Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The TEL-Tale Heart

I'm originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and not only served with Jack Murtha in Congress, but also knew him when he served with my father in the state legislature, so I can tell certain members of the Bush administration that "I knew Jack Murtha. I served with Jack Murtha. Mr. Vice President, you're no Jack Murtha." Maybe that's this coming week's column. This week, it's state politics again (but with national implications).

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 20, 2005
As printed version available here.

Just watch as those who absolutely loved the ratchet in October now sorrowfully describe it as a “glitch” that shouldn’t detract from their rejected-by-voters-who-lived-through-it tax expenditure limitation (TEL) scheme.

For those arriving late, in 1992 Colorado voters approved a TEL, called TABOR, which limited state spending to inflation and population growth, with a “recession ratchet.” If revenues dropped -- which they did, by 17 percent during the 2001-02 recession -- spending couldn’t recover with the economy, but instead ratcheted down permanently. Public services that people demanded faced cuts, and voters approved gutting TABOR, to the dismay of Grover Norquist groupies.

Until November 1, the ratchet wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. The Heritage Foundation called TABOR “the gold standard” and, like most so-called conservatives, strongly opposed elimination. The Goldwater Institute touted the Colorado model as “the best” and used the ratchet in calculating the supposed benefits of a TEL here.

So when ‘wingers now tout some alternative TEL without the ratchet, they’re rewriting history. You can look it up. Everybody knows rewriting history isn’t for local amateurs; leave it for seasoned pros, like Dick Cheney.

You also can look up how the “gut TABOR” campaign depended not just on Democrats, but also prominent, respected Republicans like Gov. Bill Owens, former state GOP party chair Bruce Benson, and University of Colorado president (and former U.S. Senator) Hank Brown.

The Colorado referendum wouldn’t have passed without support of business leaders and Republicans fed up with the ‘wingers and their infatuation with numbers at reality’s expense. A prime example is Tom Clark of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, quoted in The Washington Monthly: “For businesses to be successful, you need roads and you need higher education, both of which have gotten worse under TABOR and will continue to get worse. I’m a Republican, but I made the decision not to give any money to the state party.”

However, my lack of space to praise Bill Owens and Hank Brown in my earlier column can’t be criticized by local Republicans, because here the GOP remains in thrall to the ‘wingers, who believe that the only good Republican is a “drown it in the bathtub” Republican. But voters in red states like Colorado and Virginia think otherwise, and may lead Arizona to its own three-party system: ‘wingers, Democrats, and reality-based Republicans.

Finally, TEL boosters talk a lot about expenditure limitations forcing government to act more like a business. But government isn’t a business, and shouldn’t act like one. If we limit expenditure growth to inflation and population growth, how then are schools supposed to be qualitatively better than in 1992? We demand higher standards -- but doesn’t doing more, with more kids, and with inflation, take more money?

In 1994, 2 kids in 10,000 were diagnosed with autism or a related disorder. Ten years later, the Centers for Disease Control reported that autism-type disorders affect 1 in 166 children -- a 30-fold increase. Nobody knows why, but other countries are seeing similar numbers. If we limit increases in autism programs only to inflation and population growth since 1994, who tells all the new kids with autism that, too bad, a TEL means rationing treatment?

It just won’t work to say treating autism will just have to become more efficient. The functions we expect from government -- healthcare, education, insurance -- are the ones with the lowest productivity gains, in both the private and public sectors. Working with autistic kids is labor-intensive, and if the Goldwater types have a way to make a one-on-one therapist 30 times more productive, they should leave their think tank and start treating kids.

You can’t deal with the explosion in autism, and raise school standards, and lengthen and mandate prison sentences, and have more DPS patrols on new freeways and have more secure driver’s licenses by muttering “priorities.” Until you’re willing to tell those autistic kids that they just don’t matter as much as numbers do, tell the TEL to go to heck.

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