A pothole: the tea party national monument (column)
June 11, 2015
My shocks were shocked. My struts, too.
I was headed down I-25 north of Denver when, with the force of an albatross across the face, a tremendous pothole presented itself. Fortunately, I had hands at 10 and 2. I was obeying the speed limit. Even at that, for a moment, hugging my lane with vehicles on either side of me became a harrowing task.
Having been so jarred when I least expected it — on the state's most heavily traveled thoroughfare — I began to think about public policy. I should have expected it.
States are increasingly in the throes of anti-tax initiatives and partisans who care more about strangling government than providing for public transportation, public safety, public education, public health, public anything.
They want taxes cut. That is all.
In Colorado, a better name for potholes is "TABOR holes." The acronym stands for the 1992 voter-approved Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which tied the hands of policymakers regarding spending.
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TABOR prevents revenue from growing faster than the rate of inflation and population growth without voter approval. It forces the state to refund extra dollars when the state treasury is flush.
Though they haven't repealed it, voters have tempered TABOR, and these days they seem to show buyer's remorse for it.
Public disrepair crosses boundaries. In state after state, highway maintenance is set by the roadside while doctrinaire anti-tax politicians and religious-right missionaries shunt aside any discussion of how to address key infrastructure concerns.
In the children's book "Onion John," an oddball hermit lives in a shack decorated with discarded bathtubs. He calls them stunning sculptures of holes in the ground.
Holes: They are what define and describe the fruits of this strain of fiscal policy.
I'm coming to understand that anti-tax demagogues admire potholes in the same way — as magnificent sculptures of government inaction.
"With the nation's economy at its healthiest since the Great Recession," reports Associated Press, "a surprising trend is emerging among the states — large budget gaps."
No mystery. Whether the economy is good or bad, today's Republican policymakers are committed first to cutting taxes and spending. Eight years ago, the economy went bad. So did the revenue stream. The economy has improved. But, instead of filling in the holes they left, these politicians cut taxes even further.
Now, in Kansas, under the reckless leadership of Gov. Sam Brownback, schools that were cut to the bone are essentially having to sacrifice bone marrow. At least eight Kansas school districts ended this school year early to save money.
Texas never really recouped revenue punted away on the altar of a property-tax reduction in 2007. Supposedly, a new state business tax would compensate, but the state was left with a structural deficit (It can't have a real deficit, by law), which meant that school districts had to make tremendous sacrifices.
In truth and in effect, schools are the piggy banks by which false claims of fiscal prudence can be made.
Oh, and right now the Lone Star State, with pressing needs in infrastructure and public education — both higher ed and K-12 — sits on $18 billion in unspent dollars. That includes an $11 billion Rainy Day Fund with which anti-taxers who rule Texas refuse to part. The savings they promised in property taxes, which are under local control and weren't theirs to promise, have saved homeowners little to nothing.
R.G. Ratcliffe, writing for Texas Monthly, observes that the Rainy Day Fund at this point is the "equivalent of a mason jar buried in the backyard."
Yes, that is what they call fiscal responsibility these days, particularly where anti-tax, anti-government fundamentalism holds sway. First, you dig a hole. Then you admire it.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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