Sunday, September 13, 2009

The definitive questions of the 2009 session - Budget and Taxes

Thirteen legislative sessions have taught me that to really understand has happened or is about to happen during a legislative session is to find what the big questions are. The populists among us believe that you just have to figure out what the special interests want and then figure out who buys who and who sells out to who. Others like to see it as a battle of political wills as political leaders both houses, both parties and the executive branch vie for power to enact their own agenda.

I think it's a lot simpler than that and a hell of a lot less interesting. Quite frankly, most of the issues before us come from somewhere else and just land on our lap. Last session was the rule not the exception. A deep recession resulted in both job losses and a deep decline in revenues.

There were a lot of zero sum game type questions on the budget. Like how much do you cut the items you actually have discretion over. The House cut Higher Education and social services more and the Senate did less in education. These sorts of little battles were important but not definitive.

The definitive question was do you give the voters the opportunity to cut less and raise taxes a bit or do you cut deeply and then leave town. Many House and Senate Democrats believed it was just plain wrong to cut tens of thousands of people off health care and to send homeless people back into the streets. At the same time labor groups wanted to mitigate the impact of cuts on teachers, prison guards, college faculty, home care workers and nurses.

Legislative leaders started meeting with stakeholders as early as November and did a half dozen polls between January and mid-April. What was fascinating was the results, spread over that time period, with three different pollsters yielded consistent but indeterminate results. No matter what the tax was and what it funded, a solid 45% was against it. And no matter what the tax was and what it was used to fund, 49% to 54% of the public supported it. Making things even more determinant was the the only 15% of the public were strongly supportive of taxes. The anti-tax sentiment wasn't much stronger.

In mid-stream, several major stakeholder groups looked at the results and put their cards down and folded. They didn't see a referendum to the people worth the investments. Others wanted to do more polling and trying wording the questions differently and changing the tax or dedicated fund. Nothing changed and ultimately, most of these groups came to the same conclusion. Possible but not likely. Legislative leaders polled their members and results were close but mixed as well. It was all pretty logical and in the end damn boring.

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