Contemporary politics has a lot in common with tantrums in a nursery school classroom. So it is understandable, although not very helpful, to see every dispute between the City-County Council and the Ballard Administration characterized–and dismissed–by local pundits as “politics as usual.”
Not every difference of opinion between the Council and the Mayor–or between Congress and the President–can be dismissed as “playing politics.” Some reflect genuine disputes over what constitutes good policy.
Take the current dispute between the Mayor and Council over funding for expanded preschool. That dispute is not over the value of preschool or the need for expansion; it is about identifying a funding mechanism that is both reliable and fiscally responsible. It is about how, not whether. Both sides have principled arguments worth weighing; it would be nice if we had local journalists willing and able to help readers understand the different perspectives.
Instead, we get naive admonitions to “play nice.”
Which brings me to yet another unfortunate consequence of lawmakers’ decision to constitutionalize property tax caps.
A couple of weeks ago, this particular dispute sparked a friendly argument. I didn’t understand the Council’s reluctance to approve the Mayor’s funding proposal by eliminating a local property-tax credit. Why not? I asked. It’s not a biggie, and if it would fund preschool, great. My friend insisted that elimination of the credit would cause a revenue shift that would end up costing both IPS and the Library significant revenues, and would cost township schools nearly 3.9 million. But he couldn’t explain why.
I couldn’t see how that would be true, and refused to believe him, so he sent me an analysis by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute that confirmed those shifts, which are a result of whether individual property owners have or have not hit the cap.
Here’s the thing: I read the analysis, and another posted by Ed Delaney, several times. Call me dense (many do), but the operation of the tax caps on local property taxes is so complicated, I am still at a loss to understand precisely how it works. I gave the analyses to a colleague whose area is Public Finance, and he patiently explained it–but only after even he’d struggled to work through the formula.
When the operation of tax law is so complicated that even former lawyers and professors of public finance have trouble figuring it all out, you have a prescription for mischief–and worse. Transparency in government doesn’t only mean that citizens need to know what their elected officials are doing, it also requires rules that are comprehensible to most of us.
Until I looked at the issue, I simply did not believe the Councilors who said the proposed funding mechanism would shift money–would create winners and losers. Now, it may be that funding preschool expansion is worth doing even if it does take revenue from other units of local government, but that is a very different argument than the “should we/ shouldn’t we have preschool” debate portrayed by local media.
The moral(s) of the story:
In the absence of clear and understandable laws, We the People simply cannot make intelligent decisions about policy and policymakers.
In the absence of a local media capable of analyzing and reporting on the reasons for disagreements, we lack any basis upon which to render democratic judgments. We the People are not well-served by a media that characterizes even legitimate differences over policy as “playing politics,” and fails to do the hard work needed to understand and explain the arguments .