Government Spending

Balance Sheet

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Assets

Medisnoop. The Health Care Financing Administration backs away from plans to collect personal data. Over 9,000 health care providers would have pestered some 4 million homebound patients with questions about whether they'd paid their rent, whether they felt a "sense of failure," and so on. HCFA claims the info is needed to provide quality medical care.

Braid Free. California may exempt hair braiders from the regulations that hair stylists face. Legislators vote to stop requiring braiders to take the nine-month course that stylists must complete to receive a cosmetology license.

Taxing Taxes. There's still a pulse for real tax reform. An Associated Press poll finds that the public thinks the current code is much too complicated. Three years ago, 50 percent of respondents found the tax code too hard; this year the number hit 66 percent. Washington's recent use of sliding-scale tax credits puts the burden on filers to figure them out. Plus, the booming stock market introduces many taxpayers to the joys of computing capital gains taxes.

Booming Business. The U.S. Navy plans to privatize its weapons-handling operations. Things that go boom are loaded and off-loaded by the ton each day. The reform is expected to save $8 billion by 2005 and will outsource some 80,500 jobs. Predictably, the union that represents the current handlers of munitions says private companies will be more slipshod on the job. We'll see, hear, and feel if they are.

Liabilities

? Bursting Bags. Currently found only in luxury cars, side airbags deploy from doors, including rear ones. But it is not clear that the new bags were ever tested in real-world conditions, such as with a sleeping child slumped against a door. Safety mavens say kids and small adults should stay in the back seat to avoid the explosive devices in the dashboard of cars with front airbags. Pretty soon the safest spot will be on the roof.

? No Account. President Clinton presses ahead with a plan to dole out federal money for Universal Savings Accounts. The general idea has won praise on the right from those who confuse an entitlement with investment and think the handout makes it easier to privatize Social Security.

? Tagging Butts. A California legislator wants the state to adopt a tougher warning label for cigars. Carole Migden, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Francisco, declares that "smoking cigars has become the rage, especially among teenagers." Yet despite their recent sexy image, cigars are not that popular. The 5.3 million puffed in 1998 was less than half the number smoked 25 years earlier.

? Gin Fizzle. Maryland is the latest state poised to make it a felony for any Internet retailer to send alcohol into the state. Backers of the law say it is needed to keep kids from getting their mitts on booze. But the real reason states hate Internet sales is that they give consumers the freedom to avoid state-run monopolies on alcohol, with their high prices and limited selection.