Charlie Leonard: We can’t tax our way out
October 19, 2011
Sadly, neither our national economy nor our local has shown any real signs of improvement. Worse still, most economists say we are likely to experience little or no growth for some time to come. In terms of employment, the country is stuck at a jobless rate of about 9 percent. In Pitkin County, we are told the current rate is about 6.7 percent, but as almost anyone can tell you, that number fails to account for the hundreds, if not thousands, who have left the area after giving up their search for work.On the real estate front, local experts say Aspen is stabilizing, but the rest of the valley has a long way to go. Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties all set new foreclosure records in 2010, and the experts say Garfield and Eagle are likely set new records again this year. And that doesn’t even include the pages and pages of tax liens that appeared in this paper just last week. Despite this very dire economic scenario, voters locally are being asked to approve three different tax increases as part of our ballots on Election Day. Two of the taxes claim to provide additional funding for public education, and the other tax hike would increase funding for Pitkin County’s Healthy Community Fund.In general, I think most people would agree that public education and community health programs are essential services that need to be adequately funded, especially during periods of severe economic stress. Unfortunately, the choices we are being asked to make are not that simple, nor are they as altruistic as some of the tax proponents would have us believe.First, I would urge voters to beware both the state and local ballot questions that claim to support education. The state initiative, which would increase Colorado taxes by more than $500 million in the first year and seriously threaten the state’s economic recovery, has no requirement the money be spent on education or in classrooms. Locally, voters are being asked to support a property tax increase for our schools as well. Even if there were restrictions on the use of the money, there is zero evidence that increased spending would produce better educational results. According to the nonpartisan Independence Institute, “Americans have increased spending on K-12 education by 50 percent over the past 30 years, and doubled spending over the past 40 years. Educational outcomes, as defined by test scores and international comparisons, have barely budged. Some school districts such as those in Washington, D.C., and New York City spend the highest amounts per pupil and have worse outcomes than Colorado’s test scores. The neighboring state of Utah spends $2,700 per pupil less than Colorado and enjoys better outcomes.” Finally, there is a ballot initiative to increase funding for the Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund. More than half of the beneficiaries of this fund have nothing to do with the community’s health (i.e. Aspen Young Professionals, GrassRoots TV). The Open Space and Trails tax will take in more than $12 million in revenue this year, The Aspen Times reported in July. After completing such a major acquisition as the Droste property, wouldn’t it make sense to put a small percentage of these funds to work elsewhere in the community for the next couple of years? Why is it that the only choice we are given is increase taxes or be accused of shortchanging health services and education?I have three fundamental complaints with the political leadership that has given us such poor choices in such difficult economic times:My first beef is that I don’t believe our government has tightened its belt as much as those of us who create the jobs and pay the bills. Yes, I’m familiar with the nominal freezes that were placed on city and county spending. But I still believe government freezes pale in comparison to what working families and businesses have had to eliminate from their budgets to make ends meet. My second gripe is that we are not being given any original choices. Why not ask if people would defer a small portion of the open space revenues, or restrict expenditures such as the travel of government employees and elected officials, in favor of boosting funding for education and health services?Families in this community – as well as all over the country – have lost their jobs, their homes and their hopes and dreams, yet government at every level essentially carries on as if it’s business as usual.No economy in history ever taxed its way out of a recession, and ours will not be the first. Voting against these tax referendums does not have to equate with opposition to quality education or quality health services. Voting no also can send a message to our political leadership that we can no longer afford business as usual.Readers: In my last column I incorrectly stated that some TSA agents carry guns. I owe it to the Times and its readers to be more careful about my fact-checking. Apologies to one and all for this inexcusable mistake.
Charlie Leonard lives in Aspen. His column runs every other Thursday in The Aspen Times.