I respect more than I resent the protracted standoff between Gov. Butch Otter, who wants to raise taxes, and the recalcitrant Idaho House of Representatives, which collectively has thwarted and frustrated the governor. Raising taxes should be hard to do.
The standoff between Otter and the House, and the dissonance between leaders of the House and the Otter-allied Senate, proves that our system of government works well. Tax increases and new laws are too easily passed. Supporters of such initiatives play up the end result of their legislative efforts. They talk not about the tax increase, but the smooth roads that taxpayers will get once the tax increase takes effect.
Alternatives that might be more conducive to limited government and freedom are often shoved aside or dismissed entirely.
This standoff should serve as a reminder that good governance takes time, and policymakers should be more creative when approaching challenging issues. Those who look at the current legislative session, now in its 105th day, as a failure, perhaps should consider the alternative. If you are shopping for a legislative body that will raise taxes much more eagerly than the Idaho Legislature, try Congress. And if you're looking for historical examples of tax-increase efficiency, try King George III.
People have criticized Otter for prolonging the legislative session. He has, but that's not the whole story. Also true is that the Senate's leadership has prolonged the impasse by blocking veto override votes that would allow the budget bills to pass despite the governor's objections. Additionally, both House and Senate have had opportunities to end the stalemate by coming up with transportation funding alternatives that do not involve raising taxes, but neither did so until last Friday.
Idaho's transportation dilemma is illustrative of other public policy debates taking place in city halls, courthouses and statehouses across the nation. To every issue confronting policymakers, there are three components: Problem, solution and result. We're so myopic about the result that we fail to fully comprehend and evaluate a proposed solution.
Roads are bad. Raise taxes. Problem solved.
Health insurance is too expensive. Impose government mandates. Problem solved.
Accidents cause injuries. Pass a new law. Problem solved.
Taxes, mandates and laws do solve problems. They really do. But they also take away people's liberties.
Recently, I had a conversation with a fire chief who told me that he supports "any legislation that saves lives." Any legislation? That might include requiring every home to be equipped with fire alarm systems that could notify authorities instantly in the event of an emergency. People die in house fires. Pass new law. Problem solved.
In this example, the end clearly does not justify the means, but this type of at-all-costs thinking permeates our nation's myriad legislative chambers, executive and judicial branches. Government-driven solutions encourage more state control over our lives.
Some politicians love it because it allows them to exude the confidence of leadership as they take decisive action to eliminate some public quandary or perceived threat. The alternative is to do nothing, and doing nothing is far less dramatic. A politician finds it hard to be photographed at a bill signing ceremony where no bill has passed. And there's never a photo-op featuring politicians gathered around a ubiquitous metal filing cabinet where a defeated bill is tucked away forever.
Really, legislative sessions should not last so long as this one has. No one likes a legislature that stays in town and spends $30,000 accomplishing almost nothing. But it did accomplish something. It kept fuel taxes from going up. In other words, lawmakers fought valiantly to try to preserve liberty by resisting a tax increase. And that's worth sticking around for.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].