Last December, Amtrak train number 527 approached a track switch near Davis, California, where the speed limit was 40 mph. The engineer roared through at 78 mph, jerking the train violently and causing five passengers to suffer injuries. The Federal Railroad Administration let Amtrak conduct its own investigation, and as one passenger told reporters, the tax-funded rail system was “refusing transparency on what could have been a catastrophic incident.” Amtrak conceded a “speed violation” but did not name the engineer who “lost situational awareness” and “did not recognize the action to be taken.” Amtrak submitted employee discipline “assessments” but has yet to reveal if any employee was in fact disciplined. A ballpark figure would be zero. Amtrak employees, including engineers, belong to government employee unions and government bosses protect them at all costs.
In May 2015 near Philadelphia, engineer Brandon Bostian hurtled Amtrak 188 through a 50-mph curve at a full 106 mph, more than twice the limit. The train derailed, killing eight people and injuring 200. The National Transportation Safety Board explained that Bostian was distracted by radio reports of another train being struck by a projectile. Bostian sued Amtrak for failing to provide a safe environment and charged that his train “was under attack by projectiles,” which caused him to be “disoriented.” Injured victims could be forgiven for dismissing that as nonsense. Nobody in Amtrak management appears to have lost their job over the derailment but the lack of safety is not the only problem.
As we noted, Amtrak is a certified money-loser, despite massive subsidies from the federal government. From 2002 to 2012 Amtrak lost $834 million on food and drink services alone, much of it due to fraud and theft. Republicans have talked about halting subsidies and privatizing the system but ended up increasing Amtrak’s funding by $384 million.
Privatized passenger rail, Gabriel Roth explains, would likely have a better safety record because management would spend money more wisely. For example, Positive Train Control can prevent excessive speed but despite a 2008 Amtrak mandate, PTC was never installed on the busiest routes. Amtrak 188 didn’t have PTC and neither did Amtrak 527.
“Getting government out of the rail passenger business,” Roth notes, “would free management to align service with passenger demand, and focus on quality and safety, rather than satisfying political constituencies.”
With the April deadline looming, taxpayers might ponder the prospects of filing a return in which they fail to account for millions of dollars. As it happens, that is the case with a California tax agency. According to Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, who is now state controller, the BOE misallocated $47.8 million in retail sales tax to the state’s general fund. The BOE now awaits a new audit from the state department of finance, but some of the details have already emerged in news reports.
The BOE still cannot account for the misallocation of tens of millions in tax revenue but it seems some BOE bosses have been spending public funds on events described as “education and outreach.” The BOE boasts more than 4,000 employees and its “external affairs department” deploys staff all over the state, supposedly to promote tax policy and increase public awareness. Last year the BOE member Diane Harkey sponsored a “connecting women to power” conference that cost $189,000 and included sessions such as “desk yoga,” not exactly related to taxes. In similar style, BOE member Jerome Horton has reassigned state employees to work for him and staged events not in line with the agency’s mission. As we noted, BOE members have used public funds to promote themselves and dished out raises to high-level management without performance reviews.
By any standard, the BOE deserves a spot on a California “Corruptour” modeled on one in Mexico City. Trouble is, the BOE headquarters in Sacramento, purchased from CalPERS for $80.7 million in 2007, remains plagued with falling glass, toxic substances and other defects that have cost $60 million. The building has earned a reputation as the “Terror Tower” and “bottomless money pit.” So if taxpayers swing by they should wear their hard hats and ponder this reality.
Like other stops on the Corruptour such as the Coastal Commission and the state stem cell agency, the BOE is not necessary. As veteran Sacramento observer Dan Walters explains, “real reform would be to abolish the board entirely” and fold it into a single Department of Revenue. This won’t happen “because it would mean abolishing offices that legislators themselves yearn to fill.” At the BOE they never “equalize” anything but they always waste taxpayers’ money.
According to the latest estimates, it will cost Californians upwards of $64 billion to build the bullet train envisioned by Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s legislature. That’s money that they don’t have today, but if they did, that’s also a lot of money that could be put to work to do more things that most Californians might rather have than a bullet train, albeit one that might run at speeds as high as 220 miles per hour between San Jose and Bakersfield, sometime more than a decade from now.
The California Policy Center’s Ed Ring describes what Californians are being compelled into giving up for Governor Brown’s dream of a train that would compete with higher speed commercial air traffic.
California’s High-Speed Rail project fails to justify itself according to any set of rational criteria. Its ridership projections are absurdly inflated, its environmental benefits are overstated if not actually net detriments, and its cost, its staggering cost, $64 billion by the latest estimate, overwhelms anyone with even a remote sense of financial proportions. To make this final point clear, here is an assortment of California infrastructure projects that could be paid for with a $64 billion budget.
If these projects were built, instead of the bullet train, Californians would have abundant, cheap electricity, abundant fresh water, and upgraded roads and freeways capable of handling all the traffic a surging economy could possibly dish out.
Here’s the list:
(1) Build 10 natural gas power plants generating 6.2 gigawatts of electrical output for $5.7 billion.
(2) Build plants to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet of seawater per year, supplying 1/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $15 billion.
(3) Build plants to reclaim and reuse 2.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, supplying 2/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $10 billion.
(4) Build the Sites Reservoir for $4.4 billion.
(5) Build the Temperance Flats Reservoir for $3.3 billion.
(6) Widen and resurface every major interstate (and then some) in the entire state. ($15.4 billion).
(7) Fix the Potholes. ($10.2 billion).
Together, these seven major projects would positively affect the lives of millions of Californians more than who might ever ride the state’s frequently delayed bullet train project.
For a drought-stricken state with so much of its public infrastructure in horrible condition and an electrical power grid subject to so many rolling blackouts, can Californians really afford the bullet train its politicians are choosing to prioritize over these other kinds of public projects that would provide greater benefits to more of the state’s residents?
After the 2016 election, California governor Jerry Brown showed signs of early onset Trump Derangement Syndrome, pledging resistance and warning that California would “launch its own damn satellite” if President Trump backed off on climate research. On his trip to Washington this week, Brown toned down the defiance and held out the begging bowl.
The governor met with the heads of the federal Department of Transportation and FEMA to follow up requests for nearly $540 million in disaster relief for recent storm damage and nearly $650 million for a Bay Area rail project. Brown will also hit up the Trump Administration for more than $100 billion in infrastructure spending. “One way or another the roads must be fixed,” Brown said, and with all the money Trump wants to spend on defense and a border wall, “how do we then take care of our roads, our bridges, our dams and all the other things we have to deal with?” California taxpayers have a right to wonder how their recurring governor is doing on all that.
As Lawrence McQuillan observed last year, and as any motorist can easily verify, most of California’s 50,000 miles of highways are in terrible shape. The responsibility for maintenance lies with CalTrans, the huge state transportation agency with “a history of wasting taxpayer money, while at the same time demanding more funding.” Governor Brown has been uncritical of the CalTrans bosses who supervised the new span of the Bay Bridge. That came in ten years late and $5 billion over budget, and the bridge to no accountability, built with cheap Chinese steel, remains riddled with corrosion, faulty welds and such. Whistleblowers called for a criminal investigation but neither Brown nor attorney general Kamala Harris followed up on that. When apprised of the bridge’s safety issues, Brown famously said, “I mean, look, shit happens.”
The governor toned down a bit in the wake of the Oroville Dam spillway disaster this winter. State engineers knew all along the spillway was unreliable but did nothing. “I’m glad we found out about it,” Brown said, after nearly 200,000 people had to be evacuated. “We live in a world of risk. Stuff happens and we respond.” Not very well, taxpayers might say, on dams, roads and bridges and “all the other things we have to deal with.”
Every year for the past four years at least 40 billion dollars has gone to waste because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has declined to audit its own expenditures to ensure that unintentional medical billing errors are caught and corrected.
That is a stunning claim being advanced by Kristin Walters of The Council for Medicare Integrity in a recent op-ed in The Hill, who notes that the CMS has the tools it needs to stop the waste, but has chosen to not use them.
Medicare wastes more taxpayer dollars than any other program government-wide, with more than $40 billion lost annually. It’s outrageous that the federal government allows such rampant wasteful spending to persist while it is in dire need of funding to bolster important healthcare programs—whether to extend full Medicare coverage, improve health services for veterans or extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
We’re not talking about Medicare fraud here, that’s accounted for separately. The loss of $40 billion each year is due purely to rampant billing mistakes—coding errors, double billing, upcoding—issues that could be easily caught and corrected. In fact, over the past four years these billing errors have drained more than $166 billion from the Medicare Trust Funds....
Interestingly, the ability to stop the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars from the Medicare FFS program exists, is in place and has been tested—it’s just barely being used.
After seeing its success in the private sector, Congress mandated the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) Program in 2009 to review post-payment Medicare FFS claims, identify improper payments and return misbilled funds back to the program. Since the RAC Program began, more than $10 billion has been returned to the Medicare Trust Funds, all while auditing a mere 2 percent of a provider’s claims.
Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) scaled back the RAC program, allowing auditors to only review 0.5 percent of a Medicare provider’s claims—essentially green-lighting the continued loss of tens of billions of dollars from the program each year.
The Council for Medicare Integrity is a Washington, D.C., lobbying group backed by firms that perform the recovery audits, so its view may be somewhat one-sided.
Virgil Dickson of Modern Healthcare reported on the outcome of the CMS’s decision to significantly scale back its audits of medical billings in December 2016, after the Medicare and Medicaid programs overseers issued their annual report to the U.S. Congress:
The report, which covered the federal government’s fiscal 2015, noted a dramatic slide in the amount of money returned to Medicare’s trust fund due almost entirely to the government’s temporary prohibition of auditing inpatient hospital claims....
Emily Evans, a health policy analyst at Hedgeye Risk Management, independently tracks the RAC program and said the “significant reduction in the scope and the scale of the RAC program are a result of poor oversight and execution of the RAC program by CMS.”
In addition to the CMS’ decision to prohibit inpatient reviews, Evans believes the stops and starts to the program as well as the slow re-procurement throughout 2016 hurt improper payment corrections.
CMS appears to have made its decision to limit the actions by RACs to recover improper payments in part because of a surge of appeals filed by hospitals, which have created such a huge backlog of appeals to challenge audit findings that a federal judge ordered CMS to take action to clear the over 800,000 cases filed by hospitals by the end of 2020.
In typical bureaucratic fashion, it appears that CMS has opted to suspend and restrict new recovery audits that might reduce significant waste, rather than improve its ability to address the appeals in a more timely manner, or to take more positive actions that would minimize the incidence of medical billing errors in the first place. The interests of U.S. taxpayers and Medicare patients, who would benefit from the reduced risk of being overbilled, don’t appear to be of high priority to CMS officials, and as a result the U.S. government is needlessly racking up expenditures of $40 billion a year more than what it should have to pay for what it is actually getting for its money.
But that’s just small change in the grand scheme of the bureaucrats’ cost of doing business.
As we noted, California’s troubled Victims Compensation Board will reportedly provide $4 million for the victims of the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino. The backstory here is that these seriously injured government workers have become victims of government agencies.
“The problems started when San Bernardino County placed the terror victims into California’s Workers’ Comp System,” Matt Sawicki reported for Fox News last month. “Many survivors then had their claims repeatedly denied or modified.”
Terrorist Tashfeen Malik shot Valerie Weber twice, leaving her with a paralyzed arm and shattered pelvis. “I have to fight for treatments all doctors and surgeons say I need,” Weber told reporters. “Everyone was saying I need this, and yet my claim was sent to utilization review and being denied.”
This and other cases, such as Amanda Gaspard, shot multiple times, prompted an investigation. The county acknowledged the denials and called for “better communication” to claims administrators. San Bernardino County Board chairman, Robert A. Lovingood claimed “the county has worked hard and effectively to ensure safe, and complete care” for the injured employees and that has been “the county’s priority since that fateful day.” Based on their experience, San Bernardino injured victims don’t think so, and some have even petitioned President Trump for help.
San Bernardino is not the only case of government failing to provide terror victims with the medical treatment they need. In November, 2009, U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist, killed 13 and wounded more than 13 at Fort Hood, Texas. Nidal shot unarmed sergeant Alonzo Lunsford once in the head and six times in the body. The Army, following President Obama’s view that this was “workplace violence” and not terrorism, refused to cover an operation to remove a bullet. “Each one of us has gotten a raw deal somewhere down the line,” Lunsford told reporters.
Meanwhile, California’s Workers Comp system seemed to work well when Lt. John Pike, the cop who in 2011 pepper-sprayed students at UC Davis, claimed damage to his “psyche” and got a settlement of $38,055. On the other hand, when it comes to serious physical injuries the system does not work so well. The San Bernardino terrorist attack victims have learned that government’s proclaimed priorities can easily fail to match government performance.
Since President Trump released his “skinny” budget last week, there has been a lot of political posturing, if not outright hysteria in the media, from the advocates of the various government programs targeted for reduced levels of federal spending. And perhaps more remarkably, there have been widespread accusations of spending cuts where none have even been suggested. Legal Insurrection details a list of media organizations whose fact checking skills were apparently not put to use on a hyped story where all the facts about President Trump’s discretionary spending proposals are a matter of public record.
For example, New York Magazine has an article entitled, “White House Says Cutting Meals on Wheels is ‘Compassionate’,” Rolling Stone has one entitled “Meals on Wheels Seniors Respond to Trump: Cut Something Else,” the BBC writes that “Meals on Wheels cut back prompts backlash,” and Slate declares that “Trump’s budget director says Meals on Wheels sounds great but doesn’t work.”
The problem with these and the many other such headlines is that Trump is not cutting, and is certainly not eliminating, Meals on Wheels.
In an article headlined “Here’s the truth about Meals on Wheels in Trump’s budget“, USA Today‘s Gregory Korte reports on the origins of the story:
President Trump’s first budget proposal to Congress last week specifically identified steep cuts to hundreds of domestic programs, but Meals on Wheels wasn’t one of them.
The popular program—which mainly uses volunteer drivers to provide hot meals to older Americans across the country—doesn’t directly receive federal funding. As Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters Thursday, “Meals on Wheels is not a federal program.”
Nevertheless, Meals on Wheels quickly became the poster child for the impact of Trump’s budget cuts. Even before the budget’s release, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., tweeted that Trump had called for the “elimination” of Meals on Wheels, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus quickly dubbed it the “Starvation Budget.”
The involvement of partisan lawmakers brings an old saying about the rule of law to mind:
The Rule of Law:
1. If the facts are against you, argue the law.
2. If the law is against you, argue the facts.
3. If the facts and the law are against you, yell like hell.
The wide propagation of the phony Meals on Wheels budget cut story in the media suggests that Rule #3 is now in effect, where the loudest voices are demonstrating to their supporters just how far they’ll fight to prevent any imaginary budget cuts, no matter how imaginary they might be!
Bloomberg‘s Megan McArdle reflects on the politically inspired hysterical reaction to date and suggests the reason for why those who have become so angry and hysterical are now desperately yelling like hell.
The reaction to Trump’s budget has been, let us say, loud, with headlines blaring about cuts to poverty programs and social media going viral with angry denouncements of the White House budget chief who proclaimed that cutting meals on wheels was compassionate ... to taxpayers. There have been some problems with these analyses, starting with the fact that the Meals on Wheels allegation was not, well, true. But broadly this is correct: the proposed budget does represent a fairly substantial transformation of government spending priorities.
Indeed. Just imagine how much more hysterical the reaction would be if any real net spending cuts for the discretionary portion of the U.S. government’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget had been proposed. The very earth below Washington, D.C., might have cracked open and the whole city sunk into the Potomac River from all the politically motivated and phony outrage.
Maybe next year.
President Trump wants to cut the budget of the federal Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, from $8.2 billion to about $5.7 billion, a reduction of $2.6 billion and more than 3,000 positions. The proposed cuts have drawn attacks from politicians, the old-line establishment media, and regulatory zealots. For their part, taxpayers might keep a few realities in mind.
As an inspector general testified in 2013, the powerful EPA displays “an absence of even basic internal controls,” as confirmed by the case of EPA “policy advisor” John Beale. Beale claimed he also worked for the CIA, but nobody at the EPA bothered to check. That enabled Beale to take more than two years off, with full pay, claiming to be in London, India and Pakistan when he was actually kicking back at his vacation home. Beale pulled off his CIA ruse for nearly 20 years and also falsely claimed to have worked for Sen. John Tunney of California and served in Vietnam. Investigators found little evidence that the fraudster’s management produced anything of value, but the EPA eagerly ponied up retention bonuses. The EPA also continued to pay Beale for 19 months after his retirement dinner cruise. All told, the faker bilked taxpayers of nearly $1 million.
As we previously noted, the EPA has not exactly been forthcoming about what it does with the $6.3 billion it has collected from lawsuits and settlements since 1990. Taxpayers may also recall that in 2015 EPA contractors released three million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Animas River. This unleashed 880,000 pounds of lead, arsenic and other toxic materials for dozens of miles through southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. The EPA’s alleged vigilance also did nothing to prevent the Flint water crisis, but despite both disasters EPA boss Gina McCarthy kept her job.
Meanwhile, John Beale served 32 months in federal custody and last year gained release. He still collects his generous federal retirement, so in one sense the fake secret agent man got away it. Patrick Sullivan of the EPA inspector general’s office told reporters, “I’m quite confident that it would be almost impossible for someone like Beale to replicate his fraud.” Taxpayers have good reason to doubt it. On the other hand, taxpayers have plenty of evidence that the EPA deserves a cut of more than 31 percent.
Before he became president, Donald Trump perhaps made his biggest impression on Americans in his role on the reality TV game show The Apprentice. Today, with the release of the president’s so-called “skinny” budget, he looks to be in the starring role for a government-version of The Biggest Loser.
Reuters reports on President Trump’s initial position in the political negotiations over the future of the U.S. government’s spending.
President Donald Trump will ask the U.S. Congress for dramatic cuts to many federal programs as he seeks to bulk up defense spending, start building a wall on the border with Mexico and spend more money deporting illegal immigrants.
In a federal budget proposal with many losers, the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department stand out as targets for the biggest spending reductions. Funding would disappear altogether for 19 independent bodies that count on federal money for public broadcasting, the arts and regional issues from Alaska to Appalachia.
Trump’s budget outline is a bare-bones plan covering just “discretionary” spending for the 2018 fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. It is the first volley in what is expected to be an intense battle over spending in coming months in Congress, which holds the federal purse strings and seldom approves presidents’ budget plans.
Congress, controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, may reject some or many of his proposed cuts. Some of the proposed changes, which Democrats will broadly oppose, have been targeted for decades by conservative Republicans.
For a graphic on winners and losers in Trump’s budget, click here.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from President Trump’s skinny budget is that the proposed spending cuts would be balanced by increased spending elsewhere in the discretionary portion of the federal budget, with no change on the size of the annual budget deficit. As such, the purpose of the budget proposal is not to reduce federal spending so much as it is to change priorities for federal spending.
The Hill reports that the skinny budget has been declared to be “dead on arrival” by at least one Republican senator, two days before it was officially rolled out.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday that President Trump’s first budget was “dead on arrival” and wouldn’t make it through Congress.
“It’s not going to happen,” said Graham, according to NBC News. “It would be a disaster.”
Graham, a frequent Trump critic, expressed concerns with Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department budget, especially the targeting of foreign aid.
In a separate report, Reuters indicates that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a different view.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday the State Department’s current spending was “not sustainable,” and he willingly accepted the “challenge” President Donald Trump had given in proposing to cut more than a quarter of his agency’s budget.
Trump’s budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1 would cut 28 percent of the budget for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid, according to documents provided by the White House. The combined budget for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) would be $25.6 billion.
Speaking in Tokyo at the start of a trip to Asia focused on the threat from North Korea, Tillerson defended the cuts as a necessary correction to a “historically high” budget that had grown to address conflicts abroad in which the United States was engaged, as well as disaster aid.
“Clearly the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking, particularly in this past year, is simply not sustainable,” he said. “As time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in.”
The debate about the U.S. government’s budget is really about priorities. How should the U.S. government allocate its limited resources? Resources that have become more limited because of the earlier, wasteful choices made by politicians and their bureaucratic appointees, many of whom are no longer in office?
The argument over the State Department’s spending is just one small glimpse of what is really at stake for the American people, in what may just be the beginning of the first serious negotiations over the nation’s spending priorities in decades.
On Monday, March 6, 2017, a federal judge awarded $2.5 million to a military veteran who was denied timely medical care at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. The Arizona Republic‘s Jacques Billeaud reports on the results of the civil trial in federal court.
A judge on Monday awarded $2.5 million to a military veteran who said that his now-terminal cancer would have been curable had the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix diagnosed it sooner.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Burns ruled a nurse practitioner who found abnormalities in Steven Harold Cooper’s prostate during an examination in late 2011 at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center had breached the standard of care by failing to order more testing and refer him to a urologist.
Instead, Cooper learned 11 months later from a VA doctor that he had stage-IV prostate cancer. The day after receiving the diagnosis, Cooper sought treatment from a private doctor....
Phoenix was the epicenter of a scandal in which whistleblowers revealed that veterans on secret waiting lists faced scheduling delays of up to a year. An investigation by the VA’s Office of Inspector General into the wait-time scandal concluded that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care. The scandal led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new law overhauling the agency and granting veterans easier access to treatment outside the VA.
For U.S. taxpayers, the most objectionable thing about the outcome in this case is that they are the ones who are being put on the hook for accountability in having to pay the $2.5 million judgment against the misconduct of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ employees. That is despite the fact that neither you, nor I, nor any individual outside of the VA contributed in any way to the situation that led to the court’s judgment against the VA.
At the same time, under the legal concept of sovereign immunity, the VA’s employees who are directly responsible for the situation will not bear any of the cost of the $2.5 million judgment.
But if they were, U.S. taxpayers could avoid being needlessly burdened with such large costs stemming from the misconduct of government employees if those employees were directly held accountable for their actions by directly bearing the financial consequences.
There are strong legal arguments against the claimed sovereign immunity of government bureaucrats, but until U.S. lawmakers reform the law to allow for the piercing of the government veil by the parties who have been injured by the bad actions undertaken by bureaucrats, in much the same way as applies in the corporate world, we will have the endure the negative outcomes of having bureaucrats be far too insulated from the consequences of their actions to have sufficient incentive to act in the best interests of U.S. taxpayers.
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