Friday, April 3, 2009

Beware the Blank Check

Those caught up in the heat of every campaign tell voters the outcome will be pivotal. Therefore, one risks sounding cliche, and a little like the boy who cried wolf, by saying this in regard to the city election now entering its final days. But I think the decision involving ballot issue 1A really could be pivotal, in at least two ways. That's why I've been working so hard to defeat it.

The most obvious problems with 1A, as a policy prescription, have already been highlighted. No point in repeating them at length (click on the "panhandler in pinstripes" at if you're that interested). It's just not a smart way to do economic development. It will crack open a can of worms the city will have a hard time keeping a lid on.

But it's a less obvious danger from 1A I'll focus on today. And that's the fact that it's a blank check.

It's a point of frustration with many local political and business leaders, but a point of pride for me personally, that voters in Colorado Springs and El Paso County have been notoriously reluctant to issue blank checks. When you step forward with a tax increase proposal around here, you had better have specifics to offer about how the money will be spent. Just crying poor won't cut it. And scare tactics can backfire, as those supporting a county sales tax hike found out last fall.

But if you do your homework, and if you make a convincing and detailed case, you'll be rewarded with a "yes" vote. We've seen that happen with RTA. We've seen it happen with TOPS. We've seen it happen with a cops and firefighter tax. It's unfair to say locals are robotically or reflexively anti-tax. They just have higher standards, and a healthier dose of skepticism, than a lot of voters do.
They won't be played for suckers. They won't be stampeded by scare tactics. They won't be shamed into giving more of their hard-earned money to government than is necessary. And I think that's a strength rather than a weakness, a virtue, rather than a vice.

But that could all change if 1A is approved. 1A is the ultimate blank check. There's no plan, and no specifics, for how the money would be used. It's a half-baked idea, cooked up by a few people on the city's Sustainable Funding Committee and hurriedly slapped on the ballot by City Council. Backers of the proposal are betting -- and betting big, given the significant money they're pouring into it -- that they can win without specifics, without a plan.

They believe that glossy mailers, deceptive ballot language, big billboards and vague promises will be enough to get the taxpayers to issue the city a $51 million blank check, breaking with long precedent. They believe a down economy, and the anxiety it brings, might lead voters to suspend their normal skepticism, drop their guard and buy into the panacea they're pushing.

On Tuesday we'll find out if local voters will hold with tradition, and reject tax increases that aren't accompanied by detailed plans and specifics, or whether they'll break with tradition and issue blank checks. If it passes, 1A will have demonstrated that you can overcome the natural caution and common sense of local voters with an empty slogan -- "jobs now" -- and a slick media blitz. And that will indeed be a pivotal -- but not promising -- moment in local politics.

1 comment:

Craig Cox said...

Another logical question to ask is if this money is already being collected by the city (and is, therefore, not a new tax), why are "new jobs" not being created with these funds righht now? It's a shame that don't have any elected officials with the integrity to forcefully oppose this blank check.