May 23, 2017

Caution! Campaign Promises Ahead!

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The races for seats on the Stephenville city council are well underway.  Yard signs are sprouting all over the city.  The more conservative candidates and their supporters are talking about their desire to hold the line on taxes and spending, while several of their opponents are advocating doing more, which may require more money.  How realistic either side is may be indicated by some of the greater policy-related defeats in recent American political history—failures that can offer lessons to those following our local city council campaigns.

The big story out of Washington last week was the failure of House Republicans to pass a bill to “replace and repeal” Obamacare.  They struck many as especially inept.  After all, they’d been yammering for seven years about their determination to get rid of Obamacare, but when they finally had the chance to do so without having to worry if a Democratic president might veto their repeal, they failed miserably to even vote on a proposal.

Much of the media have said the GOP failure in the House reflected the alleged incompetence of either President Trump, or Speaker Ryan, or both.  But whatever the case, this fiasco at least reflects a very important lesson in American politics:  It’s usually easier to prevent something from happening than to end it once it’s been started.

In general, any program, no matter how wasteful its cost, how inept its implementation, or how ill-conceived it was to begin with, will likely have enough supporters who profit from its existence and who will fight tooth and nail for its preservation.  It matters not whether the program is a failing welfare program or an unnecessary new weapons program.  Bureaucrats who administer it, beneficiaries who receive money from it, and senators and representatives in whose districts those who benefit from the program live will all fight to keep it.  This may help to explain the enduring nature of Obamacare, no matter what Republicans say they want to do with it.  Whatever its faults, millions believe they benefit from Obamacare, they tell their senators and representatives so, and those members of Congress listen, and act accordingly.

This could also explain one of Ronald Reagan’s greatest disappointments.  Running for President in 1980, the Gipper pledged to cut taxes, increase defense spending, cut domestic spending, and balance the budget.  He got his tax cuts and defense spending increases, but not his domestic cuts.  Social Security and Medicare proved way too popular for anyone to touch.  As usually happens when tax cuts are combined with spending increases, the deficit and debt skyrocketed.

At the local level, one of the city council’s biggest failures in the last three years is the failure to roll back the property tax rate to 48.5 cents.  In 2013 the council, by a 5-4 vote, increased the tax rate by penny, thereby raising property taxes by ten dollars a year on homes worth $100,000.  A majority of the politically active voters were aghast.  Most of us who supported the tax increase—I voted for it because the council unanimously favored a major spending increase of the city payroll, and I thought that if we increased spending we had to increase taxes to cover the spending increase—lost our elections the following May to candidates who claimed the tax increase was totally unnecessary.

Yet though 7 of the 9 members on the city council after the May 2014 election were on record as opposing the tax increase, the council failed to cut the rate back to 48.5 cents.  True, they did cut a half cent off the property tax rate, but they still chose to keep some of the tax increase they had previously denounced as unnecessary.  Perhaps they realized that given the statutory requirement that the council balance its budget, at least some of the additional funds produced by the hated tax increase were necessary after all to help finance programs the council did not want to cut.

So—when listening to candidates talk about holding the line and possibly even cutting taxes, understand that tax cuts are feasible only if the council can either cut spending programs or come up with alternative funding sources.  And if you’re interested in candidates who say the city is stagnating and must do more, remember that doing more frequently requires spending more, which may require taxing more.  Moreover, once the government expands an old program or launches a new one, it may be difficult to rein it in, especially if too many people are getting too much money, regardless of the program’s possible defects.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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