In Search of “Good Government”

By Jim Arnold

I embarked on my search for good government in 2007, when property taxes rocketed from ridiculous to obscene. I was spending a beautiful spring day whittling down my “To Do” list, when I was visited by two neighbors who were furious over their property tax bills. My elderly neighbor’s property taxes had doubled from $1,200 to $2,400 per year in a two year period, and he was distraught because he couldn’t spare an extra $100 a month to fund local government.

A few short days later, the citizen tax army mobilized, and a large crowd of irate taxpayers paraded around the county building honking their horns and shaking their fists. As the tax revolt reached a fever pitch, Eric Miller of “Advance America” was invited to speak on property taxes at the Cornerstone Center for the Arts.

At that presentation a friend told me about the Citizens of Delaware County for Property Tax Repeal (CDCPTR) which had recently organized to advocate for “Responsible Government Spending, Responsible and Responsive Public Officials, and the Repeal of Indiana Property Taxes”. Though third in line on their mission statement, the repeal of property taxes found its way into the organizations original name, as it was the rallying cry in the early days of the property tax revolt when the sting of punitive property taxes was foremost in taxpayer’s’ minds.

I soon joined the cause, and authored my first opinion letter in defense of Cary Malchow who had paid his property taxes in one dollar bills and coins as a sign of silent protest. The strength of the statewide protest continued to grow, and a few months later, property tax caps were signed into law at the Indiana Statehouse. HB1001 signed in 2008 phased in property tax caps, but immediately raised the Indiana Sales Tax by almost 17% to compensate. In 2010 a second passage of identical legislation put the tax caps referendum on the ballot where 73% of Delaware County voters and 71% of all Hoosiers voted to chisel the caps into the Indiana Constitution.

It has been a wonderful ride these several years since some distraught neighbors arrived on my doorstep. I have celebrated successes, endured failures, and engendered friendships that will last a lifetime, but as I reflect on my search for good government, I feel inclined to report some useful observations I have gleaned along the way.

The root cause of excessive taxes is government overspending: As I joined other concerned citizens who were following the money and attending local government meetings, it quickly became obvious to each of us, that excessive taxes are driven by government overspending. I suggest that politicians and proponents of big government will adamantly deny this observation, while beleaguered taxpayers will label it a no brainer, but it is what it is.

It is easy to spend other people’s money: The ease with which elected officials squander other people’s cash is a primary cause of government overspending. My observation of this anomaly led me to coin the term “Funny Money” to describe the situation where the people spending the money don’t feel the same pain in the parting, as do the people whose money is being spent.

A “good” tax never dies: Tax Incremental Financing Districts dramatically demonstrate this principle. Many a TIF District has captured sufficient tax revenue to retire the bonds issued at their inception many times over, but are kept on life support to provide an uninterrupted flow of Funny Money for “Economic Development”.

Spending cuts are always the course of last resort: Politicians won’t reduce spending unless they are forced to do so, and only if there is no possibility of new revenue on the horizon. Any commitment to spending restraint will quickly evaporate if there’s a possibility of more revenue to be had.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Several years have elapsed since the passage of the Indiana Property Tax Caps, yet many local politicians still blame their budget woes on the Property Tax Caps (aka Circuit Breakers). The real culprit is local taxing units that refuse to live within their means, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for that confession.

Political dysfunction is directly proportional to the distance between the governed and the government: In other words, political dysfunction accelerates the further from home you travel. Though our local politics are a disaster, a quick look at politics in Washington D. C. demonstrates my theory.

Don’t get mad get passionate - politics is a marathon, not a sprint: When citizens first get involved in politics, it is often because they are furious over failures of self-serving politicians. I have seen first-hand that those who fail to control their anger soon vent their fury and frustration like a fiery meteor. If you desire good government, you must trade anger for passion and sign on for the long haul.

Sadly, these seven bullets represent but the short list of lessons learned on my search for good government, and though my primary focus has been local government, the same conclusions hold true at the state and national level.

Jim Arnold is President of Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government)