The Outstater: Policy Discussion Without the Discussion
(For the use of the membership only)
As the editor of something that dares call itself The Indiana Policy Review, it’s important to me that Indiana policy is actually being discussed so it can be reviewed. I fear it’s not.
My doubts began to surface several years ago during an early hearing on Indiana’s inheritance tax. A senior Republican was pressed to explain “revenue neutrality,” a concept that to my free-market mind needs a lot of explaining, a lot of discussion.
In this instance, he meant that a tax, even though admittedly unjust and regressive, would have to stand until a countervailing revenue stream could be found. Government must never get smaller; by this rule, it can only stay the same (vote Republican) or get bigger (vote Democrat).
Selling this kind of stuff on the political stage requires creativity and extreme moral dexterity. You could program your laptop for the same purpose. It is, after all, an algebraic discussion, not a policy discussion.
Consider the recent strain on the state transportation budget. The new super majority at the statehouse is not debating proposals to scale back maintenance of roadways until revenues rise to meet costs. And the leadership is not exploring better command-and-control systems, less wasteful labor contracts or more efficient bidding strategies.
Well, not right off, anyway. First, Republicans would adjust the equation by ordering citizens to pay a new tax on license plates — again, mathematics and not policy. It is too much even for the tax-and-spend crowd at the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne:
“Less than seven years after legislators approved the Indiana Toll Road lease that was supposed to generate enough money for a 10-year road plan, one of the state’s conservative fiscal leaders last week floated the idea of adding a $20 to $50 ‘license plate tax’ on every Hoosier vehicle. That, of course, is in addition to the license fees and excise taxes and wheel taxes Hoosier already pay . . . Much of the money could go to road projects that would greatly benefit — you guessed it — Indianapolis.”
That’s the problem with “revenue neutral;” it’s never “politically neutral.” It makes for a complex legislative equation because some constituencies are more neutral than others; modern government, Republican or Democrat, insists on leaving no social problem unaddressed no matter how intractable. The result is a constantly shifting data set.
Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal sees this complexity as the end of any true policy discussion:
“Government, for the past 80 years or so, has seen its purpose as mainly to ‘respond’ to society’s failures the moment they occur or whenever they are imagined. Whether that law will accomplish its goal is irrelevant. Policy making has become an activity that supports the genetic and financial needs of policymakers and their follower tribes. The community’s role, we’ve lately learned, is to provide revenue.”
In Indiana, we have had our share of such discussion-free policy:
- A high court ruling limiting property taxes results not in a cap on state spending but on local spending, the more accountable of the two.
- A concern about the loss of jobs morphs into a statewide system of quasi-governmental economic-development councils that are little more than “crony capitalists next door,” as one of IPR’s adjunct scholars put it.
- The bureaucratic inefficiencies of operating infrastructure (a state toll road) are “solved” by selling the road and all future revenues.
- The inarguable need to reform public education is reduced to a voucher system that extends corruption and centralized command to private schools without addressing the source of the problem — a ruinous collective-bargaining law.
One more example, a pluperfect one, may turn out to be the most impressive government application since the parking meter — or the guillotine.
The adjustable stoplight camera can be installed at the bottom of a hill, a blind intersection or anywhere that will put hapless citizens at the mercy of traffic courts. The mechanism can be set to record more “offenses” and thereby collect more fines by merely shortening the duration of the amber warning signal, all without having to show a meaningful advance in vehicular safety.
Presto — public policy without the muss or fuss. There’s no floor debate, press conference, serious discussion or, alas, beneficial effect.
Tracy Warner. “GOP Weighs Both Tax Cut, New Plate Fee.” The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Dec. 26, 2012 http://www.journalgazette.net/article/20121226/EDIT0502/312269990/0/SEARCH
The Associated Press. “Indiana Lawmaker Sen. Luke Kenley of Noblesville Eyes Plate Taxes for Road Funds.” The Indianapolis Star, Dec. 22, 2012. http://www.indystar.com/viewart/20121222/NEWS05/212220336/Indiana-lawmaker-Sen-Luke-Kenley-Noblesville-eyes-plate-taxes-road-funds
Alan Binder. “District Traffic Cameras to More Than Double Amid
Record Revenues.” The Washington Examiner, Dec. 25, 2012. http://washingtonexaminer.com/district-traffic-cameras-to-more-than-double-amid-record-revenues/article/2516807
Daniel Henninger. “The Biggest Cliff of All.” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 25, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323984704578203850329980688.html