Arizona Policy Choices

Balancing Acts: Tax Cuts and Public Policy in Arizona


Back-to-Basics Government

At state and local level, they know taxes and government won't just go away.

E. J. Dionne Jr.,
Columnist, The Washington Post
© The Washington Post, May 16, 1997

Denver—"I've had people questioning my sanity," says Sen. Tom Norton, the Republican leader in Colorado's state Senate.

There is, in fact, nothing crazy about Norton, an 11-year veteran of the state legislature. He and the Republican leader in the House, Rep. Norma Anderson, simply decided earlier this year to take on an impossible issue: the matter of how Colorado pays for its public schools.

The bill they proposed would have shifted school costs away from the local property tax by increasing corporate income and sales taxes. It failed, but they started an argument. They say that was their goal all along.

The Colorado episode is not an isolated event. It reflects what is happening in many states around the country. Instead of indulging in empty gasbaggery about how awful government and taxes are, politicians and voters are trying to figure out what they want governments to do, and how they should pay for it. The top issue in most places, as in Colorado, is public education. The politicians sense that, however unhappy voters are with taxes, the electorate is willing to shell out some money to make sure their kids can read, write and count.

This realization crisscrosses party lines, and Norton and Anderson are not the only Republicans to risk criticism from anti-tax purists. Another Republican who has shown courage on the school financing issue is Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Bush proposed a big shift in education spending away from the property tax by proposing a package of statewide tax increases.

Bush argues, fairly, that his plan would result in a net tax cut because the tax increases would be more than outweighed by property tax reductions. Bush would make up the difference by tossing some of the state's current budget surplus to local schools.

But that didn't satisfy the most conservative Republicans, including national anti-tax groups that went after Bush's plan. When Democrats in the state House of Representatives rewrote the Bush proposal, the Republican governor had the temerity to support the Democratic bill, saying it met his objectives. When the House vote came, a narrow majority of Republicans voted against their governor, and the bill passed only because of overwhelming Democratic support. It's now tied up in negotiations with the state Senate, which passed a less bold version.

If Norton and Anderson risked being considered crazy in Colorado, Bush is risking his opportunity to follow his father into the White House by making some important enemies. The anti-tax groups he has taken on are influential in Republican presidential primaries.

The specifics of any tax plan can be debated, and the proposal here by Anderson and Norton drew criticism even from people who respected their courage. But it was serious about government. What's striking is that the politics of taxing-and-spending look saner and less ideological at the local level than they do in Washington. National politicians can say education is the overriding issue. The local pols have to pay for the schools. Washington politicians can cry their lungs out about crime. The locals have to pay the cops.

In a state like Colorado, no politician, Democrat or Republican, wants to sound like a friend of big government. Taxes aren't popular. Norton and Anderson had to go through their intricate dance to redesign school financing because of tough tax limitation measures imposed by the voters. Neither expects the limits to be repealed any time soon.

But unlike so many of their Washington counterparts, state and local politicians do not talk as if government and taxes can be made to disappear. Norton, the Republican, hopes to run for governor next year, as does Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, a Democrat. They are likely to argue a lot about land-use planning and environmental issues, Norton being the critic of regulation and Schoettler the environmentalist.

Yet they both defend a back-to-basics role for government. Norton says government has three essential purposes: education, public safety and infrastructure, the policy junkie's word for roads, bridges and sewers. Schoettler says state officials need to ask three questions: "What is it states should be doing and what will it cost to do it well? And what is the tax structure you need to do it?"

That is a remarkably sane approach to government. Washington politicians speak glowingly about the genius of state government. They might consider dropping the usual antigovernment patter for a year or two and learn the virtue of simple questions from their state counterparts. They'd still argue a lot, but about real things.

© 1997 The Washington Post, May 16, 1997, p.25. Reprinted with permission.

 

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