Politicians, especially incumbents, buy votes. Laws are in effect to forbid outright quid pro quo — ""free beer"" is a thing of the distant past — but officeholders and the electorate have found a more subtle way to make the same old trades.
Suppose that you, like most people, have no strong opinion about nearly all policy questions considered by the city council. And, like most people, you have a few favorite causes, such as youth sports, promotion of fine arts or a charitable organization or two. Or perhaps you merely seek success in business. Either way, you are a ""special interest."" Special interests are condemned every few years, when doing so is fashionable, but we are all the ""special interests.""
We hate special interests because they inherently don't play fair. The payoff for a bit of lobbying is high for the special interest, whether convincing the city to subsidize sprawl to stimulate the housing business, or arguing that a youth bobsled program keeps the kids from doing crack and mugging old ladies and should receive a municipal grant — but defensive lobbying by everyone else is usually a losing proposition. Even if the subsidy for ""Bobsleds not Crack"" is defeated, the time and money spent by its defenders probably exceed the savings. The payoff to incumbent officeholders is also high; a subsidy without a tax rate increase can buy a vote or a hundred.
By now this story is old news; search the Web for ""Public Choice"" to see the case made with much more intellectual rigor. Self-interested calculus doesn't describe 100 percent of what's going on; people, perhaps instinctively, expect those in power to show off generosity like they are kings or Bronze Age strongmen spending their own wealth, and politicians, provided that they also have a contemptuous disregard for other people's money, may be motivated to appear benevolent. Either way, the natural tendency for representative government is to grow in scope.
During economic boom times, the growth is mostly benign. City councilors can buy more and more votes without raising tax rates. It's during economic contractions that problems arise. Rather than cutting entire low-priority spending programs to balance the budget, everything is starved just a little to motivate support for tax hikes. The tax hikes that come are often targeted at groups unlikely to vote or made so diffuse as to make defeating them prohibitively expensive.
Earlier this year, the Tucson City Council proposed double taxation of renters; renters would pay property taxes through their landlords, and also pay a direct surtax. Public backlash against this regressive scheme meant that the tax hike was instead spread out as numerous small rate and fee increases. Meaningfully reducing the scope of city government spending was never seriously considered.
On Tuesday, Tucson voters will vote on Proposition 400, commonly referred to as the renewal of the ""Home Rule"".
Recognizing the perverse incentives in politics, Arizonans voted years ago to amend the state constitution to end the growth of municipal budgets in economic good times. Article 9 section 20 of the Arizona Constitution restricts cities to 1979-1980 levels of spending, increasing only due to inflation and population growth. Any excess taxes collected would have to be banked or refunded to the taxpayer. In effect, this restricts growth of the scope of spending.
Article 9 also provides an ""out"" for cities: ""home rule"" ballot questions like Proposition 400. Tucson has, by this method, avoided the constitutional spending restriction for years. Supporters of Proposition 400 cite absolute numbers — millions of dollars — in order to imply that returning Tucson to an Article 9-restricted budget would impose drastic and socially harmful cuts on the city. The recession and the end of the real estate boom have made the relative difference between the restricted budget and projected revenues less than 1 percent in each of the next four years. If there ever was a good time to rein in city spending, it's now.
Opposition to Proposition 400 is unorganized, and with newspapers and commentators all missing the broader implications, it will probably pass. A ""no"" vote on Proposition 400 is quixotic, but college is a time for political idealism. Most radical stands are more emotive than effective; this is your chance to move beyond hopey-changey stuff and be radical and practical at the same time. A ""no"" vote is a great way to signal disapproval that a rent tax was even proposed. Better still, if you happen to succeed, you will take Tucson off of the boom-bust cycle that has city councilors buying your vote with petty niceties and then trying to double-tax you when the money runs out.
— Bennett Kalafut is a graduate student in physics. He can be reached at email@example.com.