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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 28, 2003 5:01 PM. The previous post in this blog was Train wreck a-comin'. The next post in this blog is At least he's leaving comments. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Thursday, August 28, 2003

A "to do" list for government

Oregon State Rep. Max Williams, R-Tigard, has been pushing hard for a wide-ranging discussion of the fundamentals of the state's tax system. Williams is a former student of mine, for whom I have great respect, even though his politics and mine are incompatible on many issues. (And even though in the suits he looks a little like Rush Limbaugh.)


Williams, slightly to the left of Limbaugh, right.

I'm all for a free and open discussion of the kind Williams is advocating, and I look forward to 2004, when in one special session or another the Legislature is scheduled to have the dialogue that he wants. Williams is pushing for a retail sales tax, which Oregon has never had and which I oppose. But so long as everybody gets their say and then a fair vote is taken, I have no problem with that.

The problem I do have is that all the tax reform talk is going nowhere with the public unless there's also a frank discussion of spending priorities. One of the big reasons voters hate taxes is that they're constantly seeing the government spending their money on frills and frivolities, while letting basic needs go unattended.

There's an old spoof magazine cover that showed a cute dog with a pistol pointed at its head. "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll shoot this dog!" screamed the headline. Which wasn't funny, but it made a point that's apposite here. Whenever government wants to raise taxes, it threatens to (and often does) shut down crucial social services. In Oregon, the population is told "Vote for new taxes, or else the public schools will become the laughingstock of the nation." "Vote for new taxes or we'll close the libraries and open the jails." "Vote for new taxes or we'll unplug sick people's life support."

Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to leave the Convention Center as is." Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to do without a streetcar to the Pearl District." Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to get rid of the OLCC." Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to cut the Economic Development Department budget to only $100 million a year."

What's really needed most is a detailed discussion at all levels of government about spending priorities. There needs to be a fairly agreed-upon list of everything government spends money on, with the most important items at the top and the least important at the bottom. The public needs to show the politicians where everything goes on the list. And then when times get tough financially, government has to cut from the bottom of the list. Did you hear that, politicians? Not from the top or from the middle, but from the bottom.

What I'm proposing is sort of like what the state did with the Oregon Health Plan, back before it was bankrupt. A special commission was called upon to draw up a priority list of which items were important enough and effective enough for universal health coverage, and which items provided so little benefit that they weren't worth it. The dialogue was painful, and it took the commission a few tries to get a decent list that people didn't laugh or get angry at. But eventually the list gained acceptance, and it worked.

That's what all of government needs now. The public needs its chance to say where the money will be spent. Then and only then will they vote to pay more or different types of taxes.

The procedures and methodology for such a project could be either simple or sophisticated. But implementation of the concept is long overdue.

Max, good luck with the dialogue, but think bigger.

Comments (5)

I would agree with this if there were any remote prospect of giving the public enough information to understand the things government spends money on, or why they might or might not have merit.

It's not meant as an indictment of the public intelligence; it's just not realistic, I don't think. People aren't going to sit down and learn about why spending money on summer youth programs might be cost-effective. Researchers devote their lives to trying to learn whether Program A or Program B is more helpful to disabled people or more cost-effective, and they can't reach a definitive conclusion -- all you can do is follow the best available research. For the public to try to say yes to this and no to that . . . I don't think it's as easy as that.

Spending priorities are incredibly complicated, and everything affects everything else. And there are issues about making cuts that don't really have anything to do with the merit of a program -- some programs can adjust their size for a period of time with the hopes that funding can be restored when times are better, where others will, if they take a significant hit, cease to exist and will never be able to be revived.

Seeing what is wrought in states with initiative processes doesn't exactly make me eager to subject a state budget to a public vote. At the very least, not unless I were confident that every member of the public would commit to about a hundred hours of training in budget details.

I just don't think it's as simple as the budget-writers not understanding or not being willing to listen to what people care about. Everybody cares about different things; everybody understands the importance of the things that affect them. I think people in general (not you in this post) tend to believe that there is a huge amount of money available to be slashed from things no one will miss, and that just hasn't been my experience. I don't say this remotely to advocate tax increases instead of program cuts; the belief that you can get the money you need for budget-balancing out of rich people's yacht allowances or that you can raise revenue without anyone feeling the hit is as silly as the kind of misunderstanding I'm talking about that you can fill the hole by giving public employees one less holiday. It's just to say that I don't think the public articulating its preferences is going to solve the problem. The vast majority of the government's discretionary money is tied up in (1) education; (2) old people; (3) sick people; and (4) people with disabilities. In other words, the vast majority of the government's discretionary money is tied up in things that everyone agrees is a legitimate priority. Around the edges, I completely agree with you that people could make noise about what they don't care about, but in the end, it's a complicated process, and I'm not sure a public vote is the best solution.

Anyone who wants to shoot their mouth off about the tax system (which seems like about 60% of the population) needs to learn, think and talk about the spending side. There's no doubt in my mind that people's viewpoints on the propriety of current government spending affect their views on the propriety of the current formats and quantities of taxation, whether they realize it or not.

Oh, I could not agree more with that.

I once told a friend that I think the two major theories of government that are currently at war with each other are based on the fact that government basically has two functions: It meets needs (spending), and it gathers resources (taxation). On the one hand, you have the people who believe that you first determine the need that you have, and then you gather the necessary resources. On the other hand, you have the people who believe that you first determine the resources you can reasonably take, and then you dole those resources out to meet needs in order of importance. And to the people in the first group, unmet need is more immoral than overtaxation, mostly on the argument that overtaxed people can afford to be overtaxed. To the people in the second group, overtaxation is more immoral than unmet need, mostly on the argument that people with need could make themselves less needy if they so chose.

There's rarely a discussion about this fundamental difference in philosophy, so mostly, you wind up with a noisy public debate between people who wind up arguing that there's no such thing as legitimate need (an argument easily countered) and people who wind up arguing that there's no such thing as legitimately limited resources (another argument easily countered). It gets them nowhere, because their fundmental philosophies are so different. (What's especially interesting is that if you get a budget surplus, the sides sort of switch places, but that's another five or six paragraphs. And no one wants that.)

But I agree with you -- if you don't understand what needs are being met, then all taxation logically looks illegitimate.

Jack, this is what conservatives have been asking for for years now. A frank discussion of spending priorities and an understanding that government can't be all things to all people.

As you noted, in Oregon, when you want to raise taxes, the first thing you do is lay off some OSP troopers and threaten to throw some disabled people out in the street.

This has resulted in a distrust of the State government when they assure us that they need more for education or other priorities.

By the way, I liked your citing of the possibility of cutting the OLCC and the Economic Development Department. Two areas that were suggested by those evil conservatives at the Taxpayers Association of Oregon a long time ago.

John, as I've been saying, you and I agree on a lot of things.


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