Political Con Game

The incessant political ads leading up to the primaries all seemed to assume that we voters are either children or idiots. Every candidate for every office will protect our perks and cut our taxes! For the record, guys, most of us know there is no such thing as a free lunch. We know—or we should know—that if we want government services, we have to pay for them, and that actually might mean paying taxes.

 On the other hand, perhaps the candidates are right. Perhaps we are children.

 Look at what is happening in Indianapolis right now: Six libraries are closing.  IndyGo—already one of the country’s most inadequate bus systems—is cutting out additional routes. My own neighborhood, the Old Northside, is working with other downtown neighborhoods on a plan to hire private police to supplement IMPD. In too many places, our streets and sidewalks are disintegrating. And don’t even look at the condition of our parks.

 When I worked for city government, back in the days when Bill Hudnut was mayor, there was a recognition that city services had to be paid for, and that there were better and worse ways to do that. Sinking funds (savings accounts) were preferable to bonds (borrowing from future taxpayers) for operating costs. Ongoing maintenance of infrastructure was more cost-effective than cycles of neglect and repair.

 The Hudnut Administration wasn’t perfect, but it was probably the last Indianapolis administration to operate on a pay-as-you-go basis.

 Hudnut was succeeded by Stephen Goldsmith.  Goldsmith (recently installed as Deputy Mayor of New York) was very good at convincing people that he could deliver government on the cheap. “Privatization” initiatives were used to shift costs from the operating to the capital budget; debt was refinanced over longer periods; maintenance skimped or deferred. The Peterson Administration chose not to confront the dire fiscal problems it inherited, resisting even modest tax increases as long as possible. Ironically, when an increase could no longer be avoided, the timing was politically disastrous.

 The Ballard Administration has taken a leaf from the Goldsmith book. A simple transfer of our sewer and water utilities to Citizens Gas actually might make a lot of sense, fiscally as well as politically.  But as the Star recently documented, the up-front “payment” is nothing more than a deferred tax that will be paid by ratepayers in the future.

 The money to fix our decaying infrastructure has to come from somewhere, and our childish belief that we can expect something for nothing—a belief nurtured by years of dishonest political rhetoric—means the administration will not raise taxes directly. The problem is, when these “creative” tax mechanisms are employed, they end up being much more arbitrary and unfair than property or income taxes. In this case, ratepayers living in million-dollar homes will pay precisely the same amount as ratepayers living in hovels, so that we can pave our streets and fix our sidewalks without admitting that we are raising taxes.

 Shouldn’t we all just grow up?