The Rocky Mountain News has an editorial out today that criticizes The Independence Institute for the way in which it is going about trying to defeat Referendum C&D.
Yes, there is waste in state government. And yes, the Independence Institute's "Piglet Report" identifies several examples. But as an argument against two ballot measures that would increase state revenues, the report is almost laughable. And yet this is what the report purports to be.
Independence Institute officials were not entirely happy with the document, either, since they ended up pulling it from their Web site. And no wonder: Anyone reduced to citing the expenditures of $10,400 on a "Big Blue Bear film" and a few thousand dollars on fireworks at a state university as arguments against Referendums C and D is flirting with foolishness.
Do we think the Colorado Council on the Arts should subsidize a film chronicling the creation and installation of the Big Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center? Of course not. The expenditure is absurd. But it is also of virtually no relevance to the state's quest to locate enough money to prevent further squeezing of budgets for such critical needs as higher education and transportation.
Meanwhile, the relatively big ticket items that the Piglet Report does identify, such as reforming drug sentencing laws so that non-violent offenders are no longer incarcerated and abolishing the state's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Office involve dramatic and controversial changes in public policy. They may be worth pursuing, but the spending itself is hardly tantamount to wasteful pork.
If opponents of Referendums C and D want to be taken seriously, they need to stop pretending that Colorado government is awash in money, because it clearly is not. Reasonable people can argue that the state should be able to get by with the revenues it has, or that the ballot measures ask taxpayers to give up more of their future refunds than is necessary to fix the budget problem.
But to suggest that lawmakers have been cutting funding for higher education and transportation because they've been squandering cash on fireworks and stupid arts grants just doesn't pass the straight-face test.
Bob Ewegen of The Denver Post also got into the act today:
Texas Warrior King Dick Armey and his local acolytes have been attacking Referenda C and D, saying that the recovery package was unnecessary because the state budget had increased 7.7 percent this year, to what they claimed was $15 billion.
That isn't even close to the truth. Yes, the state administers about $14.6 billion in next year's budget. But less than half, $6.2 billion, is in the state's general fund, the key source for such vital programs as law enforcement and education. There is another $3.3 billion in federal funds that the state can only use for specified purposes such as highways and Medicaid.
Finally, the state administers about $5 billion in cash funds, money paid by citizens but restricted to specific purposes. For instances, fees for hunting and fishing licenses are earmarked for fishing and wildlife programs. The biggest cash fund item is college tuition, which is channeled through the state and included in the budget before being returned to the colleges...
So the state budget was cut by $1 billion over three years. This year, it grew just 2.5 percent from that severely depressed base. And that's the truth.
Both editorials lead to a couple of interesting points. First off, The Independence Institute and foes of C&D have done a good job in creating a succinct opposition message, even if it isn't entirely truthful. As Ewegen writes:
But the opponents are being especially loose with their facts because they know the easiest way to defeat a ballot proposal is to sow doubt and confusion. By their cynical logic, even if they get caught in a fib, the process of trying to set the record straight may leave the voters confused and distrustful - and likely to vote "no."
You can save your angry comments that C&D really is a tax increase, because it's just not true. That doesn't mean that calling it a tax increase isn't a good political maneuver, but that still doesn't make it accurate. If you're going to stretch the truth for that argument, then the pro-C&D folks might as well say that C&D is actually a tax reduction because it will prevent future tax increases to pay for projects that would otherwise be cut. That argument would be a bit of a stretch itself, but it's no more unfair than saying C&D is a tax increase.
But this argument isn't entirely relevant anyway, because the point is about what is going to sell voters. If opponents can gain traction with this "tax increase" line, the measure is going to be in trouble come November. As Ewegen correctly points out, if voters are confused they'll vote 'no.'
Proponents of the measure are getting better at their messaging, with the phrase "Colorado Economic Recovery Act" being used more frequently. But it's still not as strong as "tax increase." The Independence Institute and other opponents, however, should take note of the News editorial above. You can call it a tax increase and get away with it, but if your "out of control spending" examples really aren't any better than paying for fireworks at some local event, you shouldn't be trotting out your "facts." Voters don't understand TABOR and C&D, but they aren't stupid. More importantly, the media delights in proving campaign messages wrong, and if you lead with your chin you're going to get your jaw broken.