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web posted January 28, 2002

Limbaugh tells listeners he can hear again

With the aid of a cochlear implant in his left ear, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh announced on January 21 that he is able to hear his show again for the first time since he learned last year he was suffering from near total deafness.

"For the first time in four months via a medical marvel, ... I'm hearing this," Limbaugh announced. "One of the most frustrating aspects of this show is my inability to hear it."

The radio personality used his syndicated talk show to detail the process of receiving the implant last month. Despite his hearing loss, Limbaugh has continued his daily broadcast to nearly 20 million listeners, responding to callers with the aid of a TelePrompTer and his staff's assistance.

"It's way too soon to say that I have recovered 'X' amount of my hearing because there's so many facets," he said. "It's going to be months before all of those answers are in."

Limbaugh first learned he had a hearing problem May 29, and he told his listeners in October that he was almost entirely deaf as a result of an autoimmune inner-ear disease. He said he had lost 100 percent hearing in his left ear and 80 percent in his right ear.

Acting on the advice of his doctor, Limbaugh said he chose to have the implant in one ear only because doctors "destroy" the inner ear to implant the device.

"This is irreversible; had this not worked, it was tough toenails," he quipped.

Last year, Limbaugh signed a nine-year contract with Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates his show to nearly 600 stations, for a total salary package reported to exceed $200 million.

Nearly 1 in 4 taxpayers says some degree of cheating OK

More Americans say that cheating at least a little on taxes is acceptable, coinciding with the declining likelihood that they will be caught through an audit.

About 76 percent of taxpayers agreed when asked in a recent survey if they should cheat "not at all" on their taxes - meaning almost a quarter felt otherwise. Eleven percent said it was OK to cheat "a little here and there," with 5 percent saying people could cheat "as much as possible."

Each number represents a significant change compared with 1999, when the Internal Revenue Service asked taxpayers the same questions. The biggest difference was in the "not at all" question: 87 percent agreed then that any cheating was unacceptable.

The most recent survey was conducted by the Roper polling organization for the IRS Oversight Board, created by Congress as an independent agency watchdog. The survey involved 1,990 in-person interviews of adults conducted in late July and early August and contained a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The board's chairman, Larry Levitan, said although the survey only presents a short-term snapshot of taxpayer attitudes, it does "indicate some erosion in the commitment to the importance of paying taxes."

"If future results show a continuation of that attitude, that's a cause for alarm," Levitan said. The board intends to do similar surveys each year, he said.

The survey findings come as the IRS struggles to reverse a long decline in its enforcement activity, including the steep slide in audits.

In 1988, one out of every 79 tax returns was audited, or a total of about 1.77 million. But by 2000, the 716,000 audits represented only one out of every 232 returns.

There are several reasons for this, the Oversight Board found. The number of IRS employees has dropped over the same period, even as the number of returns filed continues to rise. The tax code itself gets bigger and more complicated every year, coming in at about 1.4 million words and 20,000 pages of regulations. The IRS also must operate with 1960s-era mainframe computers, which are gradually being phased out.

The IRS announced last week it would randomly check about 50,000 returns this year, in an effort to glean information to target audits better in the future. IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti told reporters the number of audits may not rise very quickly but that the agency intends get better results by focusing on people considered likely cheaters.

"We hope (the audit rate) won't go down any further, because it's already pretty low," Rossotti said. "But at least with the ones that we have, we'll be able to be more effective."

Tax experts say confidence in the tax system erodes if people believe their neighbors are getting away with cheating. More and more people may be persuaded to cheat, further calling into question the system's fairness and reducing government revenue.

"If we can't make sure that everyone pays their fair share, then honest taxpayers get stuck making up the difference," Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said this week.

The Oversight Board gave its support to this year's random audits, saying in its report there is an "urgent need" to gain better research on taxpayer compliance.

Regarding the decades-old computer systems, the board recommended that Congress approve nearly $1 billion over the next two years to keep the modernization program moving along - with another $500 million a year necessary for several more years beyond that.

"The IRS has been broken," Levitan said. "The service to taxpayers is not what it should be. The level of enforcement is not adequate. So much of it revolves around inefficient technology, and in order to fix the IRS, we have to get modernization done as quickly as possible."

'Smart card' plan in Ontario gets the scissors

The province of Ontario has quietly shelved plans for a provincial "smart card" system after spending more than 20 months and at least $12.5 million on the controversial initiative.

The system, first touted in the Throne Speech of October, 1999, could eventually have placed health, birth, driver's licence and other personal information on a single high-tech ID card for all Ontario residents.

Called the Smart Card Project, the goal was to improve access to public services and reduce fraud. But privacy advocates, including Canada's federal privacy watchdog, warned that the cards threatened to erode personal freedoms by giving "Big Brother" another tool for electronic surveillance.

Despite privacy concerns, a Management Board spokespersonsaid that the project, hailed by some as one of the world's most sophisticated smart-card initiatives, has been shelved primarily for financial reasons.

"It's financially untenable at this time," said Julie Rosenberg, adding it was a "tough decision" to pull the plug. "The government decided to wind down the smart card project and to move forward with card technology only when it is fiscally viable to do so."

Management Board spent $12.5 million for research and consulting services necessary to plan and design the card and the initial registration process.

The knowledge the government gained won't go to waste, said Rosenberg, adding that the health ministry will use the research to help "speed up the engineering of the current health card system." The Ministry of Consumer and Business Services will inherit whatever is left over.

Catherine Johnson, president of the Advanced Card Technology Association of Canada and a member of the government's external smart-card advisory council, said she is "very surprised" the government would walk away from its plan at a time when Canadians are more supportive than ever of initiatives that reduce fraud and enhance security.

Four weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, an Ipsos-Reid poll found that four in five Canadians would be willing to submit fingerprints for a national ID card, indicating that most were willing to give up some privacy for increased security.

"I'm perplexed that after Sept. 11 we aren't aggressively moving toward technologies that are tamper-resistant," said Johnson, who received a letter from Management Board on Dec. 28 informing advisory council members that the project was ending.

Johnson said building the smart-card infrastructure would have been expensive, but the government must take into account savings that would come from reducing fraud and improving efficiency.

The original plan was to begin enrolling Ontario residents into the smart-card program this year, with a focus on replacing the old red-and-white, magnetic-strip health cards, which are less secure than the newer photo cards.

Over time, the intention was to add other information and features to the tiny computer chip embedded into the card, including organ-donor, birth certificate and Medic Alert information, voter registration data, fishing and hunting permits, and educational enrolment information.

Biometrics technology, such as fingerprint identification, was considered as an added security feature, but privacy concerns made it too contentious.

The project has been criticized for lacking transparency and being improperly managed. A source close to the project said the initiative appeared doomed because the health ministry was hesitant to co-operate with other departments.

Another source said dozens of consultants were being paid an average $1,500 a day even though it was general knowledge the project was to end.

"There's been nothing to do for the past three months," said the source, who requested anonymity. "Hundreds of thousands in consulting fees were being paid out, even though the decision had already been made to begin winding down. It's disappointing. Why waste all that money if it ends up in the trash?"

Similar ambitions by previous Liberal and New Democrat governments also led nowhere.

Moore breaks with Daschle, says last year's tax package was warranted

U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore on January 25 said he disagrees with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's position that last year's tax relief package passed by Congress may have been a mistake.

Speaking to the Congressional Forum of the Kansas City, Kan., Area Chamber of Commerce, Moore, a Democrat, said that tax relief may have kept the economy from slipping into a deeper recession.

But with economists predicting a recovery later this year, should Congress do more now to pull the economy out of the doldrums? Moore is trying to find the answer to that question.

Within the next few weeks, Moore said, he may have to vote on a new economic stimulus plan.

He voted against two recent proposals. Those included the House-passed Republican plan that included more tax cuts and a Democratic plan that Moore thought spent too much money.

The House plan was later killed by Senate Democrats, with Daschle offering a plan to pass a 13-week extension of jobless benefits. It didn't pass either.

So Congress will try again to come up with a bipartisan plan.

Moore said the war on terrorism and the need to finance homeland security will result in some deficit spending. Tax cuts that are too large, he said, make that deficit even larger.

The projected surplus, he noted, has been scaled back from $5.6 trillion a year ago to $1.6 trillion today.

He worried that deficit spending could cause interest rates to rise and hurt economic expansion.

"Whatever we do, we'll have to live with the consequences in the future," he said. "We're in a deficit-spending mode right now, but we've got to keep our eye on the ball."

At the same time, Moore said he worried about people laid off during the recession. He said Congress should approve a worker benefits package that includes extended unemployment benefits and help in paying the cost of workers' health insurance.

Since Sept. 11, the lawmaker said, congressional focus has been on Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. That will turn more to domestic policies in the coming months, he added.

"I'm not interested in massive tax cuts or massive new spending," he said.

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