How to spend $24,000 on takeout as prime minister of Israel


$68,000 over two years for makeup and hairstyling.

$1,000 in bottle-deposit refunds.

$20,000 in cleaning costs.

And perhaps most impressively, $24,000 for takeout in one year.

Those numbers are part of the “October surprise” in Israel's election, which will take place on March 17. They come from a report by the state comptroller released Tuesday, and they detail spending by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

The impressive takeout figures—an average of $66 every day—are all the more stunning since Netanyahu is provided with a live-in chef. But aren't they—no pun intended—sort of small potatoes?

Read more at The Atlantic.

Congress triples Obama’s request on defense cooperation with Israel


The final version of the congressional defense budget triples the Obama administration’s request for funding for joint U.S.-Israel defense cooperation.

The $284 million in the budget released jointly on Dec. 10 by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate budget committees — up from the $96 million requested by the Obama administration — includes funding for the Arrow long-range anti-missile system and the David’s Sling and Iron Dome missile defense systems. The full National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 is virtually assured passage.

Defense cooperation funding, to which Israel contributes, is separate from the $3.1 billion Israel receives in defense assistance as part of a 10-year package.

Additionally, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation that would create a strategic energy partnership between Israel and the United States. The measure, referred to the full House on Dec. 10, amends the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and is designed to strengthen collaboration between Israel and the United States on energy development.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) led the charge for the countries to develop ways for long-term, strategic cooperation on energy matters.

Plan for future pitfalls


Changes in the economy and workforce have taken their toll on baby boomers, a generation that carries a longer life expectancy than its predecessors as well as the financial burdens that come with it.  

People are working longer and retiring later in life. Possible cuts in government spending could result in reduced payouts to Social Security and Medicare, making things even more challenging. 

The good news is that while boomers may have less time to weather the ups and downs of the stock market than younger investors, it’s not too late for them to plan for their financial future. In doing so, experts suggest considering not just financial goals, but one’s values and the type of lifestyle one desires.

For those in the “Me” generation counting on a pension, Social Security benefits or some type of mutual funds, make sure in advance that the fund will be enough to maintain a desired standard of living. Otherwise, you may have to consider working past your anticipated retirement age, according to Karen Codman, an investment adviser from Long Beach.

Take into account the fact that you won’t be working. Because of that, you may be tempted to spend more. 

“The conventional wisdom that they hear on the radio is that it’s going to cost so much less when you retire,” Codman said. “I’ve heard estimates between 50 and 70 percent of what it costs now. The reality is you now have 365 days of shopping and travel time, and most people don’t want to reduce their standard of living.” 

When you add this to potential medical expenses, you may find that you actually need more than you originally allocated. 

Ira Cohen, 54, of Long Beach has been a crane operator since 1979 and plans to retire in eight years. He is practicing living below his means now, so that he will be used to living off his pension. 

“Six years ago I had a wake-up call, and I took a look at how I was living and really simplified my lifestyle,” Cohen said. “I’m living today as if I was collecting my pension and trying to save the extra money.” 

And if you are considering retiring early, understand that sometimes it’s better to work until you are eligible to receive full Social Security payments. 

Codman said that if you have an investment portfolio, make sure that it is both diverse and tax-efficient. She advises putting funds that will be needed sooner in life in conservative investments while other money goes to riskier investments. 

Take into account how the monies will be taxed and decide if a Roth IRA fund is right for you. This will allow you to pay the taxes on these accounts up front so you won’t have to worry about it on the back end. This can help keep your tax bracket lower during retirement so your Social Security doesn’t get taxed as much, Codman advises.

Financial adviser Marc Weiss of Archer Weiss Insurance in Woodland Hills said that several of his clients are looking to only make conservative investments due to the uncertainty in the market. 

Some baby boomers also are taking out life insurance policies on their parents with plans to use the death benefits to support themselves later in life, Weiss said.

In general, both financial advisers agree that everyone should meet with a financial adviser instead of basing financial decisions solely on what they read in the paper or hear on the news. One size rarely fits all when it comes to financial planning, 

In addition to your personal financial planning, a customized estate plan is another helpful tool to help avoid problems for loved ones, according to Benjamin A. Brin, an estate planning attorney from Los Angeles.

“You actually already have an estate plan, whether you know it or not,” Brin said. “You’ve got a one-size-fits-all, supposedly free plan from the government called ‘probate.’ ”

Probate court is the process the government uses to transfer ownership of assets. An estate plan circumvents this by providing a pre-arranged transfer of your assets after death. Even if you have a will, you may still have to go through probate, and the only way for Californians to avoid the process entirely is to include a living trust as part of an estate plan. This will save your loved ones money in lawyer fees, time and court dates, as well as a lot of potential discord, Brin said.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to planning for the future, however, could be knowing the difference between money you can and can’t afford to lose, he added.

“Unless you are a professional investor, then don’t think of savings as investments; think of them as savings.” 

Monday night vote on ‘cliff’ deal very likely, Sen. Corker says


[UPDATE: 3:40 pm] Republican Senator Bob Corker said it is “highly likely” that the U.S. Senate will vote Monday night on a bill to avoid the brunt of the “fiscal cliff.”

[3:30 pm] Republican Senator Jon Kyl also said the chamber is still hopeful that negotiations will advance to the point that a vote is possible later on Monday.

The United States was on track to tumble over the “fiscal cliff” at midnight on Monday, at least for a day, as lawmakers held back from supporting an eleventh-hour plan from Senate leaders to avert severe tax increases and spending cuts.

The U.S. House of Representatives looked unlikely to vote on a Senate “fiscal cliff” plan before midnight, possibly pushing a legislative decision into New Year's Day, when financial markets will be closed.

The plan was heavy on tax increases and light on spending cuts, which was unlikely to appeal to Republicans in the House.

It would raise income taxes on high-income Americans, but leave taxes at current levels for the middle class, a key goal of President Barack Obama.

But there was discontent among Senate Democrats worried that the proposal did not go far enough in taxing the rich. The Democrats asked for a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden to have him explain the talks he was having with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The caucus as a whole is not sold” on the plan, said a Senate Democratic aide. “We just don't have the votes for it.”

If Congress fails to act, about $600 billion in tax increases – m uch steeper than those in the Senate plan – and government-wide spending cuts will begin taking effect after midnight, harsh measures that could lead to a recession.

But lawmakers could still vote for a deal on New Year's Day or later and prevent the worst of the fiscal cliff effects.

The House expects to reconvene on Tuesday at noon, Republican Representative Steven LaTourette said. He added that House members had been told to stay close on Monday evening and that they may be called back to continue negotiations.

Under the Senate plan, income above $450,000 per household or $400,000 per individual would be taxed at 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent. Income up to those levels would be taxed at the current, reduced tax rates put in place under former President George W. Bush.

The Senate plan would raise estate taxes on inherited wealth and permanently fix the alternative minimum tax, or AMT, so that it did not threaten each year to sweep in millions of middle-income Americans for whom it was not intended.

The plan also postpones for two months the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts in defense and domestic programs that are part of the fiscal cliff, Senator John McCain said.

SENATE DEMOCRATS UNSURE

Some Senate Democrats did not like the $450,000 threshold for raising taxes on the rich – they wanted $250,000 – or the higher threshold for raising estate taxes. Democrats also are upset there is no agreement yet to put off the first round of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts.

Republicans already are pushing for switching those across-the-board cuts to savings in the Medicare and Social Security healthcare and retirement programs and threatening to block a debt limit increase in February unless they get their way. But that is a fight that would most likely play out in January and February.

Some Senate Democrats aides were dispirited that Biden, a fellow Democrat, had gone further than they wanted in the fiscal cliff talks, j u st as he did in December 2010 when all Bush tax cuts were extended for two years.

Shortly after the plan emerged, Obama said agreement was within sight, but he sounded a cautious note.

“There are still issues to resolve, but we're hopeful that Congress can get it done, but it's not done,” Obama, a Democrat, said at a White House event.

U.S. stocks rose on the day, with the market closing before the latest news broke about the House not voting. The benchmark Dow Jones industrial average closed up 1.3 percent at 13,104.

Even if the country tumbles over the cliff, legislative action afterward could soften the blow.

Final legislation can be backdated to Jan. 1, for instance, said law firm K&L Gates partner Mary Burke Baker, who spent decades at the Internal Revenue Service.

“The important date is the date in the legislative language … no matter what day the Senate or House pass the law, or the date the president signs it,” she said.

Former Obama administration Treasury Department tax official Michael Mundaca agreed, although he said there would likely be delays in filing for many taxpayers as the IRS gets its computers into gear.

A deal on Tuesday will likely leave unsolved the issue of the “debt ceiling,” which caps how much debt the federal government can hold.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a letter to congressional leaders that the government would suspend some investments in pension and health benefit funds for federal workers beginning on Monday in a move that allows it to keep borrowing for the meantime.

Editorial Cartoon: The Supreme Court taketh away… and the Supreme Court giveth


GOP candidates push back on cutting aid to Israel


Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain pushed back against a proposal by Ron Paul to cut funding to Israel.

Paul, a Texas congressman, during the GOP debate Tuesday in Las Vegas repeated his proposal to cut foreign aid, including the $3 billion Israel receives annually in defense assistance.

“That foreign aid makes Israel dependent on us,” he said. “It softens them for their own economy. And they should have their sovereignty back, they should be able to deal with their neighbors at their own will.”

Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, and Cain, a businessman, pushed back.

“We should not be cutting foreign aid to Israel,” Bachmann said. “Israel is our greatest ally. The biggest problem with this administration and foreign policy is that President Obama is the first president since Israel declared her sovereignty who put daylight between the United States and Israel. That’s heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region.”

Cain said, “If we clarify who our friends are, clarify who our enemies are, and stop giving money to our enemies, then we ought to continue to give money to our friends, like Israel.”

The debate was sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

A Las Vegas focus group of likely GOP voters conducted on the eve of the debate by The Israel Project found unanimous support for continuing aid levels to Israel.

Fiscal conservative ISO tax and spend liberal


Budget Woes


One year ago, Gov. Gray Davis was calling for across-the-board cuts in every state department except the prisons, mass layoffs of workers and huge bites out of most programs for the disadvantaged.

Davis’ budget-slashing plan of January 2003 was ignored by the legislature and pilloried by the media. In the end, Davis failed to meet the fiscal crisis and lost his job because of it. Now, a year later, some critics are saying Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget is little more than Davis redux.

In fact, the Schwarzenegger plan represents a significant departure from business as usual, and offers a template for fundamental change in the capitol.

This is not to say that Schwarzenegger’s proposal is free of the familiar. Just as with the Davis plan, it would hurt local service agencies that rely on Medi-Cal. Although the idea is being challenged in court, such service groups face a proposed 10-percent rate cut.

Paul Castro, executive director/CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which serves 60,000 people a year, said $600,000 would be cut to providers of services like the Multipurpose Senior Services Program.

"Seniors stay at home for about half the cost of putting them in a nursing home, so cutting money to this saves on one side of the ledger but costs more on the other side," Castro said.

Molly Forrest, chief executive for the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, said she coped with last year’s cuts by trimming expenses and increasing private fundraising for the home that serves 800 residents.

"The governments are not prepared to deal with the fact that people are living much longer," said Forrest, whose fundraising is up 7.8 percent.

But for every idea borrowed directly from Davis, Schwarzenegger and his team came up with fresh principles for saving money that have some Sacramento observers buzzing with hope.

Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, Democrat leader of the Moderate Caucus, a group enjoying new respect, told me, "This budget is a worthy attempt to correct the craziness that has unfolded here. I would cut even more."

Kim Belshe, new secretary of Health and Human Services, says that of the $13 billion explosion in spending since 1999, half came from programs in her department on which there were no cost controls. Unlike Davis, Schwarzenegger "is not proposing wholesale rolling back of programs, but controlling costs while maintaining services to those most in need."

Schwarzenegger intends to wean California’s legislature away from its taste for Cadillac programs that most other states offer as mere Fords. Think of the governor as repo man.

For example, unlike the basic Medicaid programs created by other state legislatures, Sacramento’s legislators decided Medi-Cal should be better than most private health plans. On the taxpayer’s dime, they created a program that even includes free acupuncture, and they offered the plan to many non-poor. One in five Californians qualified. The result was skyrocketing costs that are unsustainable.

State Finance Director Donna Arduin told me all 6.8 million people will still be eligible, to avoid Davis-style slashing. But costs will be controlled. The non-poor "may be asked to contribute toward their care, or the package of benefits they are offered may be modified." The changes will take two years, while California seeks federal approval. Other states already have these controls.

It’s just sensible stuff. But while Schwarzengger pushes for cost reforms, it’s extremely unlikely he will approve new taxes.

A strong anti-tax mood has settled across the nation. A recent poll in California shows voters willing to accept new taxes only on smokers and the rich — two populations that have dwindled so drastically that Chief Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill says taxing them would produce only a fraction of the several billion dollars needed to plug the deficit.

Democratic and Republican consultants and strategists tell me that Schwarzenegger and the Republicans won’t bend on taxes unless the governor suffers a big defeat in March.

In March, the governor wants voters to approve a $15 billion bond that refinances $12 billion in legally questionable bonds approved by the Davis-era legislature to finance its overspending last year. That $12 billion is milk that’s already been spilled. However, Schwarzenegger’s package ensures that those bonds are legal, avoiding potential fiscal chaos.

It’s going to be a tough year. Yet the governor has said that everything is on the table, and if alternatives to his cuts can be found, he wants to hear them. Unlike Davis, he has targeted the prisons for massive cutbacks. Worthy programs like the Multipurpose Senior Services Program still have a real chance to make their case, and people like Castro say they intend to do so.

In the end, however, everyone should hope Schwarzenegger gets much of what he is seeking from the Democratic-controlled legislature. It’s true fiscal restraint, but it’s done with decency.


Jill Stewart is a syndicated
political columnist and can be reached at