Tuesday, March 15, 2005


The LIE Amendment

One topic we plan on focusing more on in the future is a proposed Ohio constitutional amendment being cooked up by the likes of Kenny Blackwell (and others, although Blackwell's will be the most extreme). The amendment would - in brief - ostensibly limit the growth of state and local government spending, and index it to inflation and population growth measurements.

As we understand it, the amendment would also require a supermajority vote of the legislature plus a vote of the people to alter taxes outside of these indexes. The limits and override rules would also apply to local government spending.

But the real agenda at work is not to limit government, but strangle it. Actually, considering the probably effect, it would be more like applying a garrotte to government.

Blackwell hasn't announced many details, but it is well known that he is enamored with a similar amendment passed about a decade ago in Colorado that was given an Orwellian name, the Tax Payers Bill Of Rights (TABOR). The amendment is alternatively called a Tax Expenditure Limitation amendment. Partial versions of this have been passed in other states, and full versions have been defeated in states like Maine and Wisconsin.

For anyone not involved with government (which we acknowledge is just about everyone) there is a certain initial "common sense" traction to the idea that government shouldn't grow any faster than inflation and the population. But the business of running government requires real sense, not common sense.

Consider, for example, two situations: prisons and Medicaid.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a "get tough on crime" mood that swept the nation and the state. Republicans in Ohio in that era were in many cases swept into the General Assembly (and eventually won a majority) in part by posturing that they were going to be tougher on crime and criminals than the Democrats. And, indeed, they passed many new crime and sentencing laws that caused the number of inmates in Ohio's prisons to double in just a few years. The number grew so fast that it overwhelmed the state's prison system, particularly because bills can get passed much faster than prisons can be built. The 1993 11-day prison riot in Lucasville was largely a by-product of the overcrowding and understaffing that was triggered by this tidal wave of new inmates.

To cope, the state of Ohio went on a prison building spree that effectively doubled the number of prisons, and as logic would require, double the number of staff, etc. The prison agency's budget quickly became the largest of all state agencies, growing at a pace much faster than inflation during the period of the 1990s.

While prison spending reached a plateau and eventually dropped (in inflation-adjusted dollars) by 2000, state Medicaid spending began to soar. This has mainly been do to health care inflation that has grown at double-digit annual rates since the last part of the Clinton administration. Stopping this growth in spending would have required cutting the care and opportunities to the poorest Ohioans and to those who are disabled. In fact, how to respond to the ballooning Medicaid costs is a big topic in Columbus these days. But until now, legislators have bitten the bullet and allowed Medicaid expenditures to increase rather than make harmful cuts.

The point of the prison example is that state and local government is representative government. We elect legislators, commissioners and city council members who, as part of their job, make certain policy decisions that have budgetary impact. And, according to the theory, they are held accountable and can be voted out if they are doing a lousy job controlling the government's purse strings.

The point of the Medicaid example is that state and local government officials often face factors that are largely outside their control. Health cost inflation is one. Homeland security is another.

But amendments like Blackwell's make a mockery of representative government and substitute a mechanistic approach for accountability of election officials.

Even more insidious is the tendency of these types of amendments to "rachet" down state and local government budgets. This is the garrotting effect, and this concept will be the subject of future posts. Suffice it to say that, once this type of amendment is in place, budgets can never recover their real or effective spending levels after sharp economic downturns.

The strong racheting effect in places like Colorado have curtailed spending particularly on education and health care. Here are some current measures of what the TABOR amendment has done in Colorado:
Looking forward to what might occur in Ohio, some opponents have aptly taken to calling Blackwell's initiative the LIE Amendment - Last In Everything.

Like many things, people's attitude toward things like their government and taxes is complex at this point. It's hard to separate cause and effect. As analysts like George Lakoff have pointed out, conservatives have spent over three decades in a largely successful ideological campaign to convince the public that government and taxes are the problem, not the solution.

At the same time, it would appear that some in Ohio have major doubts about exactly how accountable their elected representatives actually are. Gerrymandering and redistricting have made incumbents in Congressional seats as well as state and local government positions nearly defeat-proof. Thus - in the absence of other major political changes - there are many that will say, "So what?" if Blackwell's amendment does undermine legislators' accountabilities and responsibilities.

This leads us to conclude that effectively defeating Blackwell must go hand in glove with another constitutional amendment to change the way legislative districts are drawn, changing it from a strictly partisan effort to one that is non-partisan or truly bi-partisan.

The good news is that defeating the LIE amendment and ending fixed elections are not just parlor dreams. Dozens of groups, from what we hear, are laying the ground work to make sure that this happens. Let's hope so.

We've just begun to scratch the surface on these issues. Much, much more is to come . . .

In the meantime, it's worth checking out some of the background materials here and here being offered by the Center for Community Solutions.


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