ADVERTISEMENT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) The Times Union of Albany on a proposal to tax online purchases of digital books, videos and music in New York.

Nov. 18

It's not often that one can say that there's a tax that's good for business without listeners waiting for a punch line. But seriously, there is a tax that actually would help out businesses in New York.

Call it the iTax for Internet tax.

For all its conveniences, Internet commerce is hurting traditional retail businesses, from booksellers that are losing traffic to the Web giants like Amazon to tech, clothing and other sorts of shops where customers browse without buying, scoping out merchandise that they plan to buy online. There's a term for it "showrooming," or using brick-and-mortar stores as a kind of showroom for online retailers. The stores pay the rent and other overhead; the online companies, wherever they are, reap the sales.

At least some of the reason for shoppers' enthusiasm for online buying is the fact that often they don't have to pay sales tax, an incentive so irresistible that even if a store's price is competitive, some shoppers will buy online whether it saves money or not.

Unless you're an online merchandiser, this is bad for business. It's bad for communities and downtowns when those brick-and-mortar shops can't survive. And it's bad for governments state, county and local that depend on sales tax for a substantial chunk of their revenue. When that revenue falls short, they have to make it up somewhere in the form of either higher taxes and fees, or reduced services. So we all end up paying.

New York took a stab at recovering some of this lost revenue by adding a line to its income tax forms asking taxpayers to declare taxes owed on out-of-state purchases or services, including Internet sales. Only about 5 percent of tax returns reported the use tax in 2012, for a total of $44 million, in 2012, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

The New York State Tax Reform and Fairness Commission, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, suggests going a step further, directly taxing sales of digital books, videos and music downloaded from the Internet. The move, the commission estimates, would generate about $35 million a year. This is already done in 23 states.

If the state wanted to fairly level the playing field even more and boost its coffers it would persuade Congress to take another look at the restrictions that have developed under various court rulings on broad taxation of Internet commerce. New York and its businesses surely aren't the only ones losing money to the Internet. A sensible, simple national policy has long been needed to adjust to a new era of commerce.

It's worth remembering that many a downtown died in the 20th century when new highways passed them by. As what's sometimes called the information superhighway increasingly becomes a commercial superhighway, too, it's essential that government doesn't let it destroy what's left of Main Street. And yes, we know the mantra: The Internet should be free. The trouble is, this free stuff is an illusion. One way or another, we're all paying for it.

___

Online:

The Syracuse Post-Standard on Lockheed Martin and diversifying the central New York economy.

Nov. 17

Thanks to a timely phone call from Sen. Charles Schumer, Lockheed Martin's confidential plan to close its plant in Salina has been put off for at least a year.

The reprieve is welcome. But we should be worried.

It's welcome because losing Onondaga County's largest for-profit employer would be a severe blow to our economy. It would be personally devastating to the 1,600 highly skilled and well-paid employees who would lose their jobs or face a transfer to another state. After witnessing the likes of General Motors, Carrier and Chrysler shut their factory doors, Lockheed's departure would effectively mark the end of the industrial era in Syracuse.

It's worrying because the draft plan for closing the plant stayed under wraps until it was almost too late to intervene. Thankfully, the news was leaked to Syracuse.com/The Post-Standard's Washington bureau reporter, Mark Weiner. Schumer called Lockheed's CEO on her cellphone to find out what was going on. Within days, the company took Salina off the closure list. While a defense contractor knows how to keep secrets, it's disturbing that nobody in Washington, Albany or Onondaga County saw this coming.

There were troubling signs. In August, Lockheed laid off 114 people, bringing its employment to the lowest level in almost two decades. Meanwhile, the company is coping with a contraction of defense spending plus the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester. Even so, thanks to aggressive cost-cutting, Lockheed remains wildly profitable. It is on pace to earn $4.7 billion for the year.

Now what?

Our business and political leadership are on the right track with their request to meet with Lockheed officials to explore what more they can do for the company within reason, that is. Because the state owns Electronics Park, it's possible a new tax-free zone could be established there. Meanwhile, all levels of government need to keep working to reduce taxes and improve New York's business climate. If other states are offering big incentives to lure Lockheed jobs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will be challenged to make New York competitive.

While we must try, the plain fact is that there may be nothing Cuomo or the state can do to keep Lockheed here. According to its plan, Lockheed was willing to pay the penalties for breaking its 30-year lease in Salina and was sensitive to the politics of that decision. Our representatives on the Armed Services committees Rep. Dan Maffei in the House and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate and the Senate's No. 3 leader Schumer could make life difficult for the company. Ultimately Lockheed answers to its shareholders. But our elected officials can't give up: They must make Central New York's case in the strongest possible terms.

The Lockheed near-miss is more evidence the region's future depends on a diversified, entrepreneurial economy that can withstand the loss of a big employer. Building that economy is a work in progress, supported by a smart business plan for the Central Upstate region recently unveiled by CenterState CEO and the Brookings Institution.

The plan builds on the area's expertise in digital electronics, information systems, medical equipment and environmental products. It emphasizes exports, investment in entrepreneurial ventures, workforce development and a more streamlined government.

This new economy won't be built in a year, but this much is clear: We can't afford to waste a moment.

___

Online:

The New York Times on the national Common Core learning standards and examples of progress improving test scores.

Nov. 19

The country is engaged in a fierce debate about two educational reforms that bear directly on the future of its schoolchildren: first, teacher evaluation systems that are taking hold just about everywhere, and, second, the Common Core learning standards that have been adopted by all but a few states and are supposed to move the schools toward a more challenging, writing-intensive curriculum.

Both reforms or at least the principles behind them got a welcome boost from reading and math scores released recently by the federal government. Although the nation as a whole still has a long way to go to match high-performing school systems abroad, states that have toughened their teacher evaluations and standards have shown positive results.

Two examples are the District of Columbia and Tennessee, among the first to install more ambitious standards and teacher evaluations. Tennessee jumped from 46th in the country in fourth-grade math two years ago to 37th, and from 41st in the nation to 34th in eighth-grade reading. The District of Columbia, though still performing below the national average, has also shown progress. The scores of its students improved significantly in both math and English.

Moreover, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the eight states that managed to get the Common Core standards in place in time for the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress exams this year showed improvement from 2009 scores in either reading or math.

Nationwide, the story is less encouraging. For example, on this year's assessment, fourth graders and eighth graders, on average, showed only slight gains from two years ago in math and reading scores. Even worse, the results show that less than half of the nation's students are performing at a proficient level in either math or reading as judged by the federal rating system, indicating that the country is not moving swiftly enough toward its goal of preparing students for work in a global economy. Equally worrisome is the continuing gap between low-income and more-affluent students.

But the progress seen elsewhere like Tennessee and the District of Columbia shows that improvement is possible if the states strengthen their resolve and apply solutions that have been shown to work.

___

Online:

The Poughkeepsie Journal on President Obama and the cancellation of some insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act.

Nov. 14

First things first: President Obama was monumentally wrong for telling the American people if they liked their health insurance plan, they would be able to keep it under the Affordable Care Act.

There were just far too many variables to consider to make such a sweeping promise.

On Thursday, Obama announced changes that will give insurance companies the option to keep offering consumers plans, at least for the next year, that would otherwise be canceled.

But whether this quick fix will work remains to be seen and, either way, broader solutions will be needed, and that won't be easy, mainly because it will take the cooperation of Congress. Having Democrats and Republicans work in such a way on such a complicated issue is imperative, but Americans know the tortured history on this.

For now, Obama is focusing on administrative solutions that include the pressing need to get the health care website up and running.

From a federal standpoint, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been disaster. The law has been called Obama's most important accomplishment, but massive and avoidable problems with the computer system has made it all but impossible for people to enroll for health insurance.

The news isn't all bad though. States had the ability to take the initiative to create their own exchanges under which private insurance companies can compete and the ones that have done that, including New York, are showing promising results.

Nevertheless, across the country, millions of Americans have started receiving insurance cancellation letters because their insurance doesn't meet the new requirements.

The White House argues that the cancellation notices apply to only about 5 percent of Americans who obtained health care insurance. The administration projects that more than half of those people would benefit from better insurance at lower prices through the exchange.

But, clearly, there is far too much uncertainty.

The Affordable Care Act has many excellent attributes that shouldn't be lost in the furor. For starters, tens of millions of Americans who don't have health insurance will get coverage. For another, those with pre-existing conditions can't be shunned by insurance companies. Some Republican leaders, however, have some good ideas that shouldn't be ignored either. They include bringing even more competition into the system by enabling people to shop for insurance across state lines. They also rightly argue that medical malpractice lawsuits must be curbed and capped.

The way forward is unclear at this point. But it will have to start with getting the federal health exchange website up and running effectively so a better assessment can be made on the impacts of the Affordable Care Act. The administration has precious little time to accomplish that goal before things unravel worse, and that is not something anyone in this country should be pulling for.

___

Online:

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican on the federal Food and Drug Administration and a ban on trans fats.

Nov. 14

Is the government overstepping when it bans trans fats? In a word, no.

Scientists may be divided on some things, but the threat to health of trans fats isn't one. It's unanimous: Trans fats raise a person's chances of having a heart attack.

So the government has decreed that food manufacturers may no longer use the artificial additive that helps food have a longer shelf life and have a less greasy feel.

Some doctors consider trans fats the worst type of fat. Unlike other fats, trans fat also called trans-fatty acids raises your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol and also lowers your "good" (HDL) cholesterol.

According to the Mayo Clinic, trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation.

Scientists aren't sure exactly why, but the addition of hydrogen to oil increases cholesterol more than do other types of fats.

So the government is trying to save lives by banning the troublesome ingredient. The Food and Drug Administration predicts the move will prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths a year.

Predictably, some critics are outraged. Forget the lives being saved it's another example of the government trying to control yet another element of people's lives, they claim.

We are all for civil rights. But two elements enter the argument here: Not everybody is equipped to save oneself from nutritional peril, and needless exposure to heart disease costs all of us in Medicare and Medicaid expenditures.

The manufacturers don't seem particularly upset over the trans-fat ban. They'll go on making their products, with or without them, and continue to realize profits. Alternatives to trans fats already exist.

If the debate over the rights of people to choose or not choose trans fats involved informed choices, there might not be any debate at all. Intelligent adults armed with all the information they need can indeed decide their own diet without the government's help.

But not everyone is an intelligent adult. What about the millions of kids every day who visit vending machines stuffed with bags of snacks with unhealthy ingredients? Should they be left to their own discretion in deciding what to eat?

We should be thankful that somebody is looking out for them.

And if thousands of heart attacks can be avoided every year without compromising the taste of food, every taxpayer should be rejoicing to say nothing of those at risk for heart attacks.

It's not as if muffins are being banned. They're not just the worst ingredient, which will be replaced with a better one.

In the United States, let freedom ring. With healthful, life-saving portions.

___

Online: