Columns » Outsider


Misguided economics


Here's a simple fact about government, politics and maybe even life itself: You can't always get what you want. And, the Rolling Stones notwithstanding, you're not going to get what you need, either. What you're gonna get, according to Hazlehurst's Law of Inverse Outcomes, is precisely the opposite of what you thought you were getting. Don't believe me? Let's take a guided tour -- first stop, Washington.

You voted for Bush, didn't you, you li'l ole Colorado Springs Republicans, you? And you expected fiscal prudence, restrained government spending, a cautious foreign policy, no-nonsense competence at every level -- maybe even some scaling down of our bloated national government. That's not what you got; in fact you got messianic interventionism abroad, out-of-control domestic spending, a new supersized federal bureaucracy and a fiscal policy borrowed straight from Argentina.

Moving right along, do you remember TABOR? Sure you do: the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the Doug Bruce authored and initiated amendment to the Colorado Constitution that was going to curb the growth of government at every level. It was going to usher in a new era of "right-sizing," lean, coldly efficient governments that would finally start performing and stop bleeding the taxpayers dry. Didn't exactly work that way, did it? Vast rivers of revenue pour in and out of state government, but somehow the basic functions of government seem to be underfunded anyway. How can that be? They must be wasting money, right? Don't they realize that they ought to get their priorities straight?

Actually, those lazy bureaucrats up in Denver are doing a pretty good job -- and yup, they're telling the truth when they warn us that the TABOR limits, the so-called ratchet effect, will lead to a scary budget crisis in the near future, and that we, the voters, had damn well do something about it or suffer the consequences. But here's what they don't mention: the state's fiscal crisis is not caused by TABOR, or by Amendment 23, or by anything that we in Colorado can control. One phrase: federally mandated spending. One word: Medicaid.

Go to the state of Colorado's Web site and download the FY 2004-05 Budget in Brief. Look at page 18, the capsule budget for the State Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. Total appropriation: $3.0 billion. State share: $1.52 billion. Federal share: $1.48 billion. Number of Medicaid recipients: 375,410. Cost per recipient: $5,090. That's $1.9 billion; the other $1.1 billion is for other health-care programs, almost all federally mandated.

So what's Medicaid? It's an artifact of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, a well-meaning partnership between the feds and the states originally enacted in 1965. Its purpose: "To pay for medical assistance for certain individuals and families with low incomes and resources." Forty years ago, before medical costs exploded across the board, it was an insignificant part of state budgets; now, it's a backbreaker, even in states without the added burden of TABOR revenue caps.

Look at the numbers: Thirty percent of Colorado's general fund budget goes to human services and health care. Total general fund budget: $5.8 billion. Health and human services: $1.7 billion. There's nothing we can do about it, other than closing down the whole program. And TABOR just makes it worse, forcing the state to divert or cut funds from non-entitlement programs.

So let's finish our mercifully brief tour, and take a look at public education. Remember when the much-decorated Ken Burnley, national school superintendent of the year a dozen years ago, left Colorado Springs District 11 to take over the Detroit public school system? Bet the folks who hired him thought that the brilliant Dr. Burnley would turn things around. Well, things have certainly changed. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Detroit's public school system is no longer ailing; it's terminal. Since 1998-99, the system has lost 33,000 students, leaving the students who are "the hardest and most expensive to educate." Why so? It's partially because Detroit is losing jobs and population, but also because charter and private schools have pulled black middle-class kids out of the public schools. Last year, 9,300 students left the system, of whom 3,400 went to charter schools, and 1,300 to suburban schools. Get a nationally prominent superintendent, pay him the big bucks, introduce choice and destroy the Detroit public schools.

Wait a minute, that's not what we wanted!

And by the way, they fired Burnley. Isn't there a vacancy in D-11?


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