Despite political affiliation, human decency must prevail” (Bulletin, June 23).  I agree that we must be honest and decent in communications and not dehumanize others, whatever the differences of opinion.  But I could not square his preaching with his practice.  His column reminded me of an Ambrose Bierce definition of a Christian: “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

Dunn opens by mentioning the shooting of a Republican congressman at a baseball practice, continues by detailing some local episodes of shots fired through windshields and slashed tires, and reflects on their possible cause in “the overheated and dishonest rhetoric coming from the extreme progressive left toward conservative public officials.”  With no relevant facts, just paranoic imaginings, Dunn jumps to a political accusation; he ignores the fact that vehicle vandalism without political motive is a common occurrence in the area.  (With no relevant facts, just a perverse imagination, I might counter that the overheated and dishonest rhetoric coming from the extreme conservative right might have prompted an extreme conservative to such damage in order to blame those on the “extreme progressive left.”)  Dunn’s leap to a one-sided conclusion strikes me as neither honest nor decent.  And, as New Mexicans know, it was one of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s extreme conservative constituents who shot, wounded, and mentally maimed her for life—nothing so minor as windshield damage or a slashed tire.

Balance alone—would it not be honest and decent?—might have suggested to Dunn that extremists exist at both ends of the political spectrum.  Honesty and decency might have suggested that extremists should not be taken as representative of either side of the political spectrum; “extremists” are the new straw men of political rhetoric.  But only the “some who don’t respect the need for truthful debate and instead choose to target conservatives” get a mention—the “some” being those who are not “conservatives.”  Yet Dunn has no idea about “truthful debate” since, before it begins, he colors those who disagree with him as “extremists” and claims that “vitriol coming from the extremists toward conservatives” is affecting his decision to run for office.  Although he gives no evidence of extremist vitriol toward other conservatives or him, his words are evidence of his vitriol toward non-conservative opponents.

Dunn complains that Senator Heinrich, by endorsing Dunn’s rival, endorsed what he represents as his rival’s unsavory views on the standoff in Oregon at a federal wildlife refuge.  Dunn claims that his opponent characterized “a group of peacefully protesting ranchers in Oregon” as “Taliban-style terrorists and advocated the federal government taking deadly force against them with no due process.”  Dunn’s complaint is neither honest nor decent.

First, Dunn grossly misrepresents the group of ranchers and likely just as grossly misrepresents his rival’s words.  The group of ranchers in Oregon was not a group of Oregon ranchers or even of local residents.  They were not “peacefully protesting”; they were armed; they evicted employees from their wildlife refuge offices at gunpoint; they threated armed resistance if federal officers tried to arrest them; and one of them was shot and killed when he attempted to draw his weapon on federal officers.  By radically misrepresenting the facts about this episode of a violent, vigilante effort to seize public lands reveals values unworthy of a public servant and antithetical to the public interest.

Second, given Dunn’s misrepresentation of the physical facts of the episode, his claim that his rival urged deadly force and the denial of due process is suspect as improbable.  Dunn does not quote his rival’s words.  So we do not know what his rival’s words or views on this episode are, but they are not likely what Dunn claims them to be.  Dunn substitutes his words instead—a ploy which does not suggest honesty or decency.

Finally, Dunn drags Heinrich into his discussion in order to smear the Senator by association and an unsupported allegation that the senator, whom Dunn never quotes, uses “overheated rhetoric.”  Odds are, Heinrich had many reasons to endorse Dunn’s rival, and endorsing him does not mean endorsing every one of his views, even if, as is very doubtful, he knew them all and one or two were what Dunn says that they are.  Dunn’s gratuitous smear is more of what is neither honest nor decent about his rhetoric.


In this context, Dunn’s concluding “promise to stand up for honest debate” and his challenge to voters to support candidates and officials who “stick to the truth, [and] have honest discussions” demonstrate the hypocrisy of a candidate pseudo-heroically pretending to honesty and decency.  Dunn may know what they are, but he does not act as if he does by practicing what he preaches.  We do not need another partisan hypocrite of poisoned rhetoric like him in public office.  One and done is enough of Dunn.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

RAISING TAX REVENUES WITHOUT RAISING TAXES: NEW MEXICO DETERS OR DELAYS TO DENY AND RETAIN REFUNDS

New Mexico’s government combines incompetence and corruption to squander scarce resources and accelerate the State’s economic decline.  Its role in the economy is a joke blending the humor of Rube Goldberg contraptions like Spaceport and and the hilarity of pork-barrel boondoggles like tax giveaways to favored companies larger than the tax revenues from them or their employees.

Not a joke is New Mexico’s desperate, even criminal, device to generate operating revenues.  Its ploy, in the name of protecting against identity theft and fraud, is to impose unreasonable demands on those claiming tax refunds to discourage compliance and thereby allow the State to keep the taxpayers’ refunds.  A Taxation and Revenue Department (NMT&RD) letter to claimants writes, “Additional information is required for the Department to verify your income and identity before your refund request can be processed.”  In other words, no “required" information, no processing of the refund, ergo: no refund.  The letter further requires claimants, within two weeks of its date, to provide documents proving, not their income, but their withholdings, and their identity, both certified on their returns.  By questioning their honesty and identity, the NMT&RD insinuates perjury by claimants even as it hopes to generate a tax windfall for the State.

The one case known to me—newspaper articles make it clear that it is one among thousands of cases of delayed refunds, which experienced legislators know about and ignore—is that of my ex-wife, who lives in Albuquerque, works as a nurse from early morning to late afternoon or early evening, and used H. R. Block to prepare and electronically file her return requesting an electronic refund deposit.  She expected to get a refund in the usual way: file a return and have the refund deposited directly in her bank account.


Instead, she got a letter from the NMT&RD requiring her, like many other refund claimants, to provide documents proving their “income” and their “identity” within two weeks.  The deadline for compliance was unreasonably tight; NMT&RD made it tighter by internal delays.  Five days elapsed between the letter date and the envelope postmark; two more days effected delivery—that is, a lapse of one week.  So she had to deliver all required documents, only one of four optional, within the one remaining week.  There is no reason for such a short deadline, especially since NMT&RD wastes half the allotted time; it is simply its deliberate act of coercion to discourage or defeat compliance.

The proofs which NMT&RD requires have many deficiencies.  Among others, they are redundant, unreliable for their purported purpose, burdensome, or costly.  NMT&RD requires:

“To prove income”

“Copies of all W-2s, 1099s, and/or all other income source documents showing NM withholding.”  This requirement lies about its purpose, not to “prove income,” but to prove withholding.  It is duplicative; taxpayers attach W-2s, 1099s, etc., to their returns if they indicate withholdings.  Moreover, payers report withholdings to the state as well as to payees.  So NMT&RD has two different sources of this information to assess the taxpayers’ returns without requiring this paperwork.

“To prove identity”

“A copy of your driver’s license or identification card.”  Drivers’ licenses are not reliable proofs of identity; they are easily faked, and copies make it harder to detect fakes.  Since some taxpayers change addresses without updating them, the addresses on returns and on licenses might not match and would complicate the question of identity.  Some people without a license also lack an identification card; requiring one imposes a further delay and the cost of a fee ($18 for 4 years; $34 for eight years) against the amount of the refund.  So the copy of a driver’s license is not proof of identity, and an ID card imposes even more paperwork and more expense to acquire.

“A copy of your social security card.”  This requirement seeks a copy of a card frequently stolen (along with credit cards).  Taxpayers who keep their SS cards in a safe deposit box might have to take time (off from work) for a special trip.  So a copy of a social security card can prove little.

“Copies of documentation to verify bank account such as voided check, bank product summary (provided by tax preparer), if requesting direct deposit.”  This requirement is unnecessary because the return requests this information for direct deposit if the taxpayer wants it.  (If the tax return asks for this information, it can also ask for this documentation with the tax return.)

My ex scrambled to comply with these requirements.  The demands, the deadline, and the threat of delay or forfeiture took considerable time and energy, and caused considerable stress.  Failure was not an option; it meant forfeiting a high three-figure refund.  Her H. R. Block agent helped her meet the deadline and possibly avoid weeks of delay.  But my ex still expects a long wait.  I suspect many did not jump through these hoops on time or at all.

The deficiencies of these requirements make suspect the State’s rationale: identity theft and fraud.  The propensity of the Martinez administration to allege identity theft and fraud—remember those 64,000 cases of suspected—but never established—voter impersonation and the mental health agencies defrauding Medicare and Medicaid?—casts doubt on its claims of a large number of tax-related cases of identify theft or fraud, or a large amount of criminally obtained refunds.  Even more doubtful would be similar claims about electronically filed returns from established tax preparation firms.  If the NMR&TD has evidence of criminal cases of identity theft and fraud in tax refunds, it should reveal the size of the problem in terms of numbers and amounts.  Obviously, if it has many such cases, it must know how to detect them without help from taxpayers.

When I spoke with Tiffany Smyth, the “Taxpayer Advocate,” I expressed my concern about the State’s right to retain the refunds if the taxpayer does not provide the required documentation.  Ms. Smyth responded to my concern about retaining the refund by claiming that the State has the right to request information.  She is correct, but her answer evaded my question and amounts to a tacit admission of refund forfeiture in the absence of the “required” information.  State law permits the collection of information to protect against identity theft and fraud.  The website of the Tax Fraud Investigations Division states that it “has the authority to investigate any potential violation of state statute related to taxes.”  The over-reach of this authority is breath-taking and abusive, for NMT&RD can cast its net as widely as it wishes because every tax return, not only those claiming a refund, can be in “potential violation.”  It does cast its net widely and conducts tens of thousands of investigations (an AbqJ article reports 59,000 in 2015).  Yet most returns are complete and accurate; some are accidentally, arithmetically, or mistakenly erroneous and technically violative of the law; some are criminally violative of the law.

The question is on what basis should and does NMR&TD decide whose returns should and does it investigate.  Returns which under-report taxes owed are difficult to identify; returns which claim over-payment of taxes identify themselves.  Investigators appear more concerned with returns claiming a refund for several reasons.  One, it has no problem targeting them, for what is easy to identify is easy to target for investigation.  In the name of protecting everyone—the state and the taxpayer—against identity theft and fraud, it can and does impose requirements on claimants to get their refund back and can and does impose them widely (currently, about one in seven claimants).

Two, no other rationale for selection is clear in the large number of investigations.  The NMT&RD process resembles stop-and-frisk programs targeting minorities or dragnets to apprehend criminals in a larger population.  Like these unconstitutional practices, its process is an insult to the citizens of New Mexico.  I doubt the necessity, virtue, or benefit of randomly and factlessly challenging taxpayers’ honesty in light of their certification, under penalty of perjury, of the completeness and accuracy of their returns, which include original documentation and this information—especially since NMT&RD has data bases with relevant information, including many previous taxpayer’s previous returns to match against present returns.

Three, and most important, NMT&RD can and does use deficient requirements to discourage claimants from pursuing their refunds.  Such requirements intend to make second requests for refunds difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill or to prevent second requests altogether.  For taxpayers averse to dealing with government agencies or officials, unable to comply with multiple requirements in little time, or owed a small refund, the paper chase may not be worth the hassle and the hurdles.  So NMT&RD’s investigative process operates, not for its stated purposes, but for the purpose of raising tax revenues without the executive and legislative branches having to raise taxes.

This probability raises another and far graver question.  The NMT&RD may have the rights to investigate any “potential violation” and to require requests for information, but I doubt that it has the right to retain the refunds if taxpayers do not, for one reason or another or none at all, comply with the requirement.  Yet, in a recent email to me, Ms. Smyth, “Taxpayer Advocate,” clarified the NMT&RD’s authority: “If the department has requested additional information to verify identity and/or income and it is not provided by the date in the request, the refund will be denied.”  I am not a lawyer, but I am quite sure that investigative requirements are not laws, and, even if they were, they cannot justify retaining the refunds without some legal action.  NMT&RD retention presumes a criminal violation of a “state statute related to taxes,” but non-compliance with its requirements is not a criminal violation of such a law.  Its presumption to the contrary is a violation of the Fifth Amendment provision against deprivation of private property without due process of law.  Even more fundamentally, American law is based on the individual’s presumed innocence; the NMT&RD reverses this presumption and operates on the presumption of guilt, the only possible justification for retaining refunds.  In sum, the NMT&RD refusal to issue a refund to a claimant not compliant with its administrative requirements, however rationalized by its efforts to fight identity theft or fraud, does not comport with the Constitution.

I am not a lawyer, but New Mexico has lawyers; I am a sometime columnist, but the State has investigative reporters.  They should ask for a few documents: NMT&RD’s legal authority to investigate these matters, the legal or policy basis of its authority to retain refunds if investigative and administrative requirements are not met, all planning and budgetary documents related to anticipated revenues from forfeited refunds, and the identity of all officials associated with these decisions and documents.  They might investigate the rationale for, and performance of, a “Taxpayer Advocate” who seems to function as the State’s advocate to taxpayers.

A final word on the Solons of Santa Fe.  I have questions about what elected officials know about this racket and, if they do not know about it, why they do not.  The handful with whom I have discussed this situation have claimed ignorance of this ploy or concern about its basis in law, regulation, policy, or administrative rule.  I cannot believe in such universal ignorance; I can believe in universal deniability of complicity in a government-run extortion racket to exploit those owed refunds to prevent the discomfort of raising taxes.  I cannot believe that members of the House and Senate committees on finance and taxation read about delays in tax refunds and yet know nothing of NMT&RD’s collection-agency-like stiff-arming.  I cannot believe that Senior Solon John Arthur Smith, for example, really knows nothing about this abuse of taxpayers.  Notably, no one with whom I spoke, even a member of two of these committees, knows or identifies any responsible individuals.  Now there’s an ethics issue for squabbling and finger-pointing.  Meanwhile, ching, ching!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

DOES CHRISTMAS PLUS EASTER EQUAL CHRISTIANITY?

     American Protestant evangelism has become, once again, a subject of intense scrutiny and discussion.  A spate of articles has come to my attention in just the past week; no doubt, more will follow.  The one comment which most impressed me Alan Blinder reported in the 12 April issue of the New York Times.  In “For Alabama Christians, Governor Bentley’s Downfall Is a Bitter Blow,” he attempts to explain why evangelicals, despite disappointment caused by the failings of those whom they trust and support, do not abandon them and arm them against others like them in the future.  The answer includes, but extends beyond, the willingness to forgive sinners who talk the talk of repentance.  Blinder writes:

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians [at Auburn University].  “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become.  At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

This explanation by an ordained Baptist minister should be a reminder that not all evangelists are alike.  So when I write below of groups in unqualified terms, remember that I know that there are exceptions, but also remember that they prove the rule.

How extraordinary it is that the fundamental concerns of evangelicals are not the essentials of their faith, but church-congregation-held hateful feelings toward certain groups or individuals, and certain cultural, social, or political positions.  Most Protestants believe that the fundamental value of Christianity is love.  Yet many evangelicals who think themselves pious Christians hate according to their beliefs.  The question must be whether such an apparent inconsistency means that evangelicals are hypocrites.

The answer may be found in the earliest and still living creeds of Christianity.  Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds state the essentials of faith, which worshippers recite on Sundays.  Both begin and end in miracles, Jesus’ birth and death, celebrated at Christmas and Easter.  Neither has a middle; neither says anything about his life—preachings or practices—or about religious feelings or moral principles.  In the creeds, between Jesus’ birth and death is a vacuum.  In their statements of faith without regard to works, the creeds are suitably proto-Protestant.

Both creeds have great advantages for spreading Christianity: they are short, simple, and virtually culture-free.  When addressed to people in culturally diverse societies far from the Holy Land, the creeds overcame local religions with a message, not about morals, but about miracles, many similar to their religious myths.  The creeds thereby avoided impediments to conversion and conviction from advocating a moral message which might be attractive in one society might be repulsive in another.

But both creeds also have the great disadvantage of defining nothing about Christian belief or conduct for living as Christians in this world and in this life.  They prescribe or proscribe nothing except faith in the miracles and their theological meanings.  In their middle is a hollowness, which institutions or individuals fill according to preference.  Most Protestants believe that love—human, divine, both—is fundamental to Christian belief and conduct.  So they supplement the vacuum with love, which they believe to be the central moral message of Jesus and Paul, the message of the former more about loving one another, of the latter more about loving God or Jesus.  Ah, love: it conquers all, it means all things to all people, it means different things to different people, it is little or no guidance at all.

Evangelists supplement the vacuum differently, with specific positions which their denomination or congregation accepts or rejects as appropriate in their community and deems right in Christian lives.  Evangelical groups label positions on cultural, social, or political issues as Christian or not; regard them as fundamental to right Christian living, and advocate and act accordingly.  So they support charities and the State of Israel, and hate people and hate positions which their groups have decided on other than Christian grounds are un- or anti-Christian.

Unlike most Protestants, evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Bible in matters of historical truth and moral guidance.  However, they have no Biblical texts to support their hostility to liberals and Obama or opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage.  Only by interpreting the text, not as literalists, but as activists, can evangelists stretch a ruling awarding compensation for the damage of an accidentally induced miscarriage, to cover abortions.  And only by accepting “abomination,” a mistranslation of the Hebrew word in Leviticus “toevah,” meaning an unacceptable cultic practice of non-Jews, like eating pork or shellfish, can they justify opposition to and outrage at same-sex marriage, and ignore recent moral and religious thinking about love and marriage.

A charge of using double, shifting, or self-serving standards of interpretation in such cases is one thing; a charge of hypocrisy in making fundamental to Christianity hate-felt positions on these and other modern issues is another.  Traditional Protestants put one filling between the bread-of-miracles sandwich slices; evangelicals put another.  Since the foundational creeds of the Christian faith say nothing about emotions or morals, only about beliefs essential to individual salvation, traditionalist Protestants and evangelicals have different tastes in Christianity, not different faiths; not one true, the other false.  With its creeds but without a code of conduct, Christianity asserts that, for God, all things are possible; and, for Jesus, all things are permissible.  Since Jesus’ love for each true believer in these creeds is unconditional, Jesus forgives anything and everything.  Thus, the believer’s motives and conduct—hate and love, and the actions which they motivate—are irrelevant to his or her salvation.  So, however one lives one life, if faith alone justifies, salvation is likely if one truly believes in the creedal essentials of faith.


To those doubtful of, disillusioned by, or departed from Christianity, Protestantism, traditional or evangelical, provides contradictory possibilities, not consistent principles and practices, for living a meaningful religious life.  Celebrating Christmas and Easter is not enough; Protestantism must be more than the sum of its major holidays.