Pretzels: The Kindest Twist of All

Who can resist pretzel trivia? The following comes from a public relations firm promoting a new Blimpie turkey sandwich on pretzel bread. The same release also indicated that Blimpie was the first quick service restaurant to feature pretzel bread (back in 2009).

But what about the history of the pretzel? Here are some tasty treats:

  • In A.D. 610, while baking bread, an Italian monk created a treat to motivate his distracted catechism students. He rolled out ropes of dough, twisted them to resemble hands crossed on the chest in prayer, and baked them. The monk christened his snacks pretiola, Latin for "little reward." Parents who tasted their children's classroom treats referred to them as "little arms." When pretiola arrived in Germany, they were called pretzels.
  • Perhaps because of its religious roots, the pretzel has long been considered a good-luck symbol. German children wear pretzels around their necks on New Year's Day. In Austria in the 16th century, pretzels adorned Christmas trees, and they were hidden along with hard-boiled eggs on Easter morning.
  • The phrase "tying the knot" came from the Swiss, who still incorporate the lucky pretzel in wedding ceremonies. Newlyweds traditionally make a wish and break a pretzel, in the same way people in other cultures break a wishbone or a glass.
  • In Austria, signs outside many bakeries depict a lion holding a pretzel-shaped shield. According to a legend that dates to 1510, pretzel bakers working before dawn heard Ottoman Turks tunneling under Vienna's city walls and then sounded an alarm. The city was saved, and the bakers were awarded their unique coat of arms by the Viennese king.
  • Hard pretzels were "invented" in the late 1600s, when a snoozing apprentice in a Pennsylvania bakery accidentally over baked his pretzels, creating crunchy, seemingly inedible, knots. His job was spared when the master baker, attempting admonishment, took an angry bite out of one–and loved it.
  • Julius Sturgis opened the first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania, in 1861. He received his original pretzel recipe as a thank you from a down-on-his-luck job seeker after Sturgis gave the man dinner.
  • Until the 1930s, pretzels were handmade, and the average worker could twist 40 a minute. In 1935, the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company introduced the first automated pretzel machine, which enabled large bakeries to make 245 pretzels per minute, or five tons in a day.
  • More than $550 million worth of pretzels are sold in the United States annually; 80 percent are made in Pennsylvania, where hard pretzels originated.
  • The average U.S. citizen consumes up to two pounds of pretzels per year, but Philadelphians snack on about 12 pounds of pretzels per person every year.

Licks or Clicks: Take Your Pick

I'll risk showing my age by asking how many remember the advertising phrase: "How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?" The ads on U.S. television go back to 1970.

I was somehow reminded of that when reading a recent headline that said: "How many clicks does it take to get to state tax information online?" Not quite as exciting or tasty a subject, but there is that alliteration.

The Tax Foundation asked the second question. Indiana was one of five states at the bottom of that list, requiring five clicks in order for a visitor to the state web site to find 2012 individual income tax rates. Three states (Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) provided access with only two clicks.

A second query focused more on quantity of information rather than ease of locating. States were evaluated on the availability of 2012 and 2013 tax rate schedules, tax tables and tax forms. Five states had a perfect six score; Indiana was one of 11 with a five out of six.

What does it all mean? One takeaway is that states would be well served to reduce taxpayer frustration at an already frustrating time for many by making tax information available in an easy-to-locate manner. And, anytime you can pull out a 43-year-old Tootsie Pop reference, you have to take advantage of it.

The Tax Foundation has the details.

Pennsylvania Legislators Introduce Right-to-Work

The Washington Free Beacon reports that legislators in the Pennsylvania legislature want to bring right-to-work to their state, citing its passage in Indiana and Michigan and the need for job growth and desire to attract businesses.

Six GOP lawmakers on (Jan. 22) introduced a proposal to make Pennsylvania, the “Keystone State,” the nation’s 25th right-to-work state.

The legislation, which would end the longstanding practice of forcing employees to join unions as a condition of work, has stalled several times over the past decade. The bill’s sponsors say new laws in Michigan and Indiana forced the state’s hand.

“The needs of our economy dictate that it must be adopted at some point in time,” said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe. “The victory of right-to-work in Michigan and Indiana certainly thrust the spotlight on it and made the General Assembly look it more seriously than the past.”

Pennsylvania is one of the most heavily unionized states in the country with more than 700,000 workers belonging to organized labor groups. That is nearly 100,000 more union members than in Michigan.

The advent of right-to-work in the traditionally labor-friendly Midwest and Rust Belt has left policymakers scrambling to catch up, said Nate Benefield, director of policy analysis at the free-market Commonwealth Foundation.

“Indiana and Michigan are states that we directly compete with,” he said. “We’re going to have to evolve to remain competitive and it’s also a great opportunity for us to outcompete the northeast.”

If Pennsylvania passes right-to-work, it will be the first state to do so in the northeast. That could give it an economic advantage over neighboring New York and New Jersey, which lead the nation in union membership as a percentage of the workforce, advocates of right to work legislation said.

“We’re playing catch-up to Indiana and Michigan, but our immediate neighbors, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland are even less competitive than Pennsylvania is,” Benefield said. “I think right-to-work is a big part to improving our business climate.”

Restricting the use of compulsory union dues also could deal a blow to union influence.

There’s Only So Much (Political Advertising) a Person Can Take

Who doesn’t enjoy a good campaign commercial? With politicians lambasting their opponents, blaming them for the recession, mortgage failure, tax crisis, Midwest drought and McDonald’s taking away the McRib sandwich (okay, those last two are a bit facetious – obviously no one controls the weather), what’s not to love?

And no doubt you’re already saturated with political campaigns. “How can this be?,” you proclaim. “It’s only August!”

You are not wrong in your exasperation. The sheer number of television campaign advertisements shown so far this year is shocking (with three months to go before the election, even) and the amount of money spent by candidates and Super PACs is astounding.

Think you’ve had enough? Be glad you don’t live in Ohio. Or Florida. Or North Carolina. The money spent on the presidential election alone in this cycle has been $37.2 million in Ohio on TV ads; $36.3 million in Florida; and $20.4 million in North Carolina.

In fact, across nine “battleground” states (the three listed, along with Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire), the presidential campaigns and Super PACs have spent $174 million on television spots alone. And that amount was just for nine states through the beginning of July.

Let me put that into perspective: According to ESPN, in 2012 the average cost for a 30-second television ad during the Super Bowl was $3.5 million. That $174 million spent so far on presidential advertisements in nine states equals about 50 Super Bowl commercials. (Unfortunately, politicians don’t include the Budweiser Clydesdales or barking dogs dressed as "Star Wars" characters in their ads.)

It’s not just which states you are in, but also the networks you watch. For instance, if you are a regular Fox News viewer, chances are you’ve seen a number of the 479,055 advertisements that have aired on the network thus far. CNN is next with 191,027 campaign ads and another news network, MSNBC, aired 75,207, according to NCC Media.

You can’t really avoid it by changing the channel, either. ESPN, TNT, USA, Lifetime, HGTV, and the Weather Channel, to name a few, top the list of number of ads aired this election cycle. Even Food Network viewers can’t escape the barrage (33,118 ads so far interspersed between Paula Deen and Bobby Flay).

It’s safe to say that as the election draws closer, we will see even more of these ads. But, are they effective? Americans that are planning to vote most likely have decided which candidate they will support – but there are always individuals that can be wooed at the last minute.

One thing is for sure, however: The broadcast television industry must really love election time.

Tweeting for the People (and Making Them Pay for It)

This story from the Philadelphia Inquirer is filled with some of the more entertaining quotes about social media – and the public sector – you’re going to find.

TEN-YEAR-OLDS can tweet on their own.

But Councilman Jim Kenney apparently needs help. Professional help.

The at-large councilman is spending $28,800 in taxpayer money this fiscal year for the Center City-based company ChatterBlast to perfect his "social-media strategy." The company monitors his Twitter and Facebook pages, and has posted on Kenney’s campaign-funded website.

No other Council member pays a contractor to help with Twitter. Just Kenney, who has the third-priciest staff on Council. He has 10 staff members with a payroll of $654,034, including his salary – plus another outside communications consultant.

Why does he need ChatterBlast on top of that?

"I, at 53 years old, do not have that facility," he said. "So I need consultant advice to communicate with a group of folks who are not necessarily in my age group."

Martin O’Rourke, the politically connected PR man whom Kenney’s office already is paying $30,000 this fiscal year for a communications contract, doesn’t have that facility, either.

"I have no clue how to tweet; I still don’t understand the mechanics of it. It’s a thing of the future," said O’Rourke, who has earned big bucks through contracts with City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s office and the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

ChatterBlast, perhaps not coincidentally, has contracted with both of those agencies. O’Rourke said Tuesday that he has no financial stake in the company, but he "suggested that people talk with them."

Matthew Ray, a co-founder of ChatterBlast, which calls itself a social-media marketing company, defended ChatterBlast’s work for Kenney as a good use of taxpayer dollars. He said that citizens’ problems have been solved thanks to Kenney’s account.

"Having the councilman connect with people via social media is as important as having people read the Twitter feed for Target or Kim Kardashian," he said.

"I think everyone knows $28,000 isn’t a huge amount."

Kenney’s account often tweets several times a day, about everything from his legislation to what he’s having for lunch. So, is ChatterBlast behind such tweets as the one quoting Irish soccer superstar George Best saying, "I spent 90% of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted"?

Ray said that Kenney sometimes tweets without help from ChatterBlast and that ChatterBlast sometimes tweets without input from Kenney. But most of the time, he said, Kenney comes up with the tweets and then runs them by ChatterBlast to publish. That’s what happened with the tweet about Best.

"What we actually do is type it in," Ray said. "It’s no different when someone dictates a letter to somebody."

Local lawyer Jared Klein learned that Kenney wasn’t manning his own Twitter account on Election Day last November when he tweeted that people should vote for Kenney, only to have Kenney’s account tweet back: "I’m not on the ballot today, but I thank you for the support and for supporting my friends!"

Biggest UI Hole: It’s California By a Wide Margin

Indiana is unfortunately all too familiar with outstanding loans from the Federal Unemployment Account (that means borrowing money from the feds to provide unemployment benefits for state workers who have lost their jobs). At least Indiana’s balance of slightly over $2 billion owed pales to, guess who, California.

According to U.S. Department of Labor numbers at the end of February, California owed $10.2 billion of the $38.55 billion total that 28 states had borrowed from Uncle Sam. New York is second on the list with a $3.7 billion balance, followed by Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio.

California’s UI Trust Fund did not become insolvent until 2009, so the debt has been piling up quickly. Businesses suffer, however, as outstanding loan balances mean they lose credits and pay higher federal unemployment taxes until the situation is resolved.

Indiana Chamber efforts in 2011 helped move Hoosier businesses into a lower rate schedule to offset some of the increased federal payments. The move is expected to save employers a combined $2 billion through 2020.

Who else has outstanding federal balances? Florida, New Jersey and Wisconsin owe between $1 million and $2 million. Those with less than a $1 million balance (biggest balance first) are Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Connecticut, Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Virginia, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Michigan, Kansas, Vermont, Alabama, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.

‘First, Do No Harm’ Should Apply in Schools

Far, far too many times criticism of K-12 education is seen as an attack on teachers. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not the educators in the classroom (or anywhere in the school building for that matter) who are standing in the way of what is in the best interests of students.

Consider these recent cases from around the country (courtesy of the Education Action Group):

  • For one Michigan educator, the annual costs of “non-membership” in the local, state and national teacher unions total $544.28. Andrew Buikema has been trying to leave the union since last spring, when he realized that union leaders were uninterested in helping the district control costs, even in the face of a multi-million dollar deficit.

 
“They keep asking for more and more, even though the school district can’t afford it,” he told EAG. “They’re concerned about taking care of the adults and have no consideration for the kids. I don’t want to be part of an organization that says one thing and does another,” he said.   

The union responded to his resignation request last month by sending approximately 150 pages of documents. The upshot of all those documents is this: Buikema can technically quit both unions, but he must still pay them $544.28 in “service fees,” which equals 67.7 percent of a normal union membership.
 

  • These days a lot of school budgets are being held together by the accounting equivalents of bailing wire and duct tape. But one Pennsylvania school district is so broke that it needs the state to provide the wire and the tape.

The Chester Upland School District began this week with only $100,000 in its savings account, and had no way of meeting its $1 million payroll – that is, until a judge ordered the state to give the district a  $3.2 million advance in its allowance.

The money will allow the teachers to be paid and the lights to remain on, at least for a few more weeks. The district is on track to be $20 million in debt by the end of the school year.

Since 2006, Chester Upland’s enrollment has dropped by almost 1,000 students. During that same time, the district has increased its workforce by 145 employees and its budget by $28 million.

  • Florida’s Marion County school district drew national headlines last summer when it announced that it was switching to a four-day school week as a way to save money. 

Other school officials took a more conventional route by laying off teachers and cutting student programs, all the while blaming Gov. Rick Scott for underfunding Florida’s public schools.

Now comes a report that finds 946 school employees in the Sunshine State earned at least $100,000 in 2010. That’s up 818 percent from 2005, according to the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The foundation also finds the percentage of non-school employees who earn at least six-figures has increased by only 7 percent during that same period.

 “During these five years, you have flat student enrollment, the biggest recession since the Great Depression and skyrocketing six-figure salaries – that adds up to a raw deal for Florida parents and taxpayers,” says Foundation CEO Tarren Bragdon.

Online vs. Main Street Tax Debate Continues

The dispute over collection of online sales taxes is not a new one. The Alliance for Main Street Fairness argues that online-only retailers have a distinct advantage, but the author offers that convenience (not avoiding sales taxes) drives the buying decisions for many. TechJournal South offers analysis:

Federal law currently requires retailers to collect sales taxes in states where they have a nexus (a physical presence such as a store, warehouse or other facilities). Since Internet-only retailers do not have a nexus in most states, they are not currently required to collect the taxes.

Other states wrestling with the problem include Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. The National Conference of State Legislatures says states lost about $8.6 billion in 2010 in failing to collect sales tax from online and catalog sales. The number is projected to be approximately $37 billion from 2009 to 2012.

Personally, we can see how buying a big ticket item from an online retailer might save a significant pieces of change, but even there, we doubt that most people buy online just so they won’t have to pay sales taxes. We buy online because it is convenient. We can do our shopping from our desks, which has inherent advantages that will not disappear when online retailers collect sales taxes.

We shop online because we often find a much wider selection available at the lowest possible prices online, whether we are looking for a book, a camera, or a refrigerator. We save gas and wear and tear on our vehicles and ourselves. But we have never bought an item online to avoid paying a sales tax.

Sooner or later, we suspect, this problem will be resolved through legal means that require online retailers to collect state sales taxes. That’s fine with us, although we think states threatening to collect years of back taxes are certainly wrong-headed as well as on legally shaky ground.

In the meantime, the way states and the online retailers are going about dealing with the problem is just causing more problems: such as Amazon dismissing its associates in North Carolina and other states attempting to use their status to say the reatailer has the physical presence in the state to create a nexus.

That move causes grief for many online startup businesses. Some larger ones actually left North Carolina when Amazon fired its state associates, and others complain it makes it harder to get that early revenue necessary to achieve outside growth funding.

Amazon is not helping matters by negotiating not to pay sales taxes even in states such as Texas, Indiana, Nevada and Tennessee where they have distribution centers.

The whole mess will likely require action on the part of the US Congress.  “The Main Street Fairness Act,” H.R. 5660 was introduced in the US House in July 2010, and it would behoove Congress to vote on the bill.

Moving Trucks are Headed To …

Sometimes the unscientific surveys provide the most interesting results. Why? Because you know not to fully accept what you find, but in more cases than not you also realize the conclusions are indicative of a bigger pattern or trend.

That’s one way to look at the annual migration results from United Van Lines. For 2010, it was based on more than 146,000 household moves between the 48 continental states.

A quick look at some of the findings:

  • Michigan was dethroned as the "outbound" (more than 55% of the moves being out of state) victim for the first time in five years by New Jersey. Not to worry, our northern neighbors were second in numbers fleeing for greener pastures.
  • Of the nine in the outbound category, Midwesterners Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania were also included.
  • The five "inbound" winners (at least 55% of the moves coming into the state) were, in order, the District of Columbia, Oregon (a top destination for 23 years of the 34-year report), North Carolina, Idaho and South Carolina.
  • Indiana, you ask? Among the 35 in the "balanced" category. But the 2,474 shipments out of the state compared to 2,076 inbound put it at the bottom of that category — 54.4% outbound.

But hey, we’ve got a lot of things going for us here in the Hoosier state. And we didn’t jack up our income taxes by 67% this week like our friends to the west. Just one of the many jokes is that action by the legislature after a contentious battle had to be "Ill nois(e)" to economic development officials and many others.

And it just might be enough to move to Illinois to the bottom of the moving list in 2011. 

Blame the Constitution for Capping House Size

I admit it. I’ve never given much thought to the number of people serving in the House of Representatives. I have no idea why there are 435, but that’s the way it’s been for the last century since Congress capped the size following the 1910 census. It all goes back to the Constitution, which specifies a maximum – but no minimum – total count.

As you can imagine, that’s caused some controversy over the years. Check out some of the details from Congress.org :

"The Constitution states that the number of representatives is one for every 30,000 people. How is it now limited to 435?" 

You’re right. The Constitution states that "the Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one representative."

With a current U.S. population of over 300 million, that would work out to about 10,000 representatives – not to mention the chiefs of staff, legislative analysts and spokesmen for each of them.

Until the 20th century, the size of the House increased after each census to reflect the growth in the country’s population. Over time, the growth in new states and the country’s population threatened to make the House too large to be a workable legislative body (insert your own joke here) in the views of many in D.C.

After the 1910 census, Congress fixed the size of the House at 435, where it remains today. Congress later made the cap official when it passed the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, which also established a procedure for automatically reapportioning seats after every census.

Under reapportionment, California’s delegation has grown from 11 members in the 1920s to 53 today. Florida, Texas and Arizona have also seen similar exponential jumps. Ohio, on the other hand, has gone from a high of 24 representatives to 18, while Pennsylvania has dropped from 36 to 19.