Liddick: Tax and trust
Thanks to the economic downturn, we have a chance in Colorado to talk frankly about taxing, spending and the future of our fair state. I doubt we’ll take advantage of the opportunity, but we should; if we do it right, there are advantages beyond the resolution of our immediate financial pressures.
Why are people averse to increasing taxation to address apparent needs? When one strips away cartoon caricatures of greedy rich people and politicians who never met someone else’s dollar they didn’t want to spend, what’s left is the core issue: trust. Simply put, most Coloradans don’t trust the political class to use their tax money wisely – or even in the way they promised to do. There are ample reasons for this.
Last week, State Sen. Rollie Heath proposed a tax increase. His pitch was that the entire amount would be directed to K-12 education, but when pushed, he admitted that there was no way he could assure this would actually happen. The money would instead go into the general fund, where it would be apportioned to a variety of recipients, education among them – precisely as happened to the last tax increase “for education,” authorized in SB-199 of 2007. The $665 million it raised disappeared into the general fund and was parceled out as the General Assembly pleased. Never mind that, Sen. Heath insisted; this time, it’ll be different. Better pat yourself down for the stupid sign: He’s seeing it.
The argument Sen. Heath used was also, to say the least, questionable. Colorado, he pointed out, is 49th among states in funding for K-12 education. But if one looks at the expenditure per student, Colorado rises to 34th, according to the US Department of Education. And discussion about what we are getting for our $11,816 per pupil expenditure never seems to come up – unless you consider cries that that more money must be shoveled into schools because 30 percent of high school graduates need remediation before taking college courses a “discussion.”
Lack of trust also comes from jarring revisions in basic economic statistics. By now, we are used to downward adjustments to initially rosy national figures; many simply assume first releases are skewed. But when Colorado’s unemployment figures for 2009 are “revised” upward by between 15 and 25 percent – from 7.4 to 9.1 percent for January, 2010 – that’s an eye-opener. Particularly when one considers that our state’s “better than average” economic performance was an issue last November. To be told now that things were not so rosy at the time does nothing to calm suspicions about manipulation of information to political ends.
And there is the governor’s performance. True, his fiat decision on the 3.2 beer question was a tempest in a brew kettle. But his ham-handed upending of a settlement that had been negotiated over six months among the parties, simply for the convenience of a group of businessmen to which he once belonged, smacked of – dare we say it – cynical favoritism.
The governor explained that he took his decision to make it simpler for businesses; that he wanted to send a message about Colorado being “business friendly.” We could wait to see if he takes similar steps to eliminate red tape for Colorado’s oil and gas industries before making up our minds on this one. Or, knowing what we already know, we could chalk it up as another example of political dissembling and confidence-crushing.
There’s also artificial doubt, created for political purposes. A fine example is the predictable reaction of certain political circles to Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s attempt to purge Colorado voter roles of persons who are not eligible to vote. There may be as many as 11,800 of these – or there may be far fewer. The point is, he needs to find out, and voter lists need to be cleaned. Doing so protects the integrity of the franchise; those who are opposed to verification ought to explain why they are unconcerned about non-citizens voting, rather than giving voice to vague and unhelpful charges of “racism” and “voter suppression.”
The last point highlights another serious issue. In the world of the classics, it is best illustrated by Aesop’s fable of “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Briefly, if one exhausts the public’s patience with false claims of danger, who will believe the alarm when a real menace presents itself?
Trust is a valuable commodity, essential to proper functioning of democratic government. When it is exhausted or broken, governance becomes difficult or impossible. Our politicians should be mindful of this, and should act to increase, not diminish, the public’s trust in their actions. Fact and frankness should be the common currency of present discourse.
We should insist that this be so, for our good and the good of our state.
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