Columns » Ernest Dumas

A solution in search of a problem



So much easier it is to legislate based upon myth and agreeable fancy than upon hard reality. Simple, half-baked remedies serve the former well, but they wreak havoc when they are introduced into the real world.

If you are out of power, as Republicans have been of late in Washington and Little Rock, and don't have to implement it and bear the fallout, the simple idea is always the perfect solution.

The most popular myth is that government spending is out of control and drastic steps must be taken to save the country and the states from ruin. It is proclaimed so often that Democrats pay homage to it. In Washington, war and defense, homeland security and health care account for the spending surge the last dozen years while nearly all the rest of government has been relatively flat, but Republicans now demand simple remedies that touch none of those except Medicare.

But this is an old and tiresome show while the fresh entertainment is at Little Rock, where Republicans assumed control of the legislature last week for the first time in 130 years vowing finally to address the state's big problems — abortion, immigrants, too much voting and out-of-control taxing and spending by Democratic governments.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, the new majority leader, offered the Republican solution to runaway spending, one that met H. L. Mencken's prescription for solving complex problems — an idea that is neat, simple, and wrong. The legislature will enact a law limiting spending growth on all functions in any year to 3 percent, or less if the gross domestic product has been sluggish. The party can claim that it ended the crisis and tamed spending.

Fiscal experts and the governor said the GOP plan was unconstitutional and unworkable. But the truth is that the law would be simply pointless. It could and probably would lead to a temporary crisis fairly soon — these formulaic solutions always do — but it would be short-lived. The legislature would go into special session and undo the law by a simple majority vote and forestall the crisis. It would waste tax money and produce a little anxiety and posturing.

What is the point of such a law if Republicans are now in control of the appropriation process? They control state spending down to the last dime when they pass appropriation bills for every state agency and adopt a revenue stabilization law that distributes taxes among those agencies at any level they like. It's worked that way since 1947. Gov. Beebe can complain and he can veto an appropriation he thinks is too small or too big, but the Republicans can scorn his feelings and override his vetoes. Someone needs to tell them that when it comes to spending, they get to govern.

But is that reckless taxing and spending dogma actually true? Spending has risen over the years but across most of government at rates that are generally in line with the cost of living. But some spending has gone up sharply; everyone knew about it and generally approved.

The big spending rampages occurred under Gov. Mike Huckabee — remember him, the Republican? — with his blessings and often upon his pleading. Remember when he called a special session and begged the legislators to pass any tax increase they could think of and he would happily sign them.

Pick a year. I have handy the year-end spending report for Bill Clinton's next-to-last year as governor, 1991, and that for last year. In the intervening 21 years nearly all of government has increased spending modestly, in line with inflation but sometimes even less.

The biggest exception is corrections, where spending on prisons to meet the huge increase in prisoners under more criminal statutes and tougher sentences increased sixfold. State aid to the public schools, the biggest item in the state budget, doubled, mostly because the state Supreme Court said the state had to comply with the mandate of the state Constitution that it provide an adequate and equal education for all children and conservative Republican Huckabee urged the legislature to raise taxes rather than move money from the rest of government to the schools. General education, which includes vocational schools and state administration, also doubled, but it is a relatively small budget. State aid to public colleges more than doubled as enrollment soared, but it didn't keep pace with other states.

And then there was health and human services, primarily Medicaid, where state spending grew fourfold over 21 years, owing to Huckabee's big expansion of Medicaid to cover all children whose families earned under twice the poverty line, growth in the indigent nursing home population and soaring inflation in health care.

Skyrocketing taxes? Yes, Republican Huckabee raised a lot of sales taxes for education and recreation. But there were big tax reductions, too — for example, Mike Beebe's slashing of sales taxes on groceries from 6 to 1.5 percent. The state's tax on rich estates brought in $400 million over the 10 years before 2003, when the legislature abolished it. It would have produced double that in the following 10 years. Income taxes investment profits were slashed in 2001. The Democratic legislature passed Gov. Jim Guy Tucker's income tax cuts for working families in 1997, after he left office. Industrial exemptions from sales and use taxes and targeted income-tax favors have come at almost every legislative session.

Reality is so complicated. Let's stick with popular fancy.

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