Friday, January 27, 2006

I did not know this 

A STATE legislature can recommend an investigation (or impeachment!) of the President.

Why is Congress' Katrina investigation being stonewalled? Where has the $87 billion been spent?

Our state reps can demand answers for such questions, unlike our GOP-dominated U.S. Congressional delegation, who continue to "hope" that they can "change the president's mind". After every disappointment, they'll continue to "hope" and try to soothe their constituents by saying they're "working hard" to convince the President to not oppose crucial legislation like the Baker bill.
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Games 

The Times-Picayune has (another) front page article on the games our SEVEN tax assessors play here in New Orleans. When there's an opportunity to lower their already ridiculously low assessments, you've never seen anyone work harder than these people. Lowering for flooded properties is appropriate, but they're doing it for everyone. Especially Mr. Al Coman, assessor for district 6. His family has had the assessorship "responsibilities" for most of Uptown for several generations. I predict that streak will end soon.

Bouquets to the T-P for keeping this story alive and well these past few years, and for Gov. Blanco who is actually looking at consolidating the seven New Orleans assessor offices in the upcoming special legislative session. I don't think she'll be able to force it through this session, but perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised.

---
I was talking with a banker who originates over $100 million in loans per year for a bank that begins with an "H", and he was instructing me how I coud avoid a high assessment. He said, "You don't want to give $X-amount to Willy Wonka each year, do ya?" I told him I thought the assessorship games would change relatively soon. He was skeptical, and didn't understand why I was reluctant to try his tax avoidance strategy. (The strategy was this: tell your friendly local assessor that you purchased a new home fully furnished, and therefore it should be assessed less than full sales price-- which seems to be the only time these assessors ever update their roles to the upside.)

These games need to stop. We need fair assessments, and we need to lower the prop. tax millages and make a big deal about how we're cutting tax rates (even though revenue would increase because current assessments are so ridiculously low.)
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Ew. 

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg)

A majority of Americans said the presidency of George W. Bush has been a failure and that they would be more likely to vote for congressional candidates who oppose him, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

Fifty-two percent of adults said Bush's administration since 2001 has been a failure, down from 55 percent in October. Fifty- eight percent described his second term as a failure. At the same point in former President Bill Clinton's presidency, 70 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said they considered it a success and 20 percent a failure.



Thank Zeus that our president doesn't care about polls. He just keeps strummin' along to his own tune.
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Thursday, January 26, 2006

President reminds this "part of the world" that it has already received "a lot" of money. 

Via the DP we learn of this exchange

Reporter:
...
[New Orleanians] feel, sir, that this is a certain betrayal of your promise that New Orleans would rise again. So, why did you reject [the Baker plan] and do you think the people of New Orleans have to expect that there is a limit to which the city can be rebuilt?

President Bush 1/26:

The plan for Louisiana hasn't come forward yet. And I urge the officials -- both state and city -- to work together so we can get a sense for -- how they're going to proceed.
...
A lot of the money we're spending is prescribed by law. But we also went a step further and proposed to Congress -- and they accepted -- CBG (Community Block Grants) money so the monies can go directly to individual families that need help.

[oy note: Bush originally proposed a scant $1.5 billion in Community Development Block Grants financing for the entire Gulf Coast!! That's about $800 million less than the construction and operating costs for the new U.S. embassy in Iraq.]

We'll continue to work with the folks down there. But I want to remind people in that part of the world that $85 billion is a lot.

And secondly, we were concerned about creating additional federal bureaucracies which might make it harder to get money to the people."
---


Thanks for the reminder about how much money we've "received" down here. Sounds like we'll hear that $85 billion number over and over in coming weeks. If the U.S. has already spent $85 billion "in this part of the world", I can finally understand why democracy building in Iraq will cost a trillion or two.

That reminds me, what is it with the prez and his relentless emphasis that the Gulf Coast is a "part of the world"? Just another helpful reminder, I guess. As we worry that the rest of the United States has forgotten us, the prez keeps saying we're in a "part of the world"... That Bush is so dadgum folksy.

Let's take a look at some selections from a single speech recently delivered by Bush 1/12/06 in St. Louis, MS:

I want to thank Roy Bernardi, who is the Deputy Secretary of HUD. He's going to have some stuff to do to make sure this part of the world rebounds. I like your Mayors. They're down-to-earth people. They are good, solid people. (Applause.)
...
I remember when Haley invited me down, and he said -- I think we were in a tent at that time, and there wasn't a lot of electricity, it was like an old-time daytime revival without electricity. It was hot in the tent -- it was the first meeting, I think, at least the first called meeting of the commission headed by Jim Barksdale. Citizens from all walks of life, all occupations, all aimed at one thing: putting together a strategy that will help this part of the world become even better than it was before.
...
I can remember people hollering for trailers. We became the largest consumer of trailers probably in the history of mankind. (Laughter.) And I know it was slow to begin with. The production needed to be ramped up, and, frankly, the government crowded out other purchasers in order to set priorities for people down in this part of the world.
...
One of the important -- and by the way, speaking about jobs, not only we got to make sure people have the skills necessary to fill the jobs, the federal government has got a lot of facilities down here, and there's a lot of federal employees in this part of the world. We're going to rebuild the federal facilities so that the people will be able to work. (Applause.)
...
Congress did a smart thing, in my judgment -- was to provide tax incentives for businesses who are in this part of the world. They provide taan investment in this part of the worldx incentives for small businesses to expense up to $200,000 of investment and private -- and incentive for all businesses to provide a 50-percent bonus depreciation for investment made. What I'm telling you is, it's kind of economic talk for saying, if somebody spends money in this part of the world they get a tax incentive to do so.
...

The other thing that happened quickly -- and I'm real proud of your folks down here -- was that the energy sector rebounded unbelievably fast. This part of the world is really important for national security and economic security of the United States of America. Remember when the storms hit, a lot of folks were really worried about the price of crude oil and gasoline.
...
Our Coast Guard, by the way, provided invaluable service here in this part of the country. (Applause.)

Part of the recovery of this part of the world is going to be when you get your infrastructure up and running. And I can remember first choppering over here and seeing the incredible devastation done to the bridges and highways. First of all, there has been some incredible construction done. The Slidell Bridge there, to the west of you, got up in record time. It's amazing what happens when you provide a completion bonus for people doing work. (Laughter.)

And I know you're concerned about the I-90 bridge. But they're getting ready to start on it, as I understand. And the bills I've signed provide $2.3 billion for repair of highways and bridges in this part of the world. That's going to provide not only jobs, but it's going to make the quality of life come back to what it was. You're dependent upon good highways and good bridges in this part of the world. The government recognized that and put the money out there available for reimbursing the states when they get these highway projects moving.
...
And school districts all over America took children from Louisiana and Mississippi and helped educate them. It was really remarkable to watch the education system rise to the challenge. In the bill there is $1.6 billion worth of operating money. It was money to help these schools stay afloat; it was to reimburse school districts for taking in the children who had evacuated to their part of the world.


And for good measure
this classic from Mobile, AL:

The faith-based groups and the community-based groups throughout this part of the world, and the country for that matter, are responding....
...
Again, I want to thank you all for -- and, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 -- (applause) -- they're working 24 hours a day.

Again, my attitude is, if it's not going exactly right, we're going to make it go exactly right.
...
And now we're going to go try to comfort people in that part of the world.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

 
9/7/05 President Bush:

What I intend to do is lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong, and I'll tell you why. It's very important for us to understand the relationship between the federal government and the state government and the local government when it comes to a major catastrophe.


1/25/06

The Bush administration, citing the confidentiality of executive branch communications, said Tuesday that it did not plan to turn over certain documents about Hurricane Katrina or make senior White House officials available for sworn testimony before two Congressional committees investigating the storm response.
...
Mr. Duffy said the administration had also declined to provide storm-related e-mail correspondence and other communications involving White House staff members.
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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

White House Stalls Katrina Probe 

AP:

The White House is crippling a Senate inquiry into the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina by barring administration officials from answering questions and failing to hand over documents, senators leading the investigation said Tuesday.
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White House opposes Baker Bill 

President Bush 9/15/05, Jackson Square, New Orleans:



And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.
...

In the task of recovery and rebuilding, some of the hardest work is still ahead, and it will require the creative skill and generosity of a united country.
...
And the federal government will undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, so they can rebuild in a sensible, well-planned way.
...
The Federal government will be fully engaged in the mission, but... Gov. Blanco, Mayor Nagin, and other state and local leaders will have the primary role in planning for their own future.
...
Our... commitment is this: when communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm.
...
To meet this goal, I will listen to good ideas from Congress, state and local officials and the private sector.

...
The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.

So, we've reached the zenith of absurdity. While the Bush administration continues its trillion-dollar nation-building effort in Iraq, and while it attempts to explain its trillion-dollar Medicare "deal" to befuddled seniors, it simultaneously kills a crucial piece of legislation needed to rebuild New Orleans. The reasons: Baker's innovative solution costs too much and would increase bureaucracy.

Now, I believe Bush is the most anti-Louisiana president in living memory, and this stingy maneuver shocked even me. I thought political circumstances necessitated passing some form of Richard Baker's bill. Instead, basically the following sequence occurred:


Bush: We pledge to do what it takes.

Louisiana: It's gonna take this.

Bush: We won't do that.


The following extended excerpt was lifted from Times-Picayune newslog update (by Bill Walsh):

In a severe blow to state and local plans for rebuilding hurricane-devastated areas, the Bush administration Tuesday came out against a homeowner bailout proposal that many in Louisiana saw as the key to economic recovery and the rebirth of a redesigned New Orleans.

Donald Powell, President Bush's choice to oversee the Gulf Coast recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said that grant money already appropriated by Congress -- as much as $6.2 billion for Louisiana -- would be "sufficient" to take care of homeowners who suffered the most in the storm.

Powell said the administration prefers the specifically defined financing of the grant program over an open-ended proposal by Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, that would set up a governmental agency to buy flood-damaged homes and pay off the mortgages for possible resale and redevelopment.

The administration has been coy about its position on the Baker bill since late last year, when it stalled in the final days of the congressional session. Public opposition by the White House now dramatically handicaps the bill's prospects.

"The monies Congress approved will be sufficient to meet the needs of uninsured homeowners," Powell said. "I think it is a much better approach (than the Baker bill), a more direct approach. It puts the process in the hands of the local people. It doesn't put government in the real estate business and it doesn't add another layer of bureaucracy."

The administration's opposition to the Baker bill drew a sharp criticism from Louisiana officials who say that the Community Development Block Grant financing isn't enough to cover the state’s dramatic housing needs.

"Clearly the $6 billion isn't enough," Baker said. "It ignores the vital recovery in the parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard, Cameron and parts of Plaquemines. That is unacceptable."

The Louisiana Recovery Authority, the panel established by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to oversee the state's recovery plans, estimated that 217,245 homes were destroyed in Katrina and Rita. Baker's bill would have drawn on federal financing to pay owners of flood-damage property at least 60 percent of the equity in their homes and paid off their mortgages as well.

New Orleans recovery officials had planned to use the Baker plan, or something like it, as a way to help homeowners who wanted to move out of more flood-prone areas into a smaller "city footprint" on higher ground that did not flood during Katrina.

But Powell said the administration is encouraging the state to focus on a much smaller subset of flood-damaged homes: An estimated 20,000 outside the flood plain whose owners lacked flood insurance. The administration believes they are the hardest-luck cases because they had no expectation of flooding and now find themselves without insurance money to pay for repairs.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority has said that 77,340 homes would fall into that category, more than three times the administration's estimate. But, significantly, Powell's figures do not include rental property, only owner-occupied dwellings. He said those homeowners are the most deserving of financial assistance and could be covered by Louisiana's share of $11.5 billion in Community Development Block Grants that Congress appropriated late last year. Louisiana's share is expected to be announced today.

"If you do the math, you can see that it would be enough to meet the need," Powell said.

Baker said that the administration told him that Louisiana should follow Mississippi's lead in helping homeowners. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has proposed using the bulk of his state's block grants -- expected to be about $5.3 billion -- to help an estimated 35,000 uninsured homeowners who were outside the flood plain. His plan could mean about $115,000 per household.

Louisiana officials have argued that Mississippi's solution wouldn’t work in their state, where flooding damage was more severe, including thousands of homes destroyed when federally built levees gave way in the storm. According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state suffered many times more damage to housing, schools, hospitals, businesses and infrastructure than Mississippi.

Tuesday's announcement has major implications for the land-use plan recommended by Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, a proposal that also received a favorable initial review by the state's Louisiana Recovery Authority.

A buyout mechanism such as the Baker bill was seen as critical to rebuilding New Orleans in a manner that avoids the so-called "jack-o-lantern effect," a term to describe neighborhoods in which some homes are repaired but large pockets turn into blighted properties. Moreover, members of the mayor's and state commissions repeatedly have emphasized the importance of safety guiding the rebuilding process, emphasizing that some residents might be better off moving to higher ground. Such relocations also would create a more densely populated city, seen as an important step so that cash-strapped New Orleans can afford to provide basic services.

But to accomplish the dual goals of creating population density and safer redevelopment of some low-lying parts of the city, a buyout of some property owners is seen as inevitable. A voluntary buyout program is viewed as needed to help homeowners who are willing to move to higher ground but otherwise will be forced to renovate their flooded properties where they sit, or walk away and face foreclosure, due to the limits of their flood insurance payouts.

While much attention has been focused on homeowners who did not have flood insurance because FEMA maps classified their neighborhoods as above the flood plain, even homeowners with flood insurance may not be much better off without a buyout option, particularly if their neighborhoods do not demonstrate a high rate of returning residents.

Federally backed flood insurance policies are intended to replace structures, but they do not compensate homeowners for the land. Therefore, the lack of a voluntary buyout option would encourage homeowners wishing to remain in New Orleans to renovate or rebuild where they are, regardless of the elevation of the property, essentially creating the potential for a cityscape that federal officials, members of the state's Louisiana Recovery Authority and planners have warned against.

Moreover, mortgage holders have first claim on insurance payouts which, depending on length of ownership, could leave some homeowners still owing a balance. Or, if the insurance pays off the mortgage, an owner could be left owning a destroyed home and a piece of land in a largely abandoned block.

[oy: Real Estate developer and Bush Pioneer level fundraiser] Joe Canizaro, who chaired the BNOB's land-use committee, has said there are ways besides the Baker bill to accomplish buyouts. But Canizaro said at the time he did not wish to elaborate because he was optimistic Congress would approve the Baker bill, in some form.

In a speech two weeks ago, Blanco called the grant money "a start" in addressing Louisiana's housing needs, but said she was counting on the Baker bill to make up the difference. Without the bill, Louisiana officials said, other recovery efforts will suffer.

"Our (grant) money was for housing, but we also have significant infrastructure and economic development needs," Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said. "We're very concerned."

Kopplin also took issue with the Bush administration's desire to focus primarily on owner-occupied dwellings. He said it unfairly excludes people who own rental property and those who resided in the federally designated flood plain, but figured high water would come from heavy rains, not storm surge pushed over and through protection levees.

"If you focus on the 20,000, you don't focus on folks who had no reason to expect to see the Gulf of Mexico washing up in their front yards or those who were depending on the federal levees which failed," Kopplin said.

Powell was careful to say that the emphasis on owner-occupied property is only a recommendation and federal rules give states wide latitude in how they spend grant money. He said that other programs are available for flood-damaged homeowners, such as Small Business Administration loans and up to $26,000 in assistance from the federal Emergency Management Agency.

Baker said he was caught off-guard by the administration's opposition to his bill. He had been talking with high-ranking administration officials since last fall as he tweaked the legislation and said he thought he had their tacit approval.

"Perhaps I was too optimistic, but I had encouragement from the administration along the way,"
he said. "I did not expect it to be rejected outright."

He said he still hasn't given up on the bill.

It passed out of a key House committee last year, 50-9, and he said that in the waning days of the 2005 session, he got positive signals from House leadership as well. He said he ran out of time to lobby the Senate, which was reluctant to act without a clear statement of position from the White House.
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"A midget... a midget..." 

Lovely had been begging me to post somepin about this "Trapped in the Closet" R. Kelly song/video/media experience.

I really didn't have anything to add, it speaks for itself. (We own Chapters 1-14 or so).

Luckily, Blake links so I don't have to.


---
Don't ask
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One day, we'll have the leanest, meanest, most honest underwater gubmint you ever saw... 

C.B. Forgotston:

Frankly, I'm pleased that Congress is showing some uncharacteristic sense in not rewarding our poor fiscal practices. They are finally rewarding those who are frugal and not those who are wasteful. We are getting way more money than we deserve.

There are some who hate corruption and waste in Louisiana so much that they've decided that Louisiana doesn't deserve any money for anything after an enormous catastrophe (much of it man-made). Their righteous hate, I suppose, clouds their judgment and even their perception of reality. How else can statements like the above be written by smart people? I'm at a loss to explain it otherwise.

Forgotston somehow believes that a Congress which OUTSPENT LYNDON JOHNSON is now rewarding states based on "Frugality"! That's the joke of the year! See, it's not clout, it's not connections, it's not lobbyists, it's not about Rovian red/blue political directives... No, not for these intrepid leges in D.C.... it's purely about "Frugality" and Parsimony and Economy of expenditures.... Katrina opened their eyes to wasteful spending, and now they're gonna do what's right! Hear hear!

When everything in the Abramoff matter is disclosed, this Congress might be the most visibly corrupt in recent memory. Yet, critics like Forgotston (and there are many) seemingly have to believe that since nothing is worse than Louisiana government, D.C.'s antagonism towards us must result from its desire to reward goodness and punish evil. The enemy of my enemy (the gret stet) is my friend, so I will overlook that enemies' faults.

According to Forgotston, we received "way more than we deserve" already; we just wasted it, that's all. For C.B. Forgotston, it's impossible for the government to give us too little in "handouts" to address matters like the Army Corps' inadequately-designed levees or the national security issue of marshland erosion along the Energy Coast.

Here's the equation for C.B., Chad, Emily and anyone else who is loathe to address the issue of wetlands loss as it pertains to flood protection for South Louisiana:

1. South Louisiana Will Be Lost Unless Coastal Erosion is Halted and Reversed.

2. Without Coastal Restoration, Levees and floodwalls are insufficient to protect South Louisiana from future storms.

3. Though expensive, saving the oil/gas infrastructure, the seafood industry, and our port system from coastal erosion (and therefore flooding) makes good economic sense.


That's the simple truth as I see it.

Yet, when South Louisiana's very survival is at stake, some want to focus on cutting taxes and red tape, and cheer Washinton D.C. (whose help is essential) for giving us pennies on the dollar to solve overwhelming problems like Wetlands loss. We've gotten "way more" than we deserve?!! Why don't you tell the cajuns in Dulac that they don't deserve any help to save their livelihoods. Then, in twenty years, tell New Orleans that Bush's Cat 3 levees are no good because the lack of surrounding wetlands have effectively doubled hurricane storm surge. Federal help is necessary for this crucial problem, right? That's why y'all ignore it, yes?

At this point, if you think we don't deserve any more federal funding, that's tantamount to saying South Louisiana doesn't deserve to exist. We can't fix this problem without outside help, and nothing else really matters if we don't get that help.
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Morning Reading 

Here are some articles about what the White House knew regarding the potential catastrophic consequences of Katrina.

Washington Post

New York Times

Times Picayune

Media and Bloggers are focusing on the following quote by President Bush (wapo):

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm," Bush said in a Sept. 1 interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."


Here's yesterday's White House response to media queries about the President's inane statement (nyt):


A White House spokesman, asked about the seeming contradiction between Mr. Bush's statement on Sept. 1 and the warning as the storm approached, said the president meant to say that once the storm passed and it initially looked as if New Orleans had gotten through the hurricane without catastrophic damage, no one anticipated at that point that the levees would be breached.

Obviously, the second sentence of Bush's comment indicates that he was talking about the widespread anticipations prior to the storm. Not the anticipations during the interim between the storm and the breaches which followed. So the spokesman basically recasted the entire statement.

[Update: post has been edited for improvement purposes only.]

What's your reading of these articles?


---
Michael has some pertinent photos, and a Nietzsche reference.
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Monday, January 23, 2006

 
The Times-Picayune has provided a lot of good information in recent months. However, in Sunday's "Answer Spot" column, there was one important question that was pretty much sidestepped. I'll reprint it below:


I was a renter at the time of Hurricane Katrina and had a complete loss. I have been approved through the SBA for $40,000 payable over 30 years at $170 each month. I would like to know if this money can be used for a down payment on a home.

[Answer:] Generally, the purpose of an SBA disaster loan is to help the disaster victim return to their pre-storm circumstances by using disaster loan funds to repair or replace damaged property that they owned, so you might not be able to use the money for a down payment on a house. Check with the SBA Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 on the specifics of your loan approval.

What a lame reply!! Where's the "answer" there?! Basically the paper told the person with the question: "Well, seems unlikely, you might not be able to, but call the 800-number."

The answer is YES, YES you can use an SBA loan as the down payment on a new house. And that's huge, because the SBA offers 30 year loans in the 2% range with the first 12 months of payments deferred!

Wouldn't those attractive terms be useful to several thousand New Orleanians right now?

Isn't the option of using a low interest loan with 12 months of deferred payments (and no penalties!) on a new house worth checking out in-depth? Who gives a rat's patoot about what the program was "designed" to do, or what "generally" occurs? These are unprecedented, unusual circumstances, and if you want to legally use SBA loans for non-traditional purposes, I say go for it!

I had the same question a couple months ago and spoke with several SBA reps, including the SBA legal department. They didn't hem and haw about the program's supposed "design" and what "generally" occurs, they said, flat out: "YES, you can use the SBA loan towards a new house. Here's what you have to do...". (Naturally there is some additional paperwork and hoops to jump through).

Now, the SBA certainly doesn't advertise this strategy. But when you ask about it, they don't discourage you from doing it like the Times-Picayune seemed to do. Just ask, and ask again. I guarantee you that this innovative strategy is possible; it's just a matter of additional paperwork.

If someone at SBA is unsure or tells you this isn't possible, talk to their legal department who is paid to know these things. Unfortunately, not everyone at SBA can competently locate their gonads in the dark.

---
For example:

I had a little spat with the SBA about a tax law question for a business loan, and they told me I'd done something incorrectly and advised me to withdraw my Business Loan application. Then they sent me a scary letter saying that they were referring the matter to the IRS for review.

So I go to a $175/hour CPA who specializes in these things and he says I was right and I shouldn't be surprised that the SBA didn't know tax law. So I call my SBA contact and he basically says "oops, sorry, we'll begin the reconsideration process for your application. That should take 4-6 weeks."

And I ask him "So what about the red flag you raised with the IRS about my file? The last thing I need right now after losing all my records in the flood is an IRS audit. Can you send them another letter saying that you (and your supervisor!) were totally ignorant of applicable business tax laws?"

"I'm sorry, no."

---
Fantasy continuance of conversation.

"Cool. So where y'all based? Cowtown?"

"Yes"

"What a gorgeous metropolis that is. Say, do you read the Ft Worth Weekly? It mentioned my blog last year in an article about a headbanging incident involving a dinner mint."

"No, I somehow missed that. But congratulations, Mr. Oyster. You must be very proud."

"Happy Mardis Gras to you and yours."
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