Monday, August 26, 2002

Clean Elections vs. Vouchers--The Latest Installment

I got a response to the "if school vouchers are OK, then why isn't Clean Elections" columns from Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, who is leading the lawsuit against public funding of elections based on the distinction between general versus non-general taxes. Well, targeted taxes, on tourists, is what's building the new NFL stadium. Excuse me, "multipurpose facility" -- which will be available for rent to religious revivals and political conventions, thereby creating First Amendment issues under Bolick's "involuntary association" theory.

It's not true that if you say "new Cardinals stadium" I just hit the F7 key on my computer and a 625-word column spits out. But it's close. Even if the stadium is an old theme, the jokes are new this week. I'm not sure which one I like better, that the Bidwells have managed to create an NFL franchise that plays second fiddle to a hockey team, or the Charlie Brown-Lucy-football joke. We retort, you decide.

Interesting editing change by the editor: The sentence in the fourth graf from the end originally read "But now, having given short shrift to its libertarian principles for a shot at a skybox, the Tribune finds itself watching the stadium drift westward across the Valley like a 70,000 seat dirigible." Oooh--the skybox dig cut too close to the bone. Or maybe it's just that once the paper does get a box, they'll never let editorial page editor Bob Schuster sit in it.

East Valley Tribune, August 25, 2002

I thank Clint Bolick for his column Aug. 16, because he gave me a rare and joyous opportunity, to rail about both school vouchers and the new football stadium. Two rants for the price of one!

Let’s recap our argument. Bolick agrees that the law allows, for better or worse, using your tax dollars for speech with which you disagree. The Legislature, or voters by initiative, can pay for press secretaries and self-aggrandizing mailings for incumbents, or vouchers that support other people’s religions. You have no right as a taxpayer to complain that your taxes support speech, or religion, with which you disagree.

Thus, despite some sloppy language in Tribune editorials, there’s no problem with using “your money.” Instead, Clean Elections opponents argue that people who pay parking tickets or court fines are an identifiable “association,” like teachers forced to pay union dues or lawyers who must join the bar association to practice their professions. Pay a speeding ticket, and you belong to a club -- with greater rights than ordinary taxpayers.

That’s Bolick’s theory. I think it’s bogus, but the Arizona Supreme Court will decide this argument for us.

But the more interesting part of Bolick’s diatribe was his opprobrium against nongeneral taxes. He argues that voters were seduced into supporting Clean Elections because the drafters “designed a scheme that other people would have to pay for” instead of using general tax revenues. Boo! Bolick says this is a bad thing: “Any time government imposes a special tax on a discrete group of people, the courts get suspicious.” Hiss!

It sure sounds bad -- picking on only certain people to pay for some grandiose project that benefits a chosen few. It must make your bile rise, knowing that there are money-grubbing schemers who, for their own personal benefit, craft these underhanded, sneaky ways to tax folks who don’t know or who can’t complain. There ought to be a law, to prevent insiders from scooping up money from some disfavored group and using for their own pet schemes:

Just like the new Cardinals stadium, funded by tourism taxes.

Apparently, there are times when “designing a scheme that other people would have to pay for” is a wonderful way to fund new fields for youth sports, improvements to Cactus League ballparks, and some sort of “multipurpose facility” occasionally useful for the odd professional football or college bowl game. Sometimes we’re supposed to stand up and cheer when “government imposes a special tax on a discrete group of people.”

The fact that tourists, who couldn’t vote here, would pay for the stadium wasn’t a problem; it was a major reason to vote for the tax. Apparently, it just depends on where the money goes, or else this principle about general taxation only applies to stop more important stuff, and doesn’t affect stupid public works projects that might serve the greater economic glory of the East Valley.

At least The Tribune, a tireless stadium booster, had the grace to let somebody else make the “other people paying is bad” argument. But now, having given short shrift to its libertarian principles for a shot at a skybox, The Tribune finds itself watching the stadium drift westward across the Valley like a 70,000-seat dirigible.

Suddenly, the Cardinals are headed to Glendale, where these tourism taxes will help bail out the Coyotes arena project. Only the Bidwells could own an NFL franchise that plays second fiddle to a hockey team. And only the political might of what Jon Talton calls the “real estate industrial complex” could explain why this particular “other people’s money” rabbit will get pulled out of Glendale’s hat.

You gotta feel for Mesa Councilman Mike Whalen, and for The Tribune. They’re Charlie Brown. The Bidwells are the football.

Aren’t you the least bit curious about who is Lucy?

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Blogrolling on Religion

Patrick Nielsen Hayden--who proves that while good authors are a dime a dozen, a great editor is a rare and wonderful thing--picked up and linked to last week's Tribune column about religion in politics here. A number of people have added comments, which I commend to you, on whether there is a moral difference between "vote for me, I'm one of us" and "don't vote for him, he's not one of us." If you want to follow the discussion, click on the "comments" link right below his headline ("I make distinctions; you're a bigot").

I put in my two cents worth into the thread:

It's an appealing argument, that there's a moral difference between "Vote for me, I'm one of you" and "Don't vote for him, he's not one of us." However, I don't think it works in practice. In a campaign, you only make the "Vote for me, I'm one of you" argument if the other candidate isn't. During my time in politics, I faced opponents who talked about religion, ostensibly generally, but clearly in ways that made both arguments. As a Jewish candidate, is it proper for my opponent to talk about how he has accepted Jesus as his savior--thereby making the comparison that I haven't? I think that tactic is really making both points, the positive and the negative simultaneously, so there's no distinction.

The other objection is that candidates use religion as a way to avoid talking about values and principles in a way that might actually help voters understand what the candidate might do in office. E. J. Dionne wrote about this during the 2000 campaign, comparing the answers given by President Bush ("well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain") with Gary Bauer's explanation, in terms not freighted with sectarianism, about how his faith shapes his views on poverty, hunger, and the death penalty. (There's something you don't see everyday--me complimenting Gary Bauer.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Did I Say Religion? I Meant My Religion, Not Your Religion.

This week is religion in politics--where when people say they want to make space for religion in the "public square," what they really mean is space only for their particular brand of religion, expressed only in their particular way.

East Valley Tribune, August 18, 2002

It was an interesting week for religion in politics, with people usually fighting for more instead demanding less.

The University of North Carolina drew flak by asking students to read portions of a translation of the Quran. Students then would write a 300-word essay, either about the excerpt or why they declined to read it. The Family Policy Network sued to stop this effort at bringing religion into education.

This summer gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon appeared on Christian television to say he wanted to “reclaim government in the name of G-d.” In interviews, he attacks “liberal judges” he claims want to expel religion from civic life: “[T]here has been an effort underfoot for many years to try to take G-d off our money and out of our national motto,” Salmon said.

Shortly afterward, anonymous “Vote Mormon” posters appeared next to Salmon’s campaign signs. Salmon, and this newspaper, denounced the signs as “a cowardly, underhanded act of bigotry” aimed at anti-Mormon prejudice.

Both Salmon and FPN consider themselves “pro-religion,” but instead of expanding religion’s space in the “public square,” both fought to shrink it. FPN demanded the university drop any teaching of the Quran unless taught in a manner FPN deemed “balanced,” and that the school shouldn’t teach any particular religion unless it taught them all -- a sure-fire recipe for teaching none. Salmon supporters just tore out the signs.

Apparently, candidates may discuss their religious faith generally, or list church membership in campaign mailers, or “target” religious voters -- but any specific discussion of a candidate’s actual religion by anybody else is unconscionable bigotry. “Politicians of faith” urge people to vote for them because of religious beliefs, but it’s offensive for anybody to oppose them based on those same beliefs. Religion is relevant, even essential, to politics -- but only on the candidate’s own terms.

Nobody considers religion more relevant than that holier-than-thou Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who never met an issue that didn’t deserve faith-based rhetoric (except for letting corporations not expense stock options). Lieberman links many political positions to his beliefs as a deeply religious Jew. George W. Bush cited Jesus as the most important influence on his politics, but when asked to explain what he meant to people of different faiths, replied, “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.” Both believe very different things, and both can’t be “correct,” but each considers religious beliefs fundamental to his politics, and a valid way to seek voter support.

But it’s only for support; nobody can oppose a candidate based on his or her self-advertised religious beliefs. Religion is a ratchet, shamelessly available to help a candidate, but never to oppose -- just like politicians who use their families brazenly while campaigning, then demand “privacy” when that better suits their needs.

This faith-based campaigning creates a blandly homogenized political religion, where everybody but atheists shares unspecified fundamental beliefs. (You know what they are, and if you don’t, well, it’s hard to explain.) This civic religion considers having any religious beliefs as a good thing, whatever those beliefs are -- thereby making differences simply irrelevant, which really makes religion less important and fundamental. However, that tolerance has its limits, as in North Carolina, where the FPN doesn’t consider Islam acceptable for the public square. (And if they get to exclude Islam today, what other minorities get ruled “out of bounds” tomorrow?)

Ultimately, politics is an argument. You take a stand, your opponent opposes, and voters sort it out. But you can’t have that kind of argument about religion. You believe this, I believe that, and nobody can sort it out, not with logic and certainly not in this world.

For those who say we need more religion in politics -- you can’t argue about it, so what good is it?

Monday, August 12, 2002

Vouchers and Clean Elections II: This Time It's Personal!

Or at least repetitive.

The Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments in the challenge to the Clean Elections system Thursday; no word yet on when the Court may issue its decision. Just in case a majority buys this "involuntary association" theory, I plan to keep the receipts from a hotel stay later this month. Beth and I will celebrate our anniversary with a night at one of the local summer-season discounted resorts. If they charge us the tourism hotel taxes, no way that Tourism and Sports Authority will be able to use my money to argue in favor of a stadium with which I disagree, right?

East Valley Tribune, August 11, 2002

Last week, I argued that opposing public financing of political campaigns on allegedly constitutional and moral grounds, while simultaneously supporting public financing of religious education, is hypocritical.

My column rated a same-day response from the editor. He saw no inconsistency: “What is inconsistent is the position of modern-day liberals like Coppersmith . . . . perversely arguing that a poor black parent in inner-city Cleveland must not be allowed the option of escaping an entrenched institution -- local public schools -- by using some of her tax money to send her child to a private or religious school she believes is better.” (Emphasis added.)

But wait -- that’s the entire game, right there. The Ohio voucher program isn’t based on a deduction, voluntary check-off, or tax credit, but rather is funded by general state revenues. That parent’s voucher wasn’t just “her tax money,” much less "some of" her money. Eligible low-income parents simply don’t pay as much as the voucher in all their taxes combined. Instead, it’s everybody’s tax money.

The Ohio voucher program’s funding isn’t voluntary; it’s mandatory for taxpayers of all faiths, and atheists, too. Those revenues are, to paraphrase the Tribune editorial but with religion substituted for politics, “forcibly taken from citizens to support (religions) and (faiths) with which they may disagree.” So the Tribune’s pro-voucher, anti-Clean Elections position really is “subsidized religion good, subsidized political speech bad.”

Arizona already has a “voluntary” voucher system funded by tax deductions and credits, including our dollar-for-dollar private (and public) school tuition credits. That credit doesn’t raise all that many dollars, and those dollars tend to ignore the poor and benefit the better-off instead. But it’s perfectly constitutional, and there’s no compulsion involved by using general tax revenues.

But voucher proponents want to be able to use everybody’s taxes, not just voluntary contributions, which ignited the Cleveland litigation, and now raises the “interesting” vouchers-are-good-but-Clean-Elections-is-bad conundrum.

The real story here is that the broad constitutional argument -- “you can’t use my tax money for politics (or religion) I don’t support!” -- may be attractive politically, but it’s a legal loser. Courts have rejected such “taxpayer” suits time and again, with the Cleveland voucher case just the latest example.

Despite the rhetoric, the lawsuit against Clean Elections isn’t claiming that we can’t use tax money for political speech. Instead, it’s claiming that (1) people who pay parking tickets and civil fines are “members” of an “association” of sorts, and (2) by belonging to this club, they have rights to control use of their money that law-abiding taxpayers and citizens don’t.

The Tribune and Clean Elections opponents may use broad policy arguments, but that’s not their actual legal theory. They conflate the two because there are two problems, one legal and one political, with their “involuntary association” theory.

First, if people paying parking tickets or fines constitute an association with such rights, then who doesn’t? Virtually anybody paying into a designated fund -- the education sales tax, or my particular favorite, the tourist taxes funding the Cardinals stadium -- gets “membership” veto powers. Association theory will swallow the taxpayer-lawsuit doctrine whole, with truly bizarre results.

Second, this association theory really means lawbreakers have more rights than you do. When Clean Elections opponents say “nobody should have to pay to support politics they abhor,” by “nobody” they actually mean “certain people who pay fines because they broke the law.”

You law-abiding taxpayers -- well, tough luck. You should have joined a club if you want the same kind of rights, and respect, given to lawbreakers.

The Tribune really is arguing that nobody should be compelled to support political speech with which they disagree, but everybody should be compelled to support religious speech with which they disagree. Membership may have its privileges, but honestly, that’s ridiculous.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

So Vouchers Are Constitutional. Are They A Good Thing?

My Tribune column this week (Sunday, August 11) again concerns the vouchers and public financing of elections analogy. Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court heard the arguments in the challenge to the Clean Elections system, and I thought it worth a column to note that while the opponents use the broad constitutional rhetoric in public, that's not their actual legal position. They can't mean either the consequences of their rhetoric (which would eliminate vouchers) or their legal position (which would lead to truly bizarre results if people paying parking tickets are considered some sort of club or association, with greater rights than ordinary taxpayers).

Now that both public financing of campaigns and school vouchers are constitutional, it makes no sense to argue against one on broad constitutional terms while arguing equally strongly that the other is constitutional as well. So, both are permitted, but (as my Foreign Service friend Bob Featherstone used to say) just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done. Until this week, I reached different answers on the policy questions. I support public financing for campaigns, as it has enabled more people to run, reduced the influence of traditional fundraisers and "players" in vetting potential candidates, and has placed new emphasis on building grass-roots networks in campaigns. I opposed vouchers, because a state that has chronically underfunded public education, like Arizona, has no business running out and funding new experiments while shirking its existing commitments.

However, I don't have--at least not since the Cleveland decision--any fundamental argument against vouchers, and found myself unable to dispute the opinion piece by Brent Staples in the New York Times earlier this week. He argues that we should try vouchers because we have a moral obligation to offer as many ways out of failing schools and neighborhoods as possible, even though as a practical matter no voucher program will ever benefit more than a small number of students, and nobody should view vouchers as a panacea any more than opening a new hospital will cure all diseases. "[V]ouchers are one tool among many in the school reform arsenal....The country has a moral obligation to provide a lifeboat that, even though it contains limited seats, allows at least some students to bail out of schools that are killing their futures....Making up the distance will require a good deal more than a few lifeboats. What we need is a strong, national commitment to educational equality."

But now that the fundamental, constitutional question is answered, would a voucher system be good or bad? Yes, it's a band-aid, not a cure for cancer. But band-aids are good, so long as we can convince the people peddling the band-aids that we need to cure other diseases, too. So I've come around; let's try vouchers. However, I would welcome some company to my right willing to try another experiment, a "strong, national commitment to educational equality." That seems to me to be something that will require far more prayer and faith.

Monday, August 05, 2002

No One Should Be Compelled to Support Political Speech with Which They Disagree! Everyone Should Be Compelled to Support Religious Speech with Which They Disagree!

How do you oppose public financing of political campaigns on constitutional and moral grounds, but support public financing of religious education at the same time?

I rated a same day response from the editor. "What is inconsistent is the position of modern-day liberals like Coppersmith . . . . perversely arguing that a poor black parent in inner-city Cleveland must not be allowed the option of escaping an entrenched institution -- local public schools -- by using some of her tax money to send her child to a private or religious school she believes is better." [Emphasis added]

But that's the entire game, right there. The Ohio voucher program isn't based on a deduction, voluntary check-off, or tax credit. It didn't just use that one parent's tax money, but instead funds the program from general tax revenues. Those revenues are, to paraphrase the Tribune with religion substituted for politics, "forcibly taken from citizens to support [religions] and [faiths] with which they may disagree." So the Tribune's position really is "subsidized religion good, subsidized political speech bad."

East Valley Tribune, August 4, 2002

Opponents of Clean Elections--including this newspaper--argue that it’s outrageous, unfair, and unconstitutional to use their taxes to support political speech with which they disagree. They say their money shouldn’t be used for politics they don’t believe or profess.

It’s a superficially appealing argument; you can quote Jefferson, and even (for really extreme cases) claim that you’re civil rights activist, a modern-day Rosa Parks transformed for the 21st century into a white guy.

There’s just one problem. Virtually everybody who opposes public financing of political campaigns (at least on the congressional and state levels; it’s perfectly OK for Republicans to accept public funding when running for president) also supports school vouchers.

School vouchers also take tax dollars, without your consent, to support other people’s religions. Vouchers use your money to subsidize religious speech, regardless of your most fundamental beliefs.

If it’s outrageous to use a Republican’s taxes, even indirectly, to support political campaigns which might include (gasp!) Democrats, why should a Protestant’s taxes to be used, without consent, to support Catholic dogma and instruction, or to subsidize a Jewish parochial school?

The same First Amendment protects both the free exercise of religion and free speech. You’re always told never to argue either politics or religion with strangers. So why is public support of political speech an abomination, but pubic support of religious speech a result devoutly to be wished?

Taxpayers generally have no constitutional right to stop how government spends their money. However, by belonging--as I do--to the speeding ticket club, the gasoline buyers association, the loyal order of notary publics, and the fellowship of itemizing income tax filers, “membership” suddenly has its privileges. Magically, you get powers not available to ordinary citizens, The Tribune’s solicitous concern for your beliefs, and the ability to block your money from going to partisan politics but not to a sectarian religion. Does this make any sense?

Just wait until less “mainstream” religions figure out that, like America’s farmers and ranchers, you can prattle on about rugged individualism while pocketing massive government subsidies. Your tax money just might support religious instruction at a Muslim mosque, a Native American peyote ceremony, or a pagan preschool. With vouchers, it’s everybody into the pool!

Just keep chanting: Tax subsidies for religious diversity are good, public money to encourage political diversity is evil.

The U.S. Supreme Court, by the same 5-4 vote that decides all the really big issues in America, just upheld school vouchers. Public funds can be used, constitutionally and with no taxpayer consent, even though 97 percent of the Ohio program’s government funding supported religious education. My taxes and license fees and payments can go into the state treasury and come out inside some parochial school, to be used to teach kids a religion in which I don’t believe.

But there’s no constitutional problem funding religion this way. How could funding all comers in political races, just as a voucher program funds all religions, in the same indirect way, suddenly be unconstitutional?

Clint Bolick and the Institute for Justice--litigating against funding political speech while litigating in favor of funding religious speech--may not see the contradiction, but the use of tax money in both areas sure looks the same from here.

By making these extreme (and already judicially rejected) arguments about political speech, then turning around and demanding the identical use of tax money to subsidize religious speech, these opponents of Clean Elections who support school vouchers are doing some serious proselytizing--for the gods of hypocrisy.

Oh, and those Jefferson quotes? He was decrying any government support of religion, not political speech. But you’d need an education to know that.