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When burritos become sandwiches

In recent days we have heard how NZ First leader Winston Peters wants to take GST off some foods, but not others. While any reduction in the tax-burden should be welcomed, this picking and choosing of which items should include a sales tax causes unnecessary confusion for suppliers, retailers and consumers. 

Take the humble burrito. 

It’s a Mexican staple; a food that’s becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand. And in New York State there is significant debate (think tax lawyers and accountants) on the question of whether it counts as a sandwich for tax reasons.

When politicians pick and choose sale taxes willy-nilly there are often unforeseen circumstances. In New York this has meant that the eight percent “sandwich tax” has become applicable to burritos. It’s also led to numerous hours of government officials and tax experts debating the trivial point of just what constitutes a sandwich. 

At a cost of at least $3bn, removing GST on items of Mr Peters’ choosing is a big-ticket policy. But as with New York sandwiches, there would be endless regulations, descriptions and exemptions.

If politicians want to truly reduce the tax burden facing New Zealanders, they should start by cutting sales or income taxes across the board. Playing politics with your pantry is an expensive exercise that leads to some truly bizarre outcomes.

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Party, Party, Politics and the Taxpayers' Purse

Political parties often engage musicians to drum up support during the election season. It’s the time of year when party hacks attempt to swell their numbers by using musicians as Trojan Horses for their political ideals. We all remember The Feelers’ song used in National Party adverts last election.

But what happens when taxpayer funds are propping up these artists?

The Party, Party put on by the Internet Party features numerous bands that have recently received significant grants of taxpayers’ money courtesy of NZ On Air.

Sons of Zion, State of Mind and PNC all received subsidies from NZ On Air as recently as late last year. The sums involved are not insignificant. A quick glance at the list of subsidies suggests that in the past few years these acts have received well over $200,000 of taxpayer funds.

Laughton Kora of L.A.B was also part of a group that received $245,000 NZ On Air funding to visit prisons for a Maori TV programme. 

While we can all appreciate that bands are comprised of individuals with their own political beliefs, it seems wrong for bands to be enabled to support a political cause by being propped up by the taxpayer.

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Like Russian nesting dolls Auckland Council secretaries need secretaries

That’s right – the Auckland Council’s CEO has a secretary that is advertising for a secretary.

We have all heard about stories of politicians looking to empire build courtesy of the taxpayers’ pocket, but this really takes the cake.

No wonder Auckland Council now has more bureaucrats on living off ratepayers than all of the councils it replaced combined.

So what will this new position entail?

“Your day will involve providing administrative support as and where required, this includes anything from managing correspondence, records management to diary management. This role is vital to ensuring that items are actioned, recorded and accurate.”

If that’s the role of the secretary’s secretary, what’s left for the secretary to do?

At a time when the Council needs to find savings of $860 per ratepayer, empire building in Council offices should not be tolerated.

With nearly 6,000 bureaucrats on the pay-roll, 811 of which are earning over $100,000 a year, Len Brown and his CEO ought to be out trimming the fat rather than increasing the burden on ratepayers even further. 

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Would performance pay justify paying MPs more?

Stephen Franks blogs:

Incentive pay for MPs

The moot for the New Zealand Initiative's youth debate semi-final this year in Wellington is a good one -

"Should New Zealand tie MPs' and Ministers' salaries to a multiple of the average national income?"

When the Remuneration Authority was asking MPs about reform of the system 10 years ago, I urged that:

a) Parties be given a material amount they could distribute among their members according to their pre-Parliament incomes, to do three things:

  • reduce the income cut involved in going to Parliament for people for whom there is much more to lose, and
  • reduce the overpayment of the kind or people who would never be thought useful enough outside Parliament to get anywhere near their Parliamentary income, so they don't cling quite so desperately to their places; and
  • have the supplement reduce each year after entry to Parliament, to encourage turnover of people who have not progressed.

I also suggested a trailing commission, to induce longer term thinking among MPs. Exec incentive schemes that fail to add a trailing element or to defer vesting encourage manipulation of reporting and incentivise short term results. In politics that there is already more than enough incentive for false reporting and short-temism, in the 3 year electoral cycle.

Accordingly MPs should have a material part of their remuneration deferred each year. If the MP demands immediate payment is should be substantially discounted. The deferred amount (say half) might be paid out say five years later, multiplied by 2 times or 5 times the GDP or average income growth in the five years. If it shifted MPs horizons, it would be money incredibly well spent even if they tripled or quadrupled their incomes.

For an even longer perspective, simply make the deferral period longer.

From the taxpayers' perspective, paying MPs a little more, if it resulted in better performance is a no brainer. How would you structure it though? Drop us a line, or comment on our Facebook page.

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Guest Post: Larry Mitchell on Auckland Council's finances

Local government expert Larry Mitchell has contributed a guest post on the financial situation of Auckland Council. Click "continue reading" to view.

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Waste Watch: Auckland Council spends 100k on a curtain

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction - the Devonport Flagstaff reports:

$100,000 curtain raiser for Devenport

A $100,000 budget has been set aside for a space-dividing, silk curtain in Devonport’s new library.

But the public art piece will be mostly invisible during the day.

Creator of the curtain, Judy Millar, was selected from 85 artists to design an object ofpublic art for the new building and bring a unique energy to its interior.

Auckland Council project manager David Thomas said the curtain will be three metres high and made out ofdouble-sided silk. It comes with its own dry-cleaning schedule and a ten-year maintenance or replacement budget 0f$30,000. “We expect that people will want to touch it,” Thomas says. A large part of the project’s total $100,000 budget is going into the tracking, railing and security system to hang the curtain, as well as the printing and sewing ofthe piece, he said.

The curtain will be visible from the street after business hours, when it will be used to divide off and secure the facility’s main area from the community room that remains open to the public.

During library opening hours the curtain will be stored next to the new fireplace, where it will also be shaded from being bleached by the sun, Thomas says. It will also need to be treated with non-flammable chemicals, he says. Read more.

This is an inexcusable waste of ratepayer money. Does Auckland Council have no respect for those who pay its bills?

The culture of big spending in Auckland Council needs to stop. As our Ratepayers' Report shows Auckland already has eye watering debt, the highest in New Zealand on a per ratepayer basis, even before the big infrastructure projects have started.


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Good intentions not enough for good policy

Science and Innovation Minister, Steven Joyce hit back at us regarding our recent criticism of the Government's corporate welfare efforts, such as the millions of taxpayer dollars going into ‘company incubators’. The NBR reported on Thursday:

Eight new company incubators are to receive funding under Callaghan Innovation’s incubator support programme.
Callaghan, the government funded innovation hub, has included three new technology-focused incubators and five founder-focused incubators in its latest funding round. 
The three new tech-focused incubators are PowerHouse, Astrolab and WNT Ventures, and will be eligible for up to $450,000 worth in repayable government grants, with the incubator companies matching funding at a one to three ratio of up to $150,000.
The tech-focused incubators will focus on commercialising Intellectual property, primarily sourced from publicly funded research organisations, like universities and Crown Research Institutes.
The repayable grants are a trial programme, which was allocated $31.3 million over four years in the 2014 Budget.
However, the Taxpayer’s Union executive director Jordan Williams has described the government grants as an “example of politicians thinking they know more than IT entrepreneurs.

On Friday, Mr Joyce went the offensive:

Joyce slams Taxpayers’ Union attack
Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce has slammed the Taxpayers’ Union’s attack on the minister as a “fundamental misunderstanding” by its executive director Jordan Williams.
Mr Williams described the $31 million worth of grants to eight new company incubators - under Callaghan Innovation’s incubator support programme - as an example of politicians thinking they know more than IT entrepreneurs.
Mr Joyce says Mr William’s comments show a fundamental misunderstanding of both technology-based start-up companies and the intention of the government’s policy.
Unfortunately Mr Joyce does not tell us what the 'fundamental misunderstanding' is, rather just explains what the 'purpose' and 'intention' of the policy is. The article goes on to say:
NBR ONLINE asked the Minister how Callaghan Innovation justifies a 3:1 funding ratio, with the taxpayer taking on 75% of the risk?
Mr Joyce replied that the incubators would be funding early stage companies that have arisen from public research organisations, where generally the taxpayer has paid up to 100% of the costs of the research.
“The projects that are funded via the incubator are still very early stage, with significant technical risk. The aim of the programme is to get private sector expertise in very early so that the projects have a greater chance of success. 

We have called on Mr Joyce to explain what the ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ is. Instead of rebutting our criticisms of the policy, Mr Joyce has just reiterated what the ‘intentions’ are. Unfortunately even the worst policies have the best of intentions.

We hoped to be proven wrong on our fear that the grants are interest free. Instead the Minister confirms the worst, with 40% of the grants expected to be written off and the rest not even adjusted for inflation.

In February the world's third largest software maker, SAP, which last year posted a profit of €1.80 billion, received a similar growth grant'.

For us, the key question are:

  • where is the evidence that the return taxpayers get from the successful start-ups compensate for the money lost on the half that fail?
  • Who is ensuring that the decisions made by politicians on what businesses to back are better than what would have happened had the money stayed in taxpayers' pockets?

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