Heads-I-Win, Tails-You-Lose Budgeting
I'm about 10 days behind sending out columns because I just got back late last night from visiting our daughter in London. I need to get caught up, on emails, sleep, and work generally, so it will take a few days but you'll get my law firm's recent press clippings (such as "Partner Sam Coppersmith is a former Democratic congressman and liberal blogger, and Schermer is his wife." These days, which is more important?)
THE UNKNOWN POLITICAL ADAGE: "IF YOU BUILD IT, SOMEONE MUST PAY"
East Valley Tribune, Mar. 25, 2007
Several lobbying groups which style themselves as "pro-business" have called on the state legislature to cut taxes and to spend more money on their pet issues. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and the Arizona Association of Industries want more business property tax cuts. The same groups also want more research and development tax credits and more spending on job training and inducing foreign investment.
"We don’t believe it’s an either/or proposition," Jim Norton of AAI told the Arizona Republic. Others may believe that "to govern is to choose," as John F. Kennedy once said, but for the Chamber and AAI, their preferred method is to choose everything.
For some groups, government’s limited resources and unlimited demands may conflict, but when you’re a lobbyist for well-connected businesses, there’s always enough room for all your clients’ priorities. Only autistic children or all-day kindergarten or transportation faces "more will than wallet."
So-called "pro-business" groups wanting both lower taxes for themselves and higher spending for themselves may sound hypocritical, but it’s all too common. People believe that their taxes are too high -- and that government isn’t doing enough for them.
The chambers have a long history of playing fiscal "heads I win, tails you lose." Back in the 20th century, Gov. Jane Hull appointed Martin Schultz of Pinnacle West, who usually leads any list of the state’s top lobbyists, to head a task force to look at the state’s transportation needs over the next few decades. The group concluded that we had woefully underprepared for Arizona’s future needs; what was going to be built with projected future resources wasn’t nearly enough to meet demand. Instead, Arizona would need to find (translation: raise taxes) $20 billion to $40 billion just to keep pace with growth.
Meanwhile, the CEO of the Phoenix Chamber wrote op-ed pieces claiming that the state absolutely couldn’t raise taxes, that instead we had to spend the same money in smarter ways, or something. This was absolute nonsense, because it’s hard to build highways by passing laws or by thinking really hard; you need money. No money, no new transportation. I enjoyed the spectacle of Schultz, then on the board of the chamber, saying the state needed $40 billion in new revenues while the chamber’s CEO was saying the state didn’t need more revenue. And thus we created today’s inadequate transportation infrastructure.
Those of you stuck in traffic jams should understand that our phobia about raising taxes is far, far stronger than anyone’s concern about your commute. But the facts recognized by Schutz’s committee haven’t changed; Arizona is still $20 billion to $40 billion short in resources needed for transportation -- and any attempt to do anything about the clear gap between resources and needs will meet the usual fantasy that something other than money can build transportation infrastructure.
This time the double-talker is state Senate Transportation Committee chair Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, who calls Schultz’s latest call for additional transportation resources a "non-starter" that won’t even get a committee hearing. Instead, Gould wants to find "innovative ways to improve our state’s infrastructure that do not include raising taxes on Arizona taxpayers." So far, the suggestions are a lamp with a genie who grants three wishes, winning the lottery 200 times, and Green Lantern’s magic ring. If Gould has more practical ideas, he’s not disclosed any.
That’s the dirty little secret about government spending. The GOP Congress wasn’t "hijacked;" they didn’t cut spending because their constituents actually like those programs -- or in the case of transportation, education, healthcare, and the environment, demanded those programs. As one Texas wag put it, we now have two parties. The Republicans want programs; they just won’t pay for them. The Democrats want programs; they just can’t pay for them. And the public -- and sophisticated business lobbyists -- believe that there’s "plenty of room" for paying less and getting more.
"Either/or" propositions are for suckers; all of us want both. And nobody in politics calls us on it.