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POLITICS: PennAve

Big Ideas: On Elizabeth Warren, coal ash and the debt

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Taxes,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Student Loans,Budgets and Deficits,Elizabeth Warren,Think Tanks,Magazine,Coal Ash

Rob Bluey for the Heritage Foundation's The Foundry: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, says Congress should hike taxes on families and small businesses making more than $1 million, then use the tax revenue to let debt-ridden students refinance their college loans.

Speaking at the Center for American Progress ... Warren outlined a plan which, in order to lower the interest rate on student loans, would revive the proposed Buffett Rule. The tax hike, which has the support of President Obama, has stalled in Congress.

Warren estimated the measure would raise at least $75 billion and upwards of $100 billion. (Those figures are significantly higher than other estimates.) Under her plan, Warren said the tax revenue would be used to keep the student loan interest rate at 3.86 percent:

"Right now, in order to finance the United States government, we take in billions of dollars of profits for student loans, but permit billionaires to have enough loopholes that they pay at tax rates that can be lower than those of their secretaries.

"This is a straightforward choice: We can take $75 billion and either way we’ll use it to protect tax loopholes for billionaires or $75 billion can be used to help students to refinance their outstanding student loan debt. It’s billionaires or students."

Senate Democrats have repeatedly attempted to revive the Buffett Rule, which President Obama first proposed in 2011. (The measure is named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett.) If enacted, it would apply a 30 percent minimum tax rate to Americans with adjusted gross income of more than $1 million.

Heritage experts Curtis Dubay, a senior tax policy analyst, and Rea Hederman, director of the Center for Data Analysis, have debunked myths about the Buffett Rule, including those perpetuated by Warren in her recent speech. They note, for example, that families earning above $400,000 already pay an effective rate on all federal taxes of 29 percent. Furthermore, the top 10 percent of income earners pay 70 percent of federal income taxes.

 

ROADS THAT ARE CLEAR BUT NOT CLEAN

Joanna Foster for ThinkProgress: The months of relentless winter weather that have pummeled much of the nation have forced many communities to get creative when it comes to de-icing roads. With salt for roads in short supply, everything from beet juice to cheese brine is being used to help drivers stay in control on slippery streets — including coal ash.

That’s right, for years, cities and towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, and Colorado have sprayed the toxic waste on roads to combat winter ice and snow. Municipalities often get it for free from power plants who are eager to dispose of it somehow and it never seems to be in short supply.

Coal ash, the residue left over from burning coal to generate electricity, contains some very dangerous substances including arsenic, lead, mercury chromium, and cadmium. When coal ash washes from a road into a ditch or storm sewer it can leach toxic compounds into the water and soil.

According to the American Coal Ash Association, 256,000 tons of coal ash were distributed for use on roads in 2012.

Barb Gottlieb, director of environment and health for Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that using coal ash in this way “should be recognized as a problem.” She singled out chromium, for example, as a “very dangerous carcinogen” that is even more dangerous when wet.

EPA tests of the ash spread on roads have found that the concentration of arsenic varied wildly from 0.5 to 168 parts per million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers 3-4 ppm typical for uncontaminated soil.

 

DEBT REMINDER

William Gale and Alan Auerbach for TaxVox: Over the past few years, the long-term fiscal situation has improved. ...

Yet, the fiscal problem is not gone. First, ignoring projections for the future, the current debt-GDP ratio is far higher than at any time in U.S. history except for a brief period around World War II. While there is little mystery why the debt-GDP ratio grew substantially over the last six years — largely the recession and, to a smaller extent, countercyclical measures — today’s higher debt-GDP ratio leaves less “fiscal space” for future policy.

Second, while we clearly face no imminent budget crisis, our new projections suggest the 10-year budget outlook remains tenuous and is worse than it was last year, primarily due to changes in economic projections. ...

And, of course, fiscal problems worsen after the next 10 years. ... Nevertheless, under the most optimistic of the health care spending scenarios we employ, the debt-GDP ratio will rise to 100 percent in 2032 and 200 percent by 2054 and then continue to increase after that.

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