LONGMONT, Colo. — Governor John Hickenlooper, Colorado Democrat, proposed an austerity budget this week that would make Republican counterparts such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proud.
Governor Hickenlooper deserves credit on many levels for his budget proposal. But, twelve, eighteen or twenty-four months from now, his ideas, if enacted, are just as likely to foster greater public antipathy toward government and politicians as it is to build good will.
Governor Hickenlooper proposed a budget that includes historic cuts of more than ten percent over two years to K-12 per pupil funding, reducing the rate below pre-recession levels. It is quite possible that the number of teaching positions eliminated statewide over the next year will be in the thousands. Class sizes in some of the state’s school districts will soar. Other districts will reduce the length of the school week, leaving working parents in a lurch.
Governor Hickenlooper’s budget hit K-12 education hardest because, as the governor said, “That’s where the money is.” But few categories of public services were spared.
Colorado ranks 49th nationally in state support for public colleges and universities. Yet, higher education took another hit. State funding for colleges and universities has been cut more than 16% over the past five years, while enrollment in state institutions has increased nearly 20%. The state’s colleges and universities are planning nine percent annual tuition increases for the next several years to cover their costs.
Governor Hickenlooper didn’t stop there. He proposes to close state parks and prisons (mostly in rural areas of the state), cut reimbursement for doctors and nurses who see Medicaid patients and reduce state workers’ take home pay to fund retirement benefits. The governor also proposes increasing cash reserves from two to four percent as a contingency for a still sluggish economy. These higher reserves will require another $141.5 million in cuts to public services.
Governor Hickenlooper’s budget proposals are, in many ways, far more dramatic than those of his colleagues in Wisconsin and New Jersey because of Colorado’s starting point. According to the Tax Foundation, New Jersey has the highest tax burden in the Nation. Wisconsin ranks ninth. By contrast, Colorado ranks 34th on the Tax Foundation’s list.
Colorado spends much less than these states, too. Take K-12 education funding as one example. According to Education Week, New Jersey spends a whopping $17,620 per student. Wisconsin spends $10,791 per student. The national average is $10,297. Colorado, meantime, spends just $9,152 per student. (Colorado readers will find this number high. Per pupil funding for ongoing instruction and operations will drop from $6,823 this school year to $6,326, if Governor Hickenlooper’s budget is adopted).
The governor’s proposals deserve recognition. First, he is staying true to his fall campaign promises. Candidate Hickenlooper promised that he would reign in government spending without proposing new taxes (all taxes in Colorado must be approved by voters). It is refreshing when politicians do what they say.
Second, Governor Hickenlooper tackled the budget without using gimmicks. Colorado has been dealing with a structural budget problem (the costs of ongoing state obligations exceed annual revenues) for years. The standard practices are to make rosy assumptions about future revenues, raid cash funds, divert earmarked money and use one-time tricks such as moving payday from June 30 to July 1 (a new fiscal year) to close the state’s annual budget gap. These tactics effectively sweep festering problems under the rug.
Governor Hickenlooper did not engage in these kinds of games. In fact, he did exactly the opposite. He used the most conservative rather than most optimistic budget assumptions and proposed permanent cuts. The governor’s budget director already is warning Colorado lawmakers and voters to be prepared for cuts of a similar magnitude next year.
Third, Governor Hickenlooper is giving Colorado voters what he believes they want. Most public opinion polling reveals that the public wants low taxes and robust public services. A Pew Research Center poll indicates that, by more than a two to one margin, people are opposed to cuts in funding to K-12 education, public colleges, health care or roads and public transportation. In short, people don’t want any public services reduced.
The same Pew poll indicates that large majorities also oppose increases in sales taxes, personal income taxes and new taxes on business. Politicians are avid readers of polls. Not wanting to offend, many politicians try to accommodate people’s desire to have their cake and eat it, too. Governor Hickenlooper said no to that type of pandering,
The governor asserts that Coloradans’ top priority is to maintain low taxes. “People have no appetite for a tax increase,” he has said on many occasions. If the governor is correct in this conclusion, his proposals are appropriate. He has drawn into stark relief what a “low taxes at all costs” state looks like: Schools with large class sizes; rural communities without access to jobs or recreation; college priced beyond what most families can afford; low pay for doctors and nurses who serve the poor; dangerously understaffed prisons; limited support for water infrastructure in a semi-arid state, and an under-maintained transportation system that can’t accommodate the state’s population.
Here’s the rub. Governor Hickenlooper’s budget proposal for the state may be the first honest attempt to reconcile a desire to keep taxes low at all costs (for which he deserves credit). But, his budget lacks vision. One or two years from now, after public services have been dramatically rolled back, people are likely to ask, “What now?”
The governor and those who like his budget plan claim that low taxes are the way to grow jobs. It’s a dubious assertion supported more by ideology than evidence. In the 1990s, when Federal and Colorado state taxes were higher, the nation and state experienced robust growth. This decade there has been zero net job growth in the country despite many tax cuts. After awhile, the chant that low taxes equals more jobs starts to ring hollow.
Americans, including Coloradans, are wrestling with a nagging sense that the nation is on the wrong track and that our best days are behind us. Many families are trying to reconcile four decades of flat income with health care and college tuition costs that are skyrocketing beyond their means. Too many Coloradans are still underwater in the wake of the easy credit era. People are searching for a path toward a brighter future.
Fiscal discipline is an important, and long lacking, quality for those who serve in public office. And, low taxes are appealing. But, neither fiscal discipline nor low taxes are a destination. As we’ve seen in Wisconsin, austerity without direction does not rally people in a constructive way. It just leaves people fighting over what they have left.
The lingering question in the backs of most people’s minds is, “How do we get our mojo back?” On this important question, Governor Hickenlooper provided little insight.
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John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times. It is relevant to know, when reading this article, that John is president of the board of education of the St. Vrain Valley School District, a district in Colorado.
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