PITTSBURGH -- I think the White House might have my computer bugged. I was digging around the web a few weeks ago for some dirt on how the Bush administration managed to slip some hefty chunks of taxpayers' money into the pockets of friendly columnists.
The problem, apart from the ethics, is that I didn't get a dime, after helping plenty to plug the administration's agenda, and so, in print, I pointed out how the allocation of this political payola was remarkably inept and inequitable.
All this was happening right while the White House was putting the finishing touches on its 2006 budget. And Shazam, whad'ya know, my two favorite things about the federal government, the only concrete things I get from the feds that I can put my hands around -- free beach sand and subsidized train tickets -- are completely zeroed out, gone, to the shock and surprise of no small number of pundits and coastal politicos.
Here's how it came across the news wires: "The Bush administration will, for the first time, propose eliminating operating subsidies for passenger train operator Amtrak as part of a push to cut budget deficits." And forget track repairs, unless everything goes belly-up: "Funding is proposed for the maintenance costs of local commuter railroads that use Amtrak lines, but that money would be available only if Amtrak goes bankrupt."
Then came the sand news: "The administration's budget not only calls for halting future beach restoration projects conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers but also proposes an immediate halt to the multi-million dollar Dewey-Rehoboth Beach project now underway."
The problem is that my wife won't fly, and that's before the jihadists were onboard with fuses hanging out of their tennis shoes. And we have a beach house in Jersey, right up next to the dunes in Sea Isle, still with a huge mortgage, totally vulnerable to even the tiniest tsunami, and worthless without sand.
The bottom line in all this is that as an average American I'll be working until April 11 for taxes this year. That's when, according to the Tax Foundation, I'll have earned enough money to pay off all my federal, state and local taxes for the year.
On the plus side, I'll be getting a little back in a few weeks by way of heading for Florida on Amtrak's Auto Train. Our ticket price for 4 adults, 2 kids and 2 cars, round trip with sleepers, is $3,177, with complimentary movies, dinner and breakfast. On average, the federal government chips in about $100 in subsidies per passenger per trip on Amtrak's long distance runs, so we're on the dole for a total of $1,200, round trip.
So big deal. My part of that $1,200 is $400, and that's only every other year, so I'm getting $200 a year, which means they're still taking 100 percent of everything I earn up until April 9 -- enough, you'd think, so they could afford to pipe a little sand my way when things start collapsing.
In any case, I don't want to be accused of being greedy for free sand or going wobbly on my libertarian instincts, but an Americans for Tax Reform analysis shows that 43 percent of the price of beer is taxes, and you can't sell many bottles in Jersey without a beach. Altogether, tourism is a $35 billion industry in New Jersey, mainly at the shore, supporting some 850,000 jobs and generating $23 billion in salaries and $8 billion in taxes on sales and income. And that's not counting the sky-high real estate taxes on sky-high beachfront property that won't be so pricey if the sand disappears.
The costs and benefits? As far as I can figure, the proposed federal cut in Jersey's sand replenishment is $31 million, or less than 1/1000th of what tourists in Jersey spend per year, mainly at the beach.
In other budget news, the administration wants $29 million to study the feasibility of nuclear bunker busters. Called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, this thing would be dropped from high altitudes and carry a nuclear explosive package of two existing warheads -- the B-61 and the B-83 -- and be housed in a casing capable of burrowing deep into the earth before exploding, like in Osama's cave or North Korea.
Now I know Kim Jong II is a bona fide knuckle-dragger, but I'd still put a lid on the Robust Penetrator for a year and fix the beaches.
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