The Paradox and the Long Game

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.

22 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. caroman says:

    The battle is joined: Government legitimacy versus government necessity.

    Now is the time for the left to speak out against what I think is an attack on the middle class.  The wealthy have been left out of any sacrifice in Hickenlooper’s budget.  And, in Sunday’s DP (from my paid dead tree subscription) an opinion piece from William Malloney a CO education commissioner from 1997 – 2007 stated that increased class sizes was the best strategy for improving CO schools.  (He contends that rather than hiring more teachers to allow for smaller classes, the money should be spent on hiring fewer teachers and maybe paying them a little bit more.)  This kind of hooey needs to be responded to immediately, otherwise the public will believe it.  It could be labeled “Voodoo Education”.  Kind of like believing that cutting taxes always yields more tax revenues.    

    The battle is on and Hickenlooper needs to see that the “rude shock” he’s seen so far is just the beginning.

    • nancycronk says:

      That DP editorial piece made me hurl my Sunday morning groceries, too.

      I met with a bunch of voters today over dinner to discuss the budget cuts. We all “have an appetite” for better schools. Not one of the people there had a problem with paying more in taxes to get them.

      Governor Hickenlooper — you don’t get a free pass from this Democrat. Either do the heavy lifting (tell CO anti-tax voters how ignorant they are, and how things need to change), or please go back to making beer.

  2. Republican 36 says:

    The public needs to see and feel the reality of what happens when revenues fall and services decline. The right-wing Republicans have told the voters for years that government is wasteful and that massive revenue cuts will not affect actual services. Therefore, they preach tax cuts to solve every policy problem presented to our elected officials, including the absurd idea that if we need to rebuild our roads or fund higher education, the way to do it is by cutting taxes because in their view that will stimulate the economy and create more revenue.

    Unfortunately, we’ve already had experience on the revenue side. In 1981, President Reagan pushed through a massive 25% (phased in over three years) across the board personal and corporate income tax cut and what happened. In spite of the confident predictions of the conservative elite, revenue did not recover from the massive tax cut and deficits spiraled out of control. President Reagan, to his credit and insight to his pragmatism, saw the result and agreed to eleven tax increases to try and stop the hemorrhaging. Instead of tax increases, he called them revenue enhancements for political reasons, but nonetheless he had a grip on reality and acted based on the objective fact the 25% tax cut had not done what he wanted it to.

    Today’s Republicans worship their false image of Ronald Reagan without ever looking at the facts. We need to raise taxes as part of the response to lower revenues and for providing basic services but the right-wingers goal isn’t the provision of public education (K12 or higher education) rather ti is relentless drive to undermine the institutions we’ve spent the past 250 years building in this nation and replace them with a return to a time that never existed in either 1776, the 1950’s or during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Ideology has the merit of simplicity but it rarely sufficiently considers objective facts. Today’s Republicans dwell in a world dictated by ideology which, in turn, ignores or denies objective facts and leads to disastrous policy if left unchecked.

    If they really respect President Reagan, they need to hail his ability to stare the facts in the eye and take appropriate action based on reality.      

    • GalapagoLarry says:

      I never thought I’d salute you (or any other Repub) but:

      We need to raise taxes as part of the response to lower revenues and for providing basic services but the right-wingers goal isn’t the provision of public education (K12 or higher education) rather ti is relentless drive to undermine the institutions we’ve spent the past 250 years building in this nation….

      is exactly the kind of thinking (can’t believe I used that word for a Repub!) that is absolutely necessary if we’re going to get out of this right-wing-caused mess. This nation didn’t start with Michelle Bachmann, or the Newt, or even FDR. We’ve been building from the beginning. And we have to continue. Why? Because we’re Americans, dammit.

      Thanks for your post. You deserve the Bush Medal of Freedom. 🙂

      May a true Republican party rise from the ashes of whatever it is that’s now parading around in its name. (Not that I’d go back though.)

  3. DavidThi808 says:

    The diary and both R36 & SR’s comments. But I think it now requires an additional step from Hick – putting a set of initiatives on the ballot to provide the level of funding needed to provide adequate services.

    In other words yes Hick has been honest about what the voter’s desire for low taxes really means. But what we need on the ballot is then giving them the choice to instead select adequate services, and the higher taxes that requires.

    • GalapagoLarry says:

      Pretty soon Hick has to step up to the plate. We elected a pig in a poke. He’s got to reveal his agenda sooner or later. So far he’s dodging. Why? He’s shrewd? He’s chicken? He’s beholden to business conservatives? Why doesn’t matter so much as: He was elected to lead.

  4. bjwilson83 says:

    Kudos for finally giving Hickenlooper credit for doing what the Tea Party wanted all along. For years, Democrats have lied about the state of our budget and deficits in order to convince people that they should vote for bigger government and it won’t cost them anything. I agree that Hickenlooper is being honest. As to the question of “what now”, the private sector must be unleashed to fill in the gaps – don’t make it so hard for people to start up their own businesses to provide the services that need to be provided. This means rolling back unnecessary regulations. As an entrepreneur himself, Hickenlooper understands this. After government services are brought into line with the revenues it takes in and the private sector is unleashed to fix the economy, we all get jobs and live happily after ever. 🙂

  5. sxp151 says:

    As the Marxists used to say, things have to get worse before they get better. That’s why they’d tell me voting for Democrats doesn’t matter: making things slightly better for the poor is actually worse in the long run, since it forestalls the revolution which will only happen when things are truly unbearable.

    Of course, that was back when voting for Democrats meant the poor weren’t going to get totally fucked, so the lesson may be different now. I see absolutely no indication Hickenlooper is playing any kind of “11-dimensional chess” with this; rather, he just doesn’t care too much about people who aren’t successful businessmen. The cleverest aspect of this might be that he’s thinking, “Quick, let’s fuck over education while the parents and teachers are squabbling over a silly recall and can’t mobilize any opposition!”

    But I disagree with the basic premise of the quoted article, that voters want inherently contradictory things and thus should be ignored by decent people. They answer poll questions this way because of how they’re asked. If you ask someone, “Do you want higher taxes?” the answer is probably “no.” Higher taxes by themselves are not a social good unless you really care about deficits (and most people don’t). And especially since you have no real control over what your tax money gets used for, higher taxes could pay for things you don’t like.

    But if you ask people, for example, “Do you want higher taxes in order to pay for health care for everyone?” you actually get a lot of support for it. Voters can make intelligent choices if they’re not lied to. If you offer people low taxes and good services, they’ll take it; if you say “we have to pay for things,” they can comprehend that as well. Much the same way a child may eat chocolate all day if parents tell him that’s fine, but if they explain that eating better food will make him stronger later on, he’ll eat some spinach or something.

    Hickenlooper doesn’t want to pick a fight with powerful people like rich businessmen, so instead he’s picking a fight with weak people like teachers. You could construct an elaborate argument to explain why this is actually a clever long-term strategy to repeal TABOR and increase education funding, but the simpler explanation is probably true. After hearing about Obama’s grand master plans for years and then just seeing him concede everything to Republicans, I’m not falling for it again.

    • The realist says:

      Leaders are supposed to lead – no such thing as “secret” leadership.

      • GalapagoLarry says:

        Hick’s a more complex personality than I’d originally thought him to be. sxp may be right about him. Pols, obviously, has swallowed the hook. But, in any case, leaders are supposed to lead, as you say–one of the reasons I’m feeling burned about Obama.

    • DavidThi808 says:

      So how about I just say you make some very good points.

    • JeffcoBlue says:

      I think this is silly and combative. Nothing in either article says that. If anything, this is about educating people, not ignoring them.

      I’m looking forward to waking up in a world where 50% of the country doesn’t agree with me, and where I don’t have to claw tooth and nail through the right’s entrenched propaganda and presupposed advantage to get anything done.

      And seriously, you really think Hickenlooper wants to “fuck over” education, or that the majority of voters really give a fuck about a DPS recall one way or another? That displays a major lack of objectivity.

      • sxp151 says:

        Who knew?

        The premise of the article is that it’s good that Hickenlooper makes no effort to raise taxes, because that’ll teach those rubes that services will start to suck because taxes are too low. Pols plays this aspect up moreso. I don’t know how any tax-hating service-loving voter is supposed to reach this conclusion without any assistance from our elected officials. They’ll just say, “Gosh, services suck! Why should we give the government more money to suck? They’ll probably just waste it. Make everything better and then we’ll pay more.” This is what many people on this site already say about education, for example.

        It’s as though it were proposed to eliminate math teachers and just have kids in giant rooms feeding scoresheets into testing machines, getting problems wrong until they somehow come up with the techniques for doing them right on their own. They’re not morons, they can understand things, but they do need a little guidance at some point.

        Yes, Hickenlooper slashed the K-12 education budget. I can either conclude he wants to fuck over education because raising money to pay for it is slightly challenging, or that he has some Grant Secret Plan to make everything in the state better and just isn’t telling anyone. I can understand wishing the latter were true, but Occam’s Razor tells me the former is.

  6. nancycronk says:

    Hickenlooper is doing us a favor by making us the lowest ranking school funders in the nation. If he cuts funding down so far that the kids are writing with stones on dirt floors, I guess we should be ECSTATIC.

    By this logic, Tancredo was really just trying to prove a point with all his immigrant-hating. We should all just get along.

    And Rumsfeld — torture a bunch of people to show how bad torture is, right.

    Screw for Abstinence.

    Fight for Peace.

    Bowl for Columbine.

    I get it.

  7. Sir Robin says:

    As we continue to spend billions every week in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, states continue to cut basic programs for lack of funding. The latest is Illinois, which just cut all funding for drug and alcohol abuse treatment in the state and Michigan which has ordered Detroit to close half of its schools (driving class size to 60 students). What is striking is the lack of any connection drawn between these states which are short hundreds of millions of dollars in their budgets and the expenditures of billions each week in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Our leaders, including President Obama, continue to refuse to end these wars while watching our cities and states continue to close or sell off basic services and lands. There is a remarkable disconnect in the coverages of these stories. In oil-rich Iraq, we continue to spend billions of U.S. dollars to prop up the government. In Afghanistan, we have a president who repeatedly refers to us as the enemy and sympathizes with the Taliban. We have a government that is seeking to tax us for fighting their war and a populace that repeatedly states in polls that they oppose our presence. Yet, Obama has kept us in this war for over two years at the cost of lives and treasure.

    It defies logic that we continue to deny our children basic education and our citizens basic services to support these wars. The reason is simply a lack of courage among our leaders. Many would rather have our soldiers killed and our states close programs then take personal responsibility in calling an end to our financing of these wars.

    h/t Jonothan Turley

    http://jonathanturley.org/2011

    • The realist says:

      We all know that a powerful force in human nature is to just take the easy path which often is just no action, or a path that does not change current action.  Any change from the dismal status quo of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will be a major, difficult change – politically and every other way – so I believe Obama’s just taking the “easy” path and trying to ride it out.  That strategy won’t work if he plans to run for re-election.

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