NEWSLETTER

March 1999

It's almost April 15: Is your tax story almost done?

By Jerry Zremski
The Buffalo News

It's that time of year again - time to file your taxes and to look for that annual tax story for page one.

Odd as it may seem, we regionals spend a good part of the year tracing the kind of spending the federal government does back home. Yet only occasionally - often as April 15 approaches - do we look at the other side of the ledger.

There are some good stories to look for there, though, from a regional perspective. From the writing of tax law to the actual collection of taxes, this is a subject that we regionals should not ignore.

The place to begin is where we always begin - with the members of Congress whom we cover. They may or may not have special tax breaks that they want to write into the tax code. If they do, they're sure to show up as separate bills that the members hope will eventually get included in this year's big tax bill, said a House Ways and Means Committee staffer who asked not to be identified by name.

The best way to find these bills, of course, is to check Thomas, the online gold mine of legislative information. It's always a good idea to look at Thomas every few weeks to see if your members have introduced any new bills that they haven't told you about, and tax bills are often just the type that might go unannounced.

To use Thomas to find the bills your member introduced, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/bss/d106query.html#memb

You're especially likely to find tax bills there for your member if he or she is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the home of virtually all tax legislation. For example, one of the members I cover, Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., has four bills listed for the 106th Congress, and three of them deal with tax issues.

Alas, two of them are rather arcane and not especially newsworthy, but I am likely to write about them if they get anywhere as tax legislation moves forward. The third, though, will be a good story for me: It says if someone gets a reward for helping solve a crime, that money would be tax-exempt.

None of Houghton's tax bills are the kind of old-fashioned narrow tax-break giveaways that have given Congress a bad name in the past. And that's no surprise: a top tax staffer on the Hill said that the Ways and Means Chairman, Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, frowns on tax breaks tailored to individual companies or interests, which means that fewer and fewer members are introducing them.

That same staffer noted that tax legislation offered by members rarely makes it into law on its own. Instead, the goal of every member is to get his or her tax proposal into the chairman's mark, the original draft of tax legislation that Archer does every year that there's a major tax bill.

While it's still early in the game, it's a good idea to keep in touch with Archer's committee press aides to see when the chairman's mark will be ready and marked up. The number is (202) 225-8933.

That's the easy part of covering tax issues. Covering the ramifications of tax policy is a bit more difficult.

Unlike covering the budget, for example, there are not quite so many regional angles, simply because tax rates, unlike federal spending, are geographically uniform.

Disparities develop, though, on a state-by-state basis, and they're always worth reporting. Two good sources are available along these lines.

Every summer, the Tax Foundation publishes a report called Federal Tax Burden by State. And that's exactly what it is: It includes annual figures such as per capita federal tax burden by state, per capita expenditures by state and type, per capita federal taxes and expenditures as a percentage of the U.S. average and adjusted federal expenditures per dollar of taxes. Best of all, it's very timely, with some of the figures even entailing projections a year into the future.

For a copy of that publication, contact Bill Ahearn, the Tax Foundation's spokesman, at (202) 783-2760. The non-profit, nonpartisan foundation also has good data on state tax collections on background booklets called "The Journalist's Handbook on Tax Policy" and "A Journalist's Handbook on Tax Reform."

For a more detailed look at federal tax collections by state, check out Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's annual report, "The Federal Budget and the States." Released every fall and published with the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University, Moynihan's publication includes in-depth, state-by-state profiles of federal taxation and spending, along with volumes of historical data. For a copy of the latest report, which covers federal fiscal year 1997, contact Moynihan's press secretary, Mike Waterman, at (202) 224-4451.

Of course, the Internal Revenue Service has plenty of regional information, too. For example, its annual Tax Databook - available from the Government Printing Office for $6 - includes all sorts of data broken down by the IRS's 33 district offices. The databook shows the number of tax returns audited, the number of refunds issued and the amount of tax revenue collected by each district.

Terry Lemons, a former regional reporter who is now an IRS spokesman, also recommends that reporters get a copy of IRS Publication 17, the annual Tax Guide for Individuals. Lemons said this book, which is free at any IRS walk-in center, "is the condensed version of the tax bible. It gives you a nice overview of what's in the federal income tax."

Lemons can be reached at (202) 622-3031. He will be happy to steer you to the regional press person in the IRS district office back in the part of the country you cover, who would be the contact person for any local issue.

While that IRS Tax Databook gives some information on audits, better data is available from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The clearinghouse's latest report, showing audit data for 1998, will be published later in March. Reporters will have access to it on an embargoed basis before it is made public. For more information, contact Sue Long at (315) 443-3563.

TRAC's recent reports detail how likely residents of each major metro area are to get audited by the IRS - an important regional story if ever there was one. The center's past reports on on the Internet at: http://trac.syr.edu

Other potential sources for tax stories include:




IRS to meet with regionals

The Regional Reporters Association will hold a briefing with Charles Rossotti, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 5, at IRS headquarters.

Rossotti is expected to discuss the IRS's reorganization efforts and the 1998 tax season before taking questions.

For security reasons, and because attendance will be limited, RRA members who want to attend are asked to RSVP to Terry Lemons of IRS media relations, (202) 622-3031.

Reporters who attend should gather in the lobby at the main entrance of IRS headquarters, which is on the south side of the building, at 1111 Constitution Ave. Please meet there at 9:45 to allow for time to clear through security and go up to the room where Rossotti will hold the session.

The event is opened only to members who have paid their 1999 dues.




Goldstein deadline nears

Heads up, regionals. The deadline for the 1999 National Press Club Awards is coming up.

The club offers two awards of particular interest to the regional press: the NPC Washington Correspondence Award and the Robin Goldstein Award for Washington Regional Reporting.

While both awards have featured many winners from the regional press corps, the club's other awards also are open to all Washington correspondents.

For your convenience, RRA has agreed to include a copy of this year's NPC award registration brochure in your Regional Reporter. We at RRA encourage all of our members to show off their talents by entering the National Press Club awards contests.




President's Report

Seeking tips from fellow regionals

By Christine Dorsey

What to write, what to write ...

I'm obligated each month to fill up this column with wonderful insights, opine on the state of regional reporting and motivate each and every one of our members to write out their dues check (subliminal message) and think, "gee, what a terrific organization."

Whose idea was this column, anyway? Well, that would be me. Since I'm the head whip-cracker in RRA at the moment, I get the odious job of harassing board members into submitting stories to the newsletter. That would include yours truly.

But wait! I have a better idea. I think I shall begin harassing you, too! Let me rephrase that: I think I shall begin gently calling on my colleagues in the regional media to offer some of their own wonderful insights for inclusion in the Regional Reporter.

After all, nearly everyone who receives this monthly publication covers Washington a little differently than the rest. Washington journalism could certainly use some new and interesting ideas on how to bring the Oval Office Exploits, Monica Beach and the Senate Floor into the living rooms of all Americans.

That bit of sarcasm is exactly my point. We in the regional press have the luxury of NOT covering the Monica story. Of course, some of us must cover the national stories, and some of us find pieces of the story that are particularly local.

But for the most part, our papers and affiliates are happy to let us roam Capitol Hill in search of truly local news.

Each month, our board sits down to discuss ideas for events or newsletter reports that would help our colleagues get good local stories.

But it ain't easy. So, I'm asking for help. Please e-mail me with ideas for good regional stories. We all are "experts" on various issues because of the stories we tend to follow. But maybe those stories can gain a bigger audience if we simply share our ideas. This isn't the first time I've asked the membership for some help, and it surely won't be the last.

But please think about some stories you or your colleagues have done recently, and consider writing a "how it was done" story for the RRA newsletter.

You know you want to...




RESTIVE REGIONS

Mary Boyle recently established a Washington bureau for the Gazette of Colorado Springs. Mary, who has been here since mid-November, previously worked as a Denver-based statehouse reporter for the paper.

Jeff Miller is a new Scripps-Howard reporter for both the Evansville, Ind., Courier & Press and the Ventura, Calif., County Star. Jeff has been in Washington since 1995 and previously worked as editor of the Scripps-McClatchy Western Service news wire.

Rob Gavin has left Syracuse Newspapers to become statehouse correspondent for the Seattle Post Intelligencer. His position has not yet been filled.

Gannett News Service reporter Carl Weiser, who covers Delaware and Pennsylvania, is the father of a baby boy. Samuel John Weiser was born Feb. 15 in Arlington, Va., at 7 pounds, 12 ounces. The elder Weiser is the RRA's vice president.

A correction from last time: John Brinkley, a former California correspondent for Scripps-Howard, has gone to the State Department, not the Interior Department as reported in last month's column.

-- Pat Howe,
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Got news? call Pat Howe at (202)662-7690 or send it to pat_howe@adg.ardemgaz.com




WWWeblink

You've heard the initials, you know it's coming, and you'll probably have to write about it - if you haven't already. The Y2K computer problem is one of the hot topics on Capitol Hill and there is no shortage of Internet information on it.

The Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology has its own Web site: www.senate.gov/~y2k

It has updates, committee information and a page with links to a whole host of government agency Y2K sites.

If you want some solid technical information, go to ZDNet's Y2K page. (This even includes information on how to check your own system for the bug). It's at http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/special/y2k/ index.html

And, for up-to-date financial information - along with another good collection of Y2K testimony, reports and interviews - go to the Federal Reserve Board's site at http://www.bog.frb.fed.us/y2k

-- Lolita Baldor,
New Haven Register

Have a link to share? E-mail it to Lolita Baldor lbaldor@aol.com




Board meeting minutes -- March 1, 1999

The board unanimously approved the minutes of the February board meeting. On a motion made by President Christine Dorsey and seconded by Treasurer Maureen Groppe, the board unanimously declared the minutes of the December 1998 board meeting to be officially missing in action because they have not been received from the secretary.

Groppe reported that 1999 dues collections were lagging the 1998 pace. So far, about 70 members have paid a total of $1,400. That compares to $1,640 collected by March 1998, Groppe said. Groppe reiterated a warning that scofflaws will be cut off the RRA e-mail service on May 1. Dorsey asked board members to contact those who owe.

Dorsey also noted that various agency and association press relations officers were happy to learn of RRA's existence as a result of her appearance at a U.S. Newswire event. Vice President Carl Weiser is the proud poppa of a baby boy. Weiser reminded the board he will not be seeking the presidency next year because he is taking three months of family leave. Groppe reported a bank balance of $5,300.

The Newsmaker Committee reported a recent success and future plans. Board member Jennifer Maddox said 17 report ers attended a briefing by the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and recommended it be considered as an annual event.

Board member Jerry Zremski gave a mid-March estimate for a sit down with HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Board member Susan Roth volunteered to consider an event with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Regarding Professional Development, board member Jim Rosen invited RRA to co-sponsor a Freedom of Information Act event with the National Press Club.




Army civil works chief brief regionals on agenda

Port dredging, beach erosion and flood control were among the regional topics the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discussed in response to reporters' questions.

Joseph W. Westphal, assistant Army secretary for civil works, spoke for more than 90 minutes in a Pentagon conference room. The meeting was arranged by the Regional Reporters Association.

After giving a brief overview of the corps' programs, Westphal answered very detailed questions.

Westphal told reporters from coastal states that the corps would give more priority to combating beach erosion if Congress changes the financing split to require local sponsors to pick up a greater share of the costs.

On "Challenge 21," a controversial program designed to encourage residents to move out of flood plains, Westphal said about 100 communities nationwide already have expressed an interest in getting funds. The plan would save the corps the expense of building more levies and dams that often break down again after heavy storms.

On deepening rivers and ports to accommodate larger ships, Westphal said the biggest hurdles revolve around what to do with the dredged materials, some contaminated with industrial toxins. He also touched on the Corps' new focus on environmental restoration of such areas as the Everglades.




February 1999 Regional Reporter

January 1999 Regional Reporter

December 1998 Regional Reporter

November 1998 Regional Reporter

October 1998 Regional Reporter

September 1998 Regional Reporter

August 1998 Regional Reporter

July 1998 Regional Reporter

June 1998 Regional Reporter

May 1998 Regional Reporter

April 1998 Regional Reporter

March 1998 Regional Reporter

February 1998 Regional Reporter

January 1998 Regional Reporter

December 1997 Regional Reporter

November 1997 Regional Reporter

October 1997 Regional Reporter

September 1997 Regional Reporter

August 1997 Regional Reporter

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Has your e-mail address changed? Please remember to let RRA know if you move, or if your e-mail address changes. We try to keep our database current, but we need your help. Let us know if you're not receiving e-mail bulletins from RRA president Christine Dorsey. Or, if you prefer not to receive e-mail, let us know that, too. E-mail is becoming RRA's fastest and easiest means of communication with the membership. Be sure to update us on any snail mail or fax number changes as well.