John Creighton of Longmont, a leadership consultant and president of the St. Vrain school board, wrote a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the stark budget realities faced by Gov. John Hickenlooper–and the choices Hickenlooper made–for the Washington Times this weekend:
Governor Hickenlooper’s budget proposals are, in many ways, far more dramatic than those of his colleagues in Wisconsin and New Jersey because of Colorado’s starting point. According to the Tax Foundation, New Jersey has the highest tax burden in the Nation. Wisconsin ranks ninth. By contrast, Colorado ranks 34th on the Tax Foundation’s list.
Colorado spends much less than these states, too. Take K-12 education funding as one example. According to Education Week, New Jersey spends a whopping $17,620 per student. Wisconsin spends $10,791 per student. The national average is $10,297. Colorado, meantime, spends just $9,152 per student. (Colorado readers will find this number high. Per pupil funding for ongoing instruction and operations will drop from $6,823 this school year to $6,326, if Governor Hickenlooper’s budget is adopted)…
Governor Hickenlooper is giving Colorado voters what he believes they want. Most public opinion polling reveals that the public wants low taxes and robust public services. A Pew Research Center poll indicates that, by more than a two to one margin, people are opposed to cuts in funding to K-12 education, public colleges, health care or roads and public transportation. In short, people don’t want any public services reduced.
The same Pew poll indicates that large majorities also oppose increases in sales taxes, personal income taxes and new taxes on business. Politicians are avid readers of polls. Not wanting to offend, many politicians try to accommodate people’s desire to have their cake and eat it, too. Governor Hickenlooper said no to that type of pandering.
The truth is, Hickenlooper is only giving the voters half of “what they want”–the Pew survey Creighton mentions exposes a major contradiction in voter sentiment; one that could be responsible, more than any other factor, for the diffcult situation Hickenlooper finds himself in today. Simply put, the voters want it all: they want all of the services from the state that they take for granted, like good schools, roads, and health care.
But they don’t want to pay for them.
Here you see, in our view, the fruit of years of assault on the legitimacy of government by the far right, especially in Colorado: voters no longer have a realistic understanding of what is required to fund the basic services they use every day. The dogmatic campaign against taxes and for “small government,” well past any reasonable assessment of services or appropriate funding, has succeeded to the point where the linkage between the two has been fundamentally broken.
So what does this mean? Creighton continues:
Here’s the rub. Governor Hickenlooper’s budget proposal for the state may be the first honest attempt to reconcile a desire to keep taxes low at all costs (for which he deserves credit). But, his budget lacks vision. One or two years from now, after public services have been dramatically rolled back, people are likely to ask, “What now?”
What now, indeed? As we’ve discussed repeatedly, this isn’t the first year that state revenues have been falling. For the last few years, cuts to essential services like K-12 education were offset by a variety of short-term fixes, tax exemption repeals, cash fund transfers, and other…well, even their proponents called them “gimmicks.” But the point is, these moves in many cases shielded the voters from the damage that was being done. Mostly because the situation this year is significantly worse, and the quick fixes have generally been used–but also, we think, out of a desire to be honest about the situation, Hickenlooper did not attempt to conceal or forestall the pain this year.
Which, as the reaction he’s gotten should tell you, has been a rude shock. But for all the anger Hickenlooper is seeing today, primarily on his left, if you take a longer view…is Hickenlooper making a real solution to the state’s chronic shortfalls and inadequate support for essential services more likely in the long run? By first being honest about the unworkable tradeoffs the voters expect? Because we’re beginning to think, for all the desire to minimize the short-term pain, that this is where any successful attempt to solve the problem must start.