Will California be the first state to tax space launches?

spaceX launchOne of the world’s leading experts on the commercialization of space questions the California Franchise Tax Board’s move to make the Golden State the first to impose state taxes on private space launch and tourism firms.

John Logsdon, co-founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the commercial launch business was heating up, with private “spaceports” as well as leased military facilities being use to send cargo and – before long – tourists in the state.

The $2 billion in revenue that launch firms generated in 2014 worldwide is expected to continue to grow and make it a lucrative niche industry. Elon Musk’s Hawthorne-based SpaceX company is one of the world’s best-known space firms; a recent launch is pictured above. Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Santa Barbara County coast is considered a superior launch facility.

Against this backdrop, Logsdon questioned why California would seek to lead on space taxation: “States that don’t levy taxes would have that competitive advantage over states that do. If California puts in a tax and Florida or Texas doesn’t have a similar tax, I’m not sure that helps California in a competitive way.”

But Thomas Lo Grossman, the Franchise Tax Board official interviewed by the Chronicle, contended that the tax regulatory framework would actually make private launch firms more comfortable being based in California.

As a recent Quartz.com analysis noted, the state framework is what space companies prefer as the overall basis for taxation and hope it is copied by governments around the world.

“The complicated new formula … sets a tax rate based on how often rockets are flown from California. It uses the 62-mile trip to space as a standard, and reduces the levy on revenue earned in launches from other sites,” wrote space business reporter Tim Fernholz. “The new rules, based on formulae used for terrestrial transport industries, appear to ensure that a California-based company like SpaceX won’t be excessively taxed for revenue generated by launches in other states, while Colorado-based ULA pays its fair share for using California spaceports.”

Florida has already lured away California space venture firm

But unlike Quartz, the Chronicle report addressed Logsdon’s point about the business-friendliness of California becoming the first to levy a state tax in a nation in which a half-dozen states already have launch sites and many more are interested in building them. It noted that Moon Express – a well-financed venture capital firm that hopes to mine the moon for valuable natural resources – had relocated from Mountain View in the Bay Area to Florida. Company CEO/founder Bob Richards cited incentives proved by Space Florida, the state’s ambitious space economic development program.

California’s state efforts to promote space economic development are based with the Office of Strategic Technology in Los Angeles County – but space is only one industry the office seeks to help, unlike Florida’s more specific approach. Project California’s Council on Science and Technology also does some related work.

The Franchise Tax Board will consider adopting the rules after a public hearing on June 16. The board is taking comments on the FTB proposal until June 5.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Elon Musk’s Tunnel to Nowhere

los-angeles-freewaysElon Musk is tired of Los Angeles traffic, so, he says, he’s going to build his own tunnel. The fact that anyone takes this statement seriously points up what’s wrong with the relationship between tech entrepreneurs and civic planners. Cities have problems, but the solutions require gradual fixes. The right approach isn’t radical revolt; it’s small-c conservatism.

Fifteen years ago, Musk made his fortune selling the PayPal money-transfer platform to eBay. He’s now busy with several other ventures. His Tesla electric-car company has plowed billions of investor dollars and government clean-energy tax credits into battery and automated-driving technology, contributing to the advancement of each. His SolarCity solar-panel manufacturing experiment in Buffalo, New York, on the other hand, depends entirely on a $750 million subsidy from Empire State taxpayers. Tesla and SolarCity merged last year. Musk’s commercial-space venture, SpaceX, suffered a severe setback last year when one of its rockets exploded, destroying a $200 million Facebook satellite.

That’s life as an entrepreneur. You win some; more often you lose some. Investors should be smart enough to know the risks. Musk’s tunnel project, though, isn’t a matter of experimenting with investor and taxpayer money. Instead, if taken literally, it’s civic anarchy. In December, Musk tweeted: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging . … I am actually going to do this.” Last week, he reported, “Exciting progress on the tunnel front. Plan to start digging in a month or so.” He said that he’d start near his office in Hawthorne, a city in Los Angeles County. Wired.com has reported that Musk is already experimenting on his company’s own property.

Whether you’re a billionaire, a Twitter crank, or both, there are several good reasons why you can’t build your own tunnel beneath broader Los Angeles. Musk may be trying to point out the idiocy of laws and regulations that make it hard to build infrastructure, but he’s actually doing the opposite: reminding us why we adopted our laws and regulations in the first place. Building a tunnel disrupts traffic above it. Who would be responsible for the years-long traffic diversions? Tunnels require entrance-and-exit points. If Musk plans a tunnel for cars, not trains, how would smaller surface roads handle all the traffic going into and coming out of a fast-moving underground thoroughfare? If he plans a tunnel for trains, where will people enter and exit above ground, and how will the city keep all these new pedestrians safe from traffic? What if Musk miscalculates his tunnel’s ability to withstand an earthquake, as his staff miscalculated the safety of his rocket? It’s OK to blow up your own (and your customers’) equipment. It’s not OK to take the same risks with a city.

Extra road capacity often attracts more drivers. Despite the recent widening of L.A.’s 405 freeway, “congestion is as bad — even worse — during the busiest rush hours,” the New York Times reported last month. The way to reduce road congestion in the long term is to do what Los Angeles has been doing for nearly 30 years: build subways and light rail. Musk himself tweeted recently that Los Angeles’s subway is “lame, but getting better.”

Finally, if Musk can build a tunnel from his office to wherever he wants to go, why couldn’t every Angeleno with some money and an ego try the same? We live in a democracy, and democratic processes — particularly local ones — are important. Los Angeles residents may want a new tunnel built, or they may not. They may prefer a different tunnel to the one Musk proposes. They may prefer to live more densely than they do already, meaning more rail, or less densely, meaning more road construction. But the people do — and should — have a say.

USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey took Musk’s tunnel tweets seriously, noting that the entrepreneur is “one of the few people who is just rich, powerful and inventive enough to actually do something about the legendary traffic congestion in Los Angeles.” This is misplaced enthusiasm. Elon Musk may be a dreamer, but surely he realizes tunneling beneath Los Angeles without permission would get him arrested — and rightly so.

Tech entrepreneurs would do better to help improve government rather than bypass it. It takes too long, and is too expensive, to build any kind of infrastructure. City planners and private-sector contractors could benefit from outside review of their work processes; automating repetitive construction work, for example, could cut costs. Unfortunately, the tech industry hasn’t shown much expertise at this in the past. Tech billionaire Michael Bloomberg was a good mayor, but he didn’t cut New York City’s personnel costs during his tenure; in fact, such costs grew significantly. Nor did he make the city operate more efficiently or build its large-scale physical infrastructure more efficiently.

Running a tech business is not the same as running a government, and it never will be. Depending on a single heroic billionaire to rescue you from the result of city-planning decisions made by millions of people over many years is the wrong way to go about basic governance.

What incumbent candidates conveniently leave out of campaign ads

Humorist Will Rogers observed, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” If Rogers were a Californian today, he would say the same thing about the state Legislature.

Fortunately, for average citizens, the Legislature adjourned a few weeks ago so its ability to inflict more harm on taxpayers, property owners and businesses is on hold until the first of the year.

Lawmakers are no longer in Sacramento listening to high-powered lobbyists for special interests that back more taxes and spending. Most have returned to their home districts to beg for votes. They are likely to be attending local events and some will actually be walking in neighborhoods to convince voters they deserve to be returned to the Capitol. And, of course, they will be invading your mail box, television and radio with their political ads.

The majority of candidates for reelection will be bragging that they and their colleagues have achieved a balanced, on time budget and the state is on the right track. Their accomplishments, they will claim, entitle them to continue in office.

However, here are some things that most will not mention. California continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in all 50 states. Our state ranks first in marginal income tax rates, state sales tax and gasoline tax. Businesses, and the jobs they provide, continue to flee the state. Even firms like Tesla and SpaceX that have been provided massive tax subsidies by Sacramento, have chosen to expand their facilities outside of California – Tesla to Nevada and SpaceX to Texas. And the Legislature continues to support subsidies to Governor Brown’s bullet train that may end up costing taxpayers nearly $100 billion.

Another topic that most incumbent lawmakers will not want to discuss is their efforts to pass ACA 8, an amendment to the California Constitution that would make it much easier to increase property taxes to pay for infrastructure bonds. Passage of this, and other proposals that fell just short of approval this year, could have resulted in increased property taxes totaling billions of dollars, once again putting homeownership in jeopardy as it was prior to Proposition 13, when there were no limits on annual increases in the tax bill.

It is also unlikely they will want to discuss their rejection of legislation that would have slowed the implementation of carbon fees, fees that are likely to add somewhere between 15 and 40 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas after the first of the year. This is no less than a war on the poor, who already can barely afford to put fuel in their cars due not only to high prices, but also to the highest gas tax in the nation. And California has plenty of poor. We lead all 50 states in the percentage of those living in poverty.

Voters who have the opportunity to meet candidates for office, whether they are incumbents or aspiring challengers, should be prepared to ask a few questions.

Here is a good question for all candidates, “Do you believe it is fair that Californians pay the highest tax rates in nearly every category?” An excellent follow-up question would be, “Where do you stand on an extension of the Proposition 30 income and sales tax increase, set to expire in the next several years?” And, of course it is always revealing to get answers to this question, “Do you support the governor’s bullet train that could cost taxpayers a hundreds billion dollars or more?”

Honest answers to these questions would provide a good gauge of how well a candidate understands that their actions have real consequences for average Californians. Some may show that they genuinely respect those they serve, while others, who are likely to equivocate when responding, will reveal that they are motivated by self-interest.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.