Ochenski: Dueling dichotomies 

To shrink the deficit, you can't have it both ways

Like dogs snapping at each other through a fence, our political parties are taking the opportunity of a special legislative session to bark loudly in hopes of positioning themselves beneficially for the November elections. Despite all the sound and fury, however, the state’s fiscal problems are challenging both parties to find solutions that fit within their political ideologies, a challenge that has yet to be met thanks to dueling dichotomies in both political camps.

If you voted Republican last election (and come on, some of you are going to have to admit it), you probably did so because you believed their campaign promises to shrink government spending. It must have come as a shock to read Speaker of the House Dan McGee’s admission this week that government spending has ballooned by more than 150 percent since 1995.

If you’re wondering how could this happen with Republicans firmly in control of taxing, spending, and prioritizing state government, you’re not alone. Yet, as Speaker McGee confessed, not only have they failed to trim government, they haven’t even been able to hold the line on spending. He is backed up by Gov. Judy Martz, who told reporters, “We’ve spent more in the state of Montana than we should be spending right now…” What the governor needs to explain is who she is talking about when she says “we.” Just as Republican lawmakers have dominated the taxing and spending in the legislative arena, Republican governors have been in total control of state agencies since 1989. If anyone had the power to trim government spending, it was Stephens, Racicot, and Martz, who promised to do so during their campaigns, but didn’t get the job done.

Now, as legislators desperately search for ways to balance the budget, some suggest redirecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Martz’s new “Office of Economic Opportunity” to more urgent and beneficial needs. To that suggestion, Martz replied: “I think that would be a huge mistake.”

So let’s see here. Both the Speaker of the House and the governor admit government spending has ballooned. Yet, when someone suggests shrinking government and redirecting funding, the governor says no. She can’t have it both ways. It seems obvious that if you vastly increase government spending, you can’t credibly claim to be against bigger government. Interestingly, this same Republican ideological dichotomy is evident in the Bush administration. In spite of his rhetoric to the contrary, Bush is demanding huge new government agencies, bloated budgets for our own as well as others’ militaries, and the return to deficit spending in the face of grim financial predictions. Like Martz and the Montana Republicans, he can’t have it both ways either.

For their part, the Demos are also caught crosswise between their progressive message and the reality of funding an ever-growing government. Simply put, it is not “progressive” to levy more taxes on a populace that has grown by 7 percent since 1995 while government spending has grown by 150 percent. You can only squeeze so much blood from the same number of beets, and given the hundreds of millions in tax breaks doled out by Republicans to large corporations, much of the tax burden has already shifted to residential property owners. Kudos to those who are supporting rescinding the tax shifting of the last 10 years—but until that happens, encouraging further spending is simply adding more non-progressive taxes on Montana’s citizens, who have some of the lowest incomes in the nation.

Likewise, Demos almost universally support increased spending for higher education. But increasing tuition to generate more funds is a very non-progressive form of raising revenue, since those least able to pay are hit the hardest. Meanwhile having students graduate from college tens of thousands of dollars in debt from student loans is neither desirable nor progressive.

When “progressive” Demos recently joined Republicans to support new and increased fees for Montanans to use state parks and fishing access sites, they endorsed the least progressive tax structure. Much (some would say most) of Montana’s population lives on low or fixed incomes. Many citizens may well head out to access or camp on their favorite publicly owned recreational lands, find out new fees have been implemented or existing fees jacked up, and leave because they are simply unable to afford to pay so much. No progressivity here, with the goodies going, as usual, to those who can afford them.

The ideological dichotomy that you can support ever-increasing government spending based on revenue generated from a static population base and torpid economic activity level just doesn’t add up. Sooner or later, like the Repubs, the Demos will have to admit you can’t have it both ways.

Our political parties must address their own ideological dichotomies, if we are to dig Montana out of its present hole. The Repubs ought to follow up their confession of wildly increased government spending and take a hard look at the tax “incentives” they granted to large corporations. When the top managers at MPC/Touch America “Enronize” Montanans by ripping off millions in bonuses while the company’s stock falls to 1 percent of its previous value, there’s good reason to question rewarding the company with continuing tax breaks. If the “incentives” haven’t worked, and the companies haven’t produced, then they ought to be dropped.

For their part, the Dems should admit that increased government spending under the current tax structure is non-progressive. Until things change, they should resist saddling average Montanans, living on some of the lowest incomes in the country, with any more taxes, fees, or tuition increases.

Unfortunately, most of the finger-pointing in the weeks and months to come will be at each other. Even more unfortunate, much of the “growth” that has occurred in government is attributable to capital expansion, which comes with long-term incurred debt and ongoing maintenance costs. Even if both parties acknowledged their weaknesses, change will be painfully slow because they are burdened by the commitments and costs of former decisions. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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