Sunday, April 09, 2006

TEL You Whut

The steadily diminishing pool of people who support the proposed amendment to straightjacket the state budget has apparently decided once and for all to call it TEL for Taxation and Expenditure Limitation. It’s no longer TABOR, it’s TEL. Not too surprising since the original TABOR got bitch-slapped into five years from now by Colorado voters last fall, but nonetheless it's amusing to highlight.

The great thing about "TEL" is that it lends itself to all manner of punnage. TEL proponents have already come out with "TEL the Truth." I could see "Go TEL It on a Mountain," "I’m Not TELlin’," "TEL You a Secret" . . . the possibilities are endless. A story in today’s Columbus Dispatch prompts me to riff off of Little Richard:

Gonna TEL Aunt Mary
‘Bout Uncle Ken
He claim he’s savin’ money
But he’s findin’ more to spend,
Oh Baby.
The CD ran side-by-side stories about the records of Petro and Blackwell in their respective current jobs, complete with shots from critics. In the story about Blackwell's tenure in the Secretary of State's Office The Petro camp points out that, while J. Ken has cut spending of tax money, overall spending in the office has increased because he increased business fees.
According to state budget data, Blackwell’s general-fund spending fell from $7.7 million in 1999 to $3 million last year, while total spending with the higher user fees increased from $10 million to $17.3 million.

Blackwell said his reduced need for tax money made more funds available for social services or other priorities, and that the lawyers and others paying the higher fees for corporate filings are satisfied.
In making the case for TABOR TEL, Blackwell loves to quote statistics about aggragate increases in spending over long time frames. His favorite is a seventy percent increase over the past ten years. So how is he doing? A 73% increase since 1999.

How does he justify such hypocrisy? By misdirection and subterfuge, as usual.
Blackwell responds that the proposed limits are for overall spending, meaning budgets for some agencies can exceed limits depending on need and priorities as long as total spending remains under the caps.
Yes, Ken. We understand that, Ken. We’re not effing stupid, Ken.

But what you blithely ignore is that, while you have laudably saved taxpayer money under the current state system, if TEL were in place, your budget would be displacing $7.3 million per year from other departments. And each department that increases non-tax revenue does the same thing. In each local government that increases revenue from non-tax sources, the same thing happens. If a lucky city sees a building boom, it will also seen a spike in permit fees. Screw you, says TEL. Slash your budget to stay under the cap.

What’s more, if TEL had been in place, Blackwell probably wouldn’t have been able to modernize the office in the first place. Modernizing requires a capital outlay – a temporary hike in the department budget. TEL doesn’t allow for that hike without offsetting somewhere else. Hard to imagine a General Assembly scrambling to provide basic services under the crushing weight of the TEL ceiling would give one department the room for that outlay.

Finally, the experience of the SOS office demonstrates one of the central lies of the case for TEL. Blackwell cites increases in all state spending as if all spending is alike. The massive school building program financed by tobacco settlement money is part of the increase he sites. So are expenditures in state colleges that have added programs, boosting both tuition revenue and spending. And the list goes on. Someday I hope to either find or perform an analysis of J. Ken's numbers to show how little of the increase over the rate of inflation actually has anything to do with taxes. Until then, consider J.Ken's office a microcosm of the state budget.

Time was I gave J. Ken the benefit of the doubt. I thought he was sincere in his beliefs which happen to be different than mine. But the more I see of his arguments, the more it feels like he’s either woefully stupid or extravagantly dishonest.

And I don’t believe he’s stupid. After all, he reformed the Secretary of State's Office. Increasing fees to improve services is good government. Tying services to fees, as opposed to paying for them with tax revenues is good government. A one-size-fits-all superbureaucratic spending rule is not good government and Ken Blackwell is smart enough to know that.