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Paying the price at the pumps

HANFORD — Around lunchtime Thursday, cars began to pull into Buford Star Mart gas station and drivers began fueling up their cars. The only thing different about the normal, everyday scene was customers were paying 12 more cents to the gallon at the pump.

“A lot of us sometimes barely have enough money to put gas in our vehicles, and they’re just making it even more difficult,” said customer Andrew Nollan. “That 12 cents adds up every gallon.”

Senate Bill 1 was signed in April by Gov. Jerry Brown and increased the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and diesel tax by 20 cents per gallon starting Wednesday. The bill also increased vehicle license and registration fees.

Nollan said he believes it’s not fair to the state’s residents to pay even more money on top of the already high gas prices.

“It’s ridiculous,” Nollan said. “What is California’s actual agenda behind this?”

Most Republicans opposed the bill, including state Senator Andy Vidak (R-Hanford).

“I adamantly opposed SB 1 and its regressive tax hike on gasoline and diesel fuel,” Vidak said in a statement. “Small businesses, the struggling middle class, the working poor, the unemployed, seniors on fixed incomes, people living in disadvantaged communities or areas ravaged by recent fires, and struggling students are just some of those who will suffer under these tax hikes pushed by Brown and the majority of the Legislature.

On his website, Vidak told residents that as they begin to see gasoline and diesel costs skyrocket, they should remember to put the blame on Brown and the 81 legislators who voted to increase the gas tax.

The gas tax will also hit the farming community pretty hard, especially with diesel prices rising significantly.

Dusty Ference, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau, said many people in the farming and agriculture community were not supportive of the tax hike.

"It's definitely a hit to the industry," Ference said. "Most of our tractors are diesel, so it's one more expense to overcome."

The tax hike is supposed to provide $5.4 billion annually for road and bridge repairs, maintenance and rehabilitation; safety projects on local streets and roads; and expanded mass transit across the state.

The California State Department of Transportation said in a press release that revenue will be “split evenly between state and local agencies” and “effectively doubles transportation dollars for local cities and counties, and doubles the maintenance dollars for state highways.”

"SB 1 is a game-changing investment for not only the state highway system, but our local transportation partners benefit from significantly investing in their transportation infrastructure as well,” Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said in the released statement. “State and local projects are already being lined up to deliver real results for all users of California’s vast transportation system."

As a smog technician, Nollan said he sees plenty of vehicle registration forms that say the money is going toward road maintenance, but said there are a lot of roads that need work and he rarely sees any road repairs taking place.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Nollan said. “I don’t see freeways getting fixed any faster, or anything like that, so, where’s the money going?”

Rachel Denison, another customer pumping gas, said the new gas tax is a bummer, especially for hardworking people who need gas to go back and forth to work and are just trying to stay afloat on top of the other bills they have.

“It seems like everything in California is being taxed wherever you turn around,” Denison said. “It’s getting too high to live here.”

Denison said she hopes the money actually does go toward maintaining the roads like it’s supposed to.

“I don’t like it, but I guess if it has to be done, then it has to be done,” Denison said. “There’s really nothing we can do about it.”

Big GOP tax bill would cut rates — but also popular breaks

WASHINGTON — With fanfare and a White House kickoff, House Republicans unfurled a broad tax-overhaul plan Thursday that would touch virtually all Americans and the economy's every corner, mingling sharply lower rates for corporations and reduced personal taxes for many with fewer deductions for home-buyers and families with steep medical bills.

The measure, which would be the most extensive rewrite of the nation's tax code in three decades, is the product of a party that faces increasing pressure to produce a marquee legislative victory of some sort before next year's elections. GOP leaders touted the plan as a sparkplug for the economy and a boon to the middle class and christened it the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

"We are working to give the American people a giant tax cut for Christmas," President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office. The measure, he said, "will also be tax reform, and it will create jobs."

It would also increase the national debt, a problem for some Republicans. And Democrats attacked the proposal as the GOP's latest bonanza for the rich, with a phase-out of the inheritance tax and repeal of the alternative minimum tax on the highest earners — certain to help Trump and members of his family and Cabinet, among others.

"If you're the wealthiest 1 percent, Republicans will give you the sun, the moon and the stars, all of that at the expense of the great middle class," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

And there was enough discontent among Republicans and business groups to leave the legislation's fate uncertain in a journey through Congress that leaders hope will deposit a landmark bill on Trump's desk by year's end.

Underscoring problems ahead, some Republicans from high-tax Northeastern states expressed opposition to the measure's elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah called the House measure "a great starting point" but said it would be "somewhat miraculous" if its corporate tax rate reduction to 20 percent — a major Trump goal — survived. His panel plans to produce its own tax package in the coming days.

GOP lawmakers concede that if the tax measure collapses, their congressional majorities are at risk in next November's elections.

The package's tax reductions would outweigh its loophole closers by a massive $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. Many Republicans were willing to add that to the nation's soaring debt as a price for claiming a resounding tax victory. But it was likely to pose a problem for others — one of several brushfires leaders will need to extinguish to get the measure through Congress.

Republicans must keep their plan's shortfall from spilling over that $1.5 trillion line or the measure will lose its protection against Democratic Senate filibusters, bill-killing delays that take 60 votes to overcome. There are just 52 GOP senators and unanimous Democratic opposition is likely.

The bill would telescope today's seven personal income tax brackets into just four: 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent.

• The 25 percent rate would start at $45,000 for individuals and $90,000 for married couples.

• The 35 percent rate would apply to family income exceeding $260,000 and individual income over $200,000, which means many upper-income families whose top rate is currently 33 percent would face higher taxes.

• The top rate threshold, now $418,400 for individuals and $470,700 for couples, would rise to $500,000 and $1 million.

The standard deduction — used by people who don't itemize, about two-thirds of taxpayers — would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. That's expected to encourage even more people to use the standard deduction with a simplified tax form Republicans say will be postcard-sized.

Many middle-income families would pay less, thanks to the bigger standard deduction and an increased child tax credit. Republicans said their plan would save $1,182 in taxes for a family of four earning $59,000, but features like phase-outs of some benefits suggest their taxes could grow in the future.

"The plan clearly chooses corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers over teachers and police officers," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

One trade-off for the plan's reductions was its elimination of breaks that millions have long treasured. Gone would be deductions for people's medical expenses — especially important for families facing nursing home bills or lacking insurance — and their ability to write off state and local income taxes. The mortgage interest deduction would be limited to the first $500,000 of the loan, down from the current $1 million ceiling.

Led by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the authors retained the deductibility of up to $10,000 in local property taxes in a bid to line up votes from Republicans from the Northeast. The panel planned to begin votes on the proposal next Monday.

"It's progress, but I want more," said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who wants the entire property tax deduction restored.

Reduced to 25 percent would be the rate for many "pass-through" businesses, whose profits are taxed at the owners' individual rate. But some of those companies would face higher rates.

Manafort attacks special counsel's case as 'embellished'

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman attacked an indictment accusing him of money laundering and other financial crimes, dismissing as "embellished" a criminal case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators.

Attorneys for Paul Manafort defended him in a court filing Thursday as a "successful, international political consultant" who, by nature of his work on behalf of foreign political parties, was necessarily involved in international financial transactions. They argued that Manafort, who led Trump's campaign for several months last year, had done nothing wrong and did not pose a risk of fleeing the country.

The filing was the first volley from Manafort's defense team seeking to undermine a 12-count indictment charging him and longtime business associate Rick Gates in connection with their political consulting work for Ukraine's former ruling party. The charges were the first announced by Mueller, the former FBI director appointed as special counsel in May to run the Justice Department's investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.

They were placed on house arrest earlier this week, released on multimillion-dollar bonds meant to guarantee their appearances for future court dates. Both men appeared Thursday in federal court in Washington, where a judge determined that they would remain on home confinement and electronic monitoring at least through the weekend.

Attorneys for Manafort, 68, and Gates, 45, are asking U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to lift the conditions of their home confinement and say the bonds are enough to ensure they show up for court. The judge said she would take up the matter again at a hearing on Monday, but in the meantime, directed attorneys on both sides to not comment publicly on the case. Manafort's attorney, Kevin Downing, had issued a statement to reporters outside the courthouse on Monday.

"I expect counsel to do their talking in the courtroom and in their pleadings, and not on the courthouse steps," Jackson said.

Besides the indictment of Manafort and Gates, prosecutors revealed a guilty plea from a campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos, who admitted lying to the FBI about foreign contacts during the campaign.

Prosecutors disclosed additional details about the wealth and international connections of Manafort and Gates in a court filing earlier this week that sought to keep them confined to their houses. The prosecutors note that Manafort has provided widely differing accounts of his assets in the past few years. In 2016 alone, he provided six different figures, ranging from $25 million to $136 million.

Manafort also has three passports. And prosecutors say that in March, he registered a phone and an email account using an alias. He then used that phone to travel to China, Mexico and Ecuador, according to the filings, which do not say what alias he used.

In a response Thursday, Downing countered that the passports are in his client's name and noted that, though "it may be surprising to some, it is perfectly permissible to have more than one U.S. passport." He dismissed the allegation that Manafort was a flight risk, saying his client has traveled abroad and returned to the U.S., all while being well aware that he was under federal investigation and faced a possible criminal indictment.

Downing also denied that Manafort was involved in any criminal activity related to his Ukrainian work. All funds that went through offshore bank accounts were from "legal sources," he said.

Manafort was not trying to conceal his assets, his attorney said, noting that funds originating in Ukraine and going through Cyprus ultimately arrived in the United States.

"Obviously, international funds entering the U.S. banking system, or going to U.S. vendors, are traceable and subject to U.S. process," Downing said. "It goes without saying that in an international scheme to conceal assets, individuals generally move them offshore, not to the United States."

The defense lawyers also challenged the inclusion in the indictment of allegations that Manafort failed to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department. The Justice Department, they said, has brought only six criminal prosecutions under that statute since 1966 and secured only one conviction during that period.