A fertilized egg is not a person, and other off-off year election news

Apparently a majority of Mississippi voters who bother to go to the polls in an off-off-year election do not believe that a cluster of 16 cells is entitled to the same rights as a person. A measure that would have declared a fertilized human egg to be a person and effectively classified some forms of birth control as murder was defeated by 58%-42%. Of course, that means that 42% of the voters thought this was a heck of a good idea, but for today let’s accentuate the positive.

This vote means that for now I can no longer spend time speculating on how a cluster of cells called a person would be treated for tax purposes. But given the three-ringed circus of American politics, you know it won’t be long before something equally interesting is in the spotlight.

By the way, it was a tough night overall for the far right. Voters in Ohio repealed a Republican-backed law that had shredded collective-bargaining rights for state employees. Maine voters pushed back against a Republican-backed rule to restrict same-day voter registration. And the president of the Arizona state senate and architect of that state’s notorious immigration law was tossed out of office before he could have expected, recalled by the voters.


Is a zygote a person? Ask your tax guy.

More than a half-dozen states are considering constitutional amendments, ballot measures or legislation that would declare a fertilized human egg (think back to your high school science classes and the word, “zygote”) to have the legal rights of a person.

I’m not going to get into the logic of this. Oh, heck, sure I will—it’s nuttier than a filbert orchard. The effect would be to outlaw abortion as murder, regardless of circumstance. An amendment to the Mississippi constitution that’s on a November 8 ballot would ban birth control methods such as IUDs and morning-after pills. This is stuff you’d expect to read about happening in the most backward of fundamentalist countries.

But hey, my job is to look at things from a tax standpoint. If a fertilized egg has the legal standing of a person, wouldn’t it logically follow that that tiny group of cells would qualify as someone who could be listed as a dependent on a tax return—just like any other person? And if that’s the case, then of course tax pros such as myself should start asking our clients during tax-season interviews if they are pregnant and if so, when they conceived, so we can determine if there was a potential deduction as of December 31 in the previous year.

(Let’s leave aside the inconvenient fact that most fertilized eggs actually never implant in the uterus. We’re not going to let reality get in the way of potential tax deductions.)

Wait wait, you say—federal law doesn’t recognize an infinitesimally small mass of 100 or 8 or four cells as a human being. No problem! Tax professionals already deal with many areas in which one set of rules apply for state income tax filings and another for federal. For example, same-sex couples in state-recognized domestic partnerships can file a joint state tax return at the state level even though they are barred from filing jointly at the federal level.

No reason we can’t have little Billy Blastocyte appearing as a qualifying deduction on state returns while being invisible on the federal return.

Not sure how we’ll handle the requirement that every “person” listed on a tax return have a Social Security Number.


Health insurance: the sand in the gears of the American economy

One bit of good news on the health insurance front: Despite some trial balloon suggestions, health insurance premiums in 2011 will continue to be tax-deductible for all self-employed professionals.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, the system of actually getting health insurance is still an unholy mess. And the system forces people into arrangements that any reasonable person would consider ridiculous.

For example, I have clients who are getting divorced, and have amicably reached agreement on all their issues. They get along with each other as well as people can under such circumstances, and they still care about each other. But they’re choosing to put off making the divorce final.

The reason: when the divorce is final, one spouse is going to lose the health insurance provided by the partner’s job. And neither of them want to see that happen. So while they’re moving on in their lives emotionally, legally they remain stuck together.

Health insurance is the sand in the gears of many Americans lives. Fear of losing or not having health insurance stops people from changing jobs. It keeps them from trying to start a new business. Losing a job is bad; losing the health insurance attached to it can be catastrophic.

And of course, you can still lose your health insurance even if you don’t lose your job. Wal-Mart is slashing employee health insurance benefits, the New York Times reports, eliminating coverage for anyone who works less than 24 hours a week and reducing coverage or hiking premiums for many other employees. Some Wal-Mart workers earn so little they may qualify for their state Medicaid programs.

If you are under 65, the fact that you could not get a health insurance policy for yourself will freeze you in place, even if you could retire early with full benefits. The state of Oregon, recognizing that, is even considering offering continued health coverage to employees who retire early as a way of getting more high-earning people off of the state payroll.

Until we have a system where everyone is guaranteed health coverage regardless of their employment status, we’re going to have a self-imposed, or, more accurately, insurance-company-imposed, drag on the economy.


How could any American patriot not love vote-by-mail?

By October 20, I’d already cast my vote in November’s special election in Oregon to replace disgraced congressman David Wu (D). Voting took just a few minutes and consumed no gasoline, parking spots or time away from work.

The reason: this election—like every election in Oregon—was strictly vote-by-mail. It’s been like that here for years.

voting How could any American patriot not love vote by mail?Vote-by-mail is secure, safe, gives people time to consider their ballot, and increases voter turnout. In 2008 more than 80% of registered Oregon voters cast ballots. Since vote-by-mail was adopted, turnout in Oregon is always among the nation’s highest.

Because of those kinds of numbers, the Republican party hates hates HATES vote-by-mail.

In fact, the GOP is generally opposed to anything that makes it easier for folks to vote. After all, there are only so many upper-income people—the natural Republican constituency and, these days, the group that Republicans in Washington cater to. The more people who can vote, the more likely those voters will be, you know … lower-income. Working-class. Poor. Not Republican.

So around the country, Republican-backed initiatives—falsely characterized as aimed at reducing voter fraud–are trying, and in some cases succeeding, at changing voting laws in ways that will suppress voter turnout. Restrictions are being placed on how soon in advance of election day people can cast votes. Several states may require that people present government-issued photo identification in order to vote—tough luck for anyone who doesn’t have a driver’s license, the major form of government-issued ID. Other rules would make voting tougher for college students and anyone else who has moved recently. Officials are even looking at reducing the number of voting locations and voting machines. Remember the scenes in 2008 that looked like some third-world country just beginning an experiment with democracy, of Americans waiting in serpentine lines for hours to exercise their right to vote? That may wind up looking like a practice run for what we’ll see in 2012.

And let’s not even talk about the idiocy of scheduling voting for Tuesdays — a working day for most people — or the complete refusal by the political establishment to consider a two-day voting “day” on the weekend. (The whole idea of registering to vote adds yet another barrier to voting. In Australia, where all eligible voters are automatically registered, folks who don’t vote pay a fine.)

Don’t forget the perennial favorite for politicians who want to disenfranchise whole blocks of Americans: state laws making it illegal for anyone convicted of a felony to vote, even after the individual has served their time and paid their debt to society.

If politicians really want to be sure that a ballots are honestly and legally cast, I have the solution: Make vote-by-mail the nationwide standard. Authorities will have plenty of time to review any questionable ballots and compare signatures with the registration rolls. No threats of mistaken identity; no Dead Men Voting. No intimidation near the polls by people trying to prevent voting, as, sadly and unbelievably, still happens in some parts of the country. In Oregon, the county clerks start authenticating ballots (but not counting votes) as soon as the ballots arrive at their offices, with observers from both parties present to monitor the proceedings. They’ll even give you a call if they have any question about your signature or registration.

The only losers might be television reporters who will lose their standard-issue Election Day background of people waiting at the polls. Democracy definitely wins.