By Denise Bowyer 

I am a business leader, a baby boomer, and a consumer. In each of these roles, I am concerned about retirement security -- or should I say, the lack of it? But it is in my role as a business leader that I have the most concern. In business when vision and business plans collide, disaster normally follows.
Like me, many hard-working Americans hold a vision of retirement based in financial security. I imagined a comfortable seat in a comfortable home on a sturdy three-legged financial stool. For most Americans today however, that sturdy three-legged stool, made up of social security, employer pensions and private savings, is broken, wobbly and missing a leg or two.
Business leaders, working Americans and the policy makers who represent us are faced with a choice. We can either change our vision, or fix the problem.
Business is driven by confidence that a consumer will want to -- and be able to -- to purchase a good or service. A survey of small business owners recently released by the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) showed that 70 percent believe that the lack of retirement security is a threat to business and the overall economy. They understand that business cannot be sustained unless it has a sustainable customer base, including older Americans.
The solution should be a combination of public policies that strengthen social security, ease the path for employers to offer and administer transparent defined benefits or defined contribution plans, promotes personal responsibility and financial literacy. Here's how to do it one leg a time.
The first leg is Social security. It touches the lives of most Americans, and today for many working families it is the only leg of their retirement stool. At its founding it was not meant to be the only source of income, but to replace only about 40 percent of a workers income for retirement. That's a little more than half of the 70 percent of pre-retirement income that research suggests for a decent sustainable retirement. The mechanism of social security, equal employer and employee contributions coupled with payroll deduction, have proven to be a winning combination for 57 million Americans currently receiving benefits to the tune of $1,200 per month. Strengthening social security should be the single issue that all business people agree on.
There is no longer a universal second leg on the retirement stool. Employer-sponsored defined and contributed benefit plans are weak and/or broken. It is business' interest to protect the last bastion of defined benefits still in existence.
It is also in business interest to find cost effective solutions in implementing and executing employer sponsored plans. In the ASBC survey of small business owners, cost not values was cited as the single biggest obstacle to offering a retirement plan. There needs to be a way for public policy to reward small business who would offer a portable, universal, transparent, retirement supplement to their workers. America's future retirees and older business customers are the 50 percent of workers without an employer sponsored retirement plan. The average balance in a 401K today, hovers around $80,000. Half of Americans don't even have that option. A sound second leg option would go a long way towards helping the 67 percent of small business owners who do not currently offer a retirement plan.
The third leg of the retirement stool is supposed to be personal savings. Unfortunately, for most workers, savings amounts to three percent of their retirement needs at best. Today, most workers use savings for emergencies not retirement. In a time of flat and declining wages, saving for retirement is not realistic.
The solution to the lack of financial resources for retirement chosen by many who can is simply to work longer. For some of course, that is not an option. And even those who do often wind up being laid off from career jobs and forced to take low-wage jobs.
Business leaders are some of the best voices offering solutions to real life issues that affect our communities and impact our bottom line. We should listen to them. A wobbly, one-legged stool simply cannot support business or our customers for the long haul.
Bowyer is Vice President of American Income Life Insurance Company, based in Waco, TX



By Frank Knapp 

President Obama is right to address the urgent need to modernize our once grand infrastructure. Unfortunately, the president's corporate tax reforms would leave us in a deeper hole down the road.
The President's plan to cut corporate tax rates responds to the tireless mantra of U.S. multinational corporations that America's tax rates hurt their global competitiveness. In reality, American corporations are enjoying their highest level of profits in 60 years while their federal income taxes are close to the lowest level. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that large profitable U.S. corporations paid an effective federal tax rate of just 12.6 percent in 2010, a rate lower than many small businesses and middle-class families.
Large corporations like Pfizer, Bank of America and Google have avoided paying their fair share of U.S. taxes by abusing offshore tax havens and using accounting gimmicks to disguise U.S. profits as foreign profits. U.S. corporations are holding about $2 trillion offshore to shield it from U.S. taxation. These corporations have gamed the tax system, contributing mightily to the deficit while leaving small businesses and households to pick up a greater share of the cost of public services and infrastructure -- from schools and police to roads and safe drinking water.
While the details aren't clear, the President's plan includes a one-time fee on offshore profits -- much lower than the regular corporate tax rate -- that he wants to use for investing in our country's aging infrastructure and other priorities. Small businesses applaud increased investment in bridges, ports and other needed infrastructure that will also create jobs and put money on Main Street. However, history shows that rewarding corporate tax dodgers with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks -- as happened with the 2004 tax holiday that promised job creation and delivered a windfall to CEOs and shareholders instead -- only accelerates tax haven abuse in the future. It would incentivize the armies of corporate accountants and lobbyists to create and exploit new loopholes even as old ones may be closed.
Ending corporate tax dodging is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; it's an American issue. In a nationally representative poll, in which Republicans outnumbered Democrats, more than 90 percent of small business owners said it is a problem when large corporations use accounting gimmicks to shift their U.S. profits to foreign tax havens in order to avoid taxes pay. Whether called a one-time fee or a tax holiday, a corporate tax amnesty policy is completely unacceptable to small businesses.
The President could close offshore tax loopholes without temporarily or permanently cutting corporate tax rates through a number of bills currently pending in Congress. These include bills to end deferral of taxes on corporate profits held offshore so that corporate income is taxed as it is earned and requiring offshore transactions to have an economic purpose beyond simply avoiding taxes.
Moreover, lobbyists who could not prevent the top-bracket Bush tax cuts from being reversed are saying that the President's plan for reducing corporate tax rates to 28 percent, with a lower 25 percent rate for manufacturers, should be accompanied by a reduction in top tax rates for individuals in order to be fair to small business owners -- most of whom report their business profits on their personal tax returns. This is another effort to use middle-class small business owners as a foil to help hedge fund managers, wealthy lawyers and big businesses like Bechtel, the nation's largest engineering firm, that are formed as pass-through income organizations. These are the two to three percent of high-income "small business" owners who would reap a big windfall if income tax rates for those at the top were reduced; the rest of the real small business owners would not be affected.
The reality is that what small businesses really need is dependable modern infrastructure and more demand for their goods and services, not tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy individuals. We can strengthen this demand by making big corporations pay their fair share of taxes and investing the new revenue in economic development.
Tax reform should be about building a vibrant 21st century economy for all businesses, not rewarding big corporations for free loading on the rest of us.
Knapp is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and Co-Chair of the American Sustainable Business Council Action Fund.
 


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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Tax Day Message

American Forum 

By Sandy Pappas

April 15 is Tax Day. As we race to get our taxes filed, lets consider what we actually get for our tax dollars. In Minnesota, we are putting together our state budget for 2014 which we intend to reflect our values as a state.
While every state faces its own budget challenges, we share a common challenge: crafting state budgets as our nation struggles with economic challenges and federal budgeting uncertainties. The roller coaster ride of fiscal cliffs, indiscriminate automatic cuts, debt ceilings, and other Washington shenanigans has been distinctly unhelpful.
In Minnesota, we cut back on crucial investments in education and infrastructure as tax revenues plummeted during the recession. Now with a slow recovery, we need to re-invest in our priorities around safety, security and productivity. Looming uncertainty makes it more difficult to commit to those investments. Here are a few suggestions for how Congress can reshape the federal budget to help the states continue to pull through the recession and emerge stronger and more economically competitive than ever.
First, Congress must find a way to bring more certainty back to the budget process. No more phony "fiscal cliffs" that get solved at the last moment. No more threats of government shutdowns.
Second, Congress needs to learn to make strategic budget priorities just as we have to do in our states. Each year over half of the discretionary spending Congress appropriates goes to Pentagon and war spending. Meanwhile the Pentagon is the only governmental agency that cannot pass an audit to show how it uses our tax dollars. Congress cannot continue to exempt the Pentagon budget from scrutiny while making deep cuts to other programs. About one-third of non-defense discretionary spending (the spending Congress votes on every year) goes to the states, so overspending at the Pentagon inevitably squeezes funding for programs on which our states rely.
Third, Congress continues to fund out-of-date weapons systems that we may never need or use. The F-35 is a perfect example. It is over budget, behind schedule, and plagued with technical problems. The future of America's security will not be determined by aerial combat between fleets of opposing aircraft, but by things like cyber security, counterterrorism and investing in economic competitiveness.
Fourth, we are scheduled to spend billions of dollars over the next 10 years for nuclear weapons that were designed to fight the wars of the last century. For the cost of just one new nuclear submarine, we could provide body armor and bomb-resistant Humvees to all our troops overseas, house and treat every homeless U.S. veteran, and still have $2.2 billion left over to pay down our debt. Congress should focus on protecting the nation from 21st century threats and rebuilding our nation's economy, not paying for pork barrel nuclear weapons projects.
Finally, many Pentagon contractors have successfully lobbied for generous tax breaks. We all use our nation's roads, count on schools to educate our future workforce, and rely on public safety workers like firefighters, so why should Pentagon contractors get a break on their taxes? Citizens for Tax Justice found that aerospace and defense firms paid an effective tax rate of 17 percent from 2008 to 2010, lower than the average of 18.5 percent paid by all industries. It's especially galling when these same contractors are seeing big profits and executive pay on par with Wall Street executives.
We all do our part by paying our taxes every April. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." Now we need Congress to do its part by putting together a civilized budget for our society that invests our tax dollars wisely and reflects our values as a nation. We cannot afford to keep spending on out-of-date, unnecessary Pentagon programs. We must reshape the Pentagon budget to respond to 21st century threats, we must repair our economy, and we must start investing in the future. Let's send this message to our representatives in Congress!
Pappas is the President of the Minnesota Senate and vice president of the Women Legislators' Lobby, a program of Womens Action for New Directions.
 

 American Forum 
By Lisa Maatz 

As someone who has spent the better part of my life fighting for fair pay for women, I believe it s always a good time to talk about the pay gap. But the topic is especially important now -- and the timing has little to do with Equal Pay Day on April 9.
Equal Pay Day is the symbolic date when women's wages finally catch up to men's from the year before -- this year, it just happens to fall amid sequestration and passage of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) budget in the House. Both disproportionately slash programs that help women and their families. Women already earn less on average than men, and now programs they depend on to help make ends meet are being cut. These seemingly never-ending budget battles are compounding what is already a pernicious problem.
Yet somehow the pay gap went largely overlooked as the dramatic spending cuts known as sequestration went into effect. Sequestration harms women and girls through cuts to K 12 funding, higher-education programs, work-force training, funding for agencies that enforce civil rights protections like equal pay, women's health programs, and programs that promote getting more women into high-wage science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers -- just to name a few.
How is the average woman who loses out on thousands of dollars in wages each year due to the gap supposed to make up for cuts to these programs? Easy answer: She can't. And neither can her family. Make no mistake, equal pay is a family issue.
And then we have the Ryan budget, which slashes nondefense spending by trillions of dollars, mostly by cutting programs that benefit women, students and families. Ryan's budget cuts Pell Grants and other college aid, Head Start, job training, Medicare, Medicaid, and funding for civil-rights enforcement. And it repeals the Affordable Care Act, which provides critical, no-cost preventive benefits for women.
I recognize that Congress is grappling with tough budgetary tradeoffs, but our ability to access basic education and health care cannot be sacrificed. As American Association of University Women research shows, women already have a harder time paying back student loans because of the pay gap. Now the aid they depend on to go to college is in jeopardy.
We mark Equal Pay Day as an opportunity to educate the public and demand action. This year, Congress took action on policies that exacerbate the pay gap's impact and put the economic security of American families at risk. Thankfully, Sen. Patty Murray s (D-Wash.) budget blueprint took the Senate in a more moderate direction, sharing the sacrifice and working to help the most vulnerable among us. Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-Md.) budget amendment insists we make equal pay a budgetary priority, but we still need stronger laws to fulfill that promise -- laws like the still un-passed Paycheck Fairness Act.
I can't state it more plainly: The pay gap hasn't budged in 10 years. And when you compare women and men in the same job doing the same work, we still find a gap. This inequality affects women's wages today and their retirements tomorrow, and it weakens our national economy. It's past time for real change.
This Equal Pay Day, ask your politicians one question: Will you finally take action to fix a problem that affects women and their families every day?
Make the answer good. Women are watching, and we're tired of waiting.
Maatz has served as AAUW's director of public policy and government relations since 2003.
 


AMERICAN FORUM

By Pam Solo

America is facing a crisis of leadership. We need and deserve a vision and strategy to meet the energy and economic challenges facing the United States.

The latest budget proposal for 2013 illustrates this over and over again. The President summarizes it best as “all of the above” and is a vote for a lot of business as usual and a little clean technology.  The problem of course, is that this one size fits all approach to powering the nation is a recipe for disaster.  By throwing money at “clean coal” technology, nuclear power and fracked natural gas, we waste time, money and risk losing a share in the global market for clean energy technologies.

As an example, even after the recent Japanese nuclear tragedy the conventional wisdom in Washington is that we should invest 770 million dollars researching “advanced small nuclear reactors.”


Click here to read the full article. 


AMERICAN FORUM

By Grant Smith

Energy policy in the United States is more a political game than a serious public discussion.  The newest incarnation of energy policy-by-advertising-campaigns is the Clean Energy Standard, supported by the President and various members of Congress. 

You really have to suspend reality once you head down the CES route.  The premise is that we need all energy technologies to meet our electric demand, regardless of risk to the public pocketbook or to the public health.  It includes the oxymoron of clean coal and cheap, safe nuclear power. There is simply no way that coal and nuclear power can deliver a sustainable economy or a healthy population.

While US policymakers chase after the politically expedient CES, the European Union, the largest economy in the world, has been seriously working towards a sustainable electric grid.  The EU adopted a resolution that by 2020 all new buildings have to be zero energy buildings (i.e. use as much energy as they generate).  It has also set specific targets for renewable energy.  The European Parliament recognized in 2007 the “Third Industrial Revolution” (the confluence of telecommunications technology, renewable technology, and energy efficiency) as “the long-term economic vision and road map for the European Union.” (Rifkin, 2011)  This is not to say that there are no differences of opinion among European governments, but US policymakers, all from the same country, can’t even agree what day it is.  And there is no serious public discourse on how to move forward.  

Click here to read the full article. 


AMERICAN FORUM

By Kathleen Rogers

Optimistic environmentalists believe that future generations will view the first half of the 21st century as the birth of a global green economic revolution. Indeed, investment and advances in technology, coupled with anxiety regarding climate change, are already pushing global leaders to embrace a sustainable future. Unfortunately, that optimistic vision is clouded.

The stark fact is that almost all green-revolution investors and decision-makers – those who are defining and designing the green economy – are from a single demographic: men. International Women’s Day presents a timely and important opportunity to examine why women should be leaders in the green economy.

Like any revolution, a substantial risk exists that the green revolution will move in unpredictable or wrong directions. All economies are stronger when the people leading them bring diverse points of view. Certainly, creating a sustainable economy and breaking habits of over-consumption and fossil-fuel dependency are difficult tasks. Let’s examine some of the reasons why including women in the construction of the green economy is a good idea:

Click here to read the full article. 

VIRGINIA FORUM


By King Salim Khalfani and Stephen A. Northup

According to the most recent polling data, public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in decades. Four states have ended capital punishment since 2007 and strong abolition efforts are underway in a number of other states.

So where is Virginia in this current national debate?

Virginia has a long and dark history with the death penalty. The first execution in the New World took place here in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed in Jamestown for spying. Throughout its history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, more than any other state. Virginia has executed more women and the youngest children of any state. Since the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s following a de facto moratorium imposed by the courts, Virginia has executed 109 people, second only to Texas.



Click here to read the full article. 



TEXAS LONE STAR FORUM

By F. Scott McCown

As part of legislation to extend federal unemployment insurance benefits through 2012, Congress is considering a very bad policy idea: encouraging states to drug test every applicant for unemployment insurance and deny compensation to any who fail.  It's such a bad idea that it has twice failed to make it through the Texas House of Representatives, as conservative a legislative body as they come.

The whole thing is really a ploy.  The proponents of drug testing are trying to undermine public support for UI by associating UI applicants with drug users.  They want the public to think about UI like it does welfare, blaming the unemployed-rather than the economy-for their plight.

Unemployment insurance is not welfare.  By definition, people who qualify lost their job through no fault of their own. They are typically men and women who have worked steadily, often for years or even decades, and have largely covered the cost of their employer's UI tax indirectly through reduced wages.


Click here to read the full article. 

MISSOURI FORUM

By Patricia Schuba

I was born in 1963 in Labadie, three miles from what is now the nation's 14th largest coal-fired plant. My family has farmed the land for four generations. It was only when Ameren placed a coal ash landfill in the floodplain that we became aware of the risks of burning coal and of exposure to the waste left behind.

In 1970, Ameren built the plant that is still operating today in the floodplain of the Missouri River just east of Labadie on a scenic stretch of the lower Missouri River. Little did we all know that almost immediately after the plant was built, the utility began dumping toxic wet ash into an open 154 acre unlined pond, and from there into the Missouri River. This stretch of river floods and the groundwater is often above the surface, making contamination of surrounding soil and water likely.

We now know, from reviewing public records that this pond was leaking 50,000 gallons per day since 1992. Ameren claims to have recently stemmed the leaks, including new ones that were reported in 2011. We also know that under its water pollution permit, Ameren dumps an average of 25 million gallons per day of waste water from the ponds into the Missouri River.



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TEXAS LONE STAR FORUM

By Don Baylor and Chuck Stokes

This week, Texas is one of many states celebrating America Saves Week, a national week to promote personal savings and encourage individuals to take financial action. American Saves Week couldn't come at a better time, with so many Texan families struggling. To strengthen our communities, Texas needs to adopt a new blueprint for helping families save.

As noted in Why Thrift Matters: 20 Propositions, a report recently released by the Institute for American Values, Americans are rediscovering the  thrift of our forefathers and mothers, who worked hard, saved their money and shared their wealth with those in need. The recipe for building financially strong families and communities remains the same today. Texas Saves Week reminds us that we need only look back to find a wiser way forward. We need to work together, not just for individual change, but to create a culture that values hard work, planning ahead and the importance of community.

Creating a college-going culture is widely acknowledged as the best way to secure a better future by increasing the earning potential of tomorrow's labor force. In Texas, we need to direct similar energy to creating a savings culture. Like a good education, household savings - regardless of family income - is a sound predictor of whether a child who grows up poor will become part of the middle class. The association between savings and future financial security is even more pronounced when savings are targeted toward college. Academic research has found that a child with a dedicated savings account is seven times more likely to attend college than a similar child without such an account, even when controlling for race or income. In essence, savings represent hope and opportunity.



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