Making a Constitutional Splash.jap

August 24, 2010

For release noon Aug. 24  and thereafter (502 words)

In my home town of Muncie, a group of local citizens wants a public swimming pool, currently in disrepair, expanded into a full-fledged local water-park complex. The group has developed initial plans for an $8-million water park near downtown Muncie with the following mechanism to fund the expenditure: $6 million from local tax-backed bonds, $1 million from local foundations and $1 million from a local fund-raising effort. As a local citizen who likes to swim and has two energetic boys in my household, I am intrigued by this project.

Some Excel number-crunching indicates that $6 million of bonded indebtedness would add around $415,000 to local tax bills. If it were all backed by the property tax this would add about three cents to the local property-tax rate. I calculate such an increase would add about $40 a year to my household’s property-tax bill. Around the dinner table, my family and I concluded we are willing to bear this additional tax burden in exchange for the water-park complex, and are even willing to make a modest contribution to the local fund-raising effort.

Our support, of course, is contingent on additional details we expect to be forthcoming. I hope discussion about the project will be civil, transparent and productive. I am comfortable with my fellow citizens making a responsible decision, although I may or may not agree with that decision. In my humble opinion, this is the essence of self-government: citizens making an informed decision about public spending and bearing the full opportunity cost of that spending.

But now add in the possibility of federal funding.

On one hand, it is a blessing. It is easier to persuade fellow citizens to approve a public project if outsiders are paying for it. Only an idiot or an ogre would suggest proponents not seek federal largess.

But on the other hand, as a student of the U.S. Constitution, using federal funds to build a water park in Muncie, Indiana, is outside the authority granted to Congress in Article I, Section 8. Even the most liberal interpretation of the section is hard pressed to deem such micro-local spending as promoting the “common defense” or “general welfare” of the entire United States. There is something untoward about residents of Bangor, Maine, and Bend, Oregon, paying for a water park thousands of miles from their homes. Coercive extraction of the wealth of all of the nation’s citizens to support the interests of a few is precisely what the Constitution is trying to prevent.

So which instinct trumps: local benefit or fealty to the Constitution?

Tough choice. The Supreme Court is not the sole guardian of the Constitution. In the 19th century it was common for legislators to consider the constitutionality of a proposal in their public discussion. Presidents also vetoed legislation they deemed unconstitutional. And it is our job as citizens to consider this conundrum as well.  Like the original Founders, let us pray for wisdom in our deliberations.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, swims and teaches in Muncie as a professor of economics at Ball State University. This article is excerpted from “A Common Reading of the Constitution” in the current issue of The Indiana Policy Review.


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