The Outsider 

Last week, the D-11 administration and board beat a hasty retreat and abandoned the notion of closing a bunch of schools in low-income areas of the city.

Not surpringly, the newly cobbled-together budget looks phonier than a three-dollar bill. For example, the board expects that every D-11 family is going to voluntarily ante up ten bucks, for a grand total of $240,000. That's wishful thinking, not serious budgeting. Moreover, it appears that the board and administration are going to use the threat of closure as a means of encouraging the voters to support a forthcoming mill levy increase, presumably slated for the November ballot. Again, wishful thinking.

What the muckety-mucks at D-11 need to do is completely rethink the way the district operates, so that it can make do with existing revenue streams. Sure, the district's underfunded. But life's unfair; just because they need more money doesn't mean that they're going to get it from the voters.

Prediction of things to come: D-11 will limp along for the next few months, hoping that the voters'll cough up in November. If the voters open their pocketbooks, everything will return to status quo ante. If, on the other hand, the voters remain less-than-compassionate conservatives, then it'll be time for a major shakeup.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is once again demonstrating that growth is the crack cocaine of community.

El Paso County's lawmakers are frantically trying to preserve a ludicrous tax break, which compels the state to reimburse local school districts for revenue foregone from relocating companies. In other words, if D-11 gives Intel a tax break, then the state has to make up for D-11's loss. Apparently, Intel has made it clear that any loss of existing tax incentives might cause them to rethink their plans to construct a billion-dollar plus chip-making facility on Garden of the Gods Road.

This is called Standard Operating Procedure for outfits like Intel. Major corporations are concerned with their bottom line (as they should be), not with the health of the communities to which they relocate.

Given our communal addiction to growth (which we share with scores of similar cities), we're more than willing to roll over for the cold-eyed number crunchers of corporate America. That means that local and regional tax structures are reworked, if necessary, to accommodate corporate needs.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily; the tax in question, which is levied upon a company's capital investment, strikes me as illogical. In a rational world, it'd be sharply reduced, even eliminated.

News flash: we don't live in a rational world. Our state and local tax structures, which may have served us well 50 years ago, are clumsy, antiquated, unfair and regressive. Some economic activity (manufacturing, for example) is heavily taxed; some (virtually all services) is untaxed.

If we junked the whole rickety edifice, we could design a system that was fairer, more efficient, and less onerous.

Unfortunately, we can't and we won't. Thanks to ill-considered laws and initiatives, neither the Legislature nor the voters can make any significant changes in our tax laws. Douglas Bruce's TABOR amendment from 1991 allows the Legislature only to reduce tax rates; they're forbidden either to raise taxes or to make revenue-neutral adjustments between different taxes.

The Gallagher Amendment, meanwhile, mandates a fixed relationship between business and residential property tax collections which has meant, in practice, that businesses pay through the nose. That leads to all kinds of unanticipated effects, like sharply reducing property tax collections for suburban, largely residential, school districts.

Well, why not have a comprehensive initiative simultaneously address all of these interrelated problems? No can-do. Thanks to the single subject amendment to the state constitution, no initiative can contain more than one subject. The courts have interpreted this amendment very narrowly, but even with the most liberal interpretation, a global tax reform initiative would never pass muster.

So we're trapped in a very deep hole that we happily dug for ourselves. We can't change the system from inside, we can't reform it from outside. All we can do is carve out little islands of rationality to benefit the powerful, and go on living with the mess. It's not the Legislature's fault, it's not Intel's fault, it's not D-11's fault, and it's not even the Dougster's fault.

In Pogo's immortal words: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

-- letters@csindy.com


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