Opinion and Economic Analysis

HICKS: Schools, taxes, services on voters' radar

November 12, 2011

Writing this column as early election results flood in is a bit hazardous, so I will try to stick with the fairly narrow fiscal matters that have revealed themselves during this campaign season.

To preface this, I must repeat a few unoriginal observations:

First, elections hinge on lots of factors that make it nearly impossible to separate issues like spending priorities and tax policies from things such as likability or a desire for change—or even the weather.

Second, identifying a national lesson from Indiana results is fruitless. Local elections are local matters, and in this state—like so many—national politics at the local level is irrelevant. As I noted last week, Mayor Goodnight in Kokomo and Mayor McShurley in Muncie both have executed exactly the same public policies in their cities. No foreign observer would ever deduce that they were from different political parties.

Third, the public trust dramatically changes one’s perspective. It is easy to make promises while campaigning—and quite another thing to carry them out when confronted with the fullness of fact. I offer President Obama’s position on Guantanamo Bay as an example of an earnest pledge that proved impossible to execute. The truth is that in taking an oath of office, one’s perspective changes—which is precisely why we demand these oaths of public officials. That means many a campaign promise on taxes and public services is about to be ignored.

Despite these caveats, some trends emerge. Government consolidation did well in Yorktown and Mount Pleasant Township in Delaware County. I am perhaps biased because my home is there, but the stunning victory suggests a wave of consolidation efforts may be looming.

School referendums did well in Indiana. Two relatively affluent, successful districts in the Indianapolis suburbs passed school levies for additional capital expenditures, while a similar referendum failed in a rural county with average schools. I predict that in a decade or less, we’ll see a wave of these referendums pass as local government becomes better at assessing and explaining the costs and benefits of such proposals. As I have said before, it is the value proposition in taxes, not the rate, that matters to voters.

Few other races provided clear results on fiscal matters. Insofar as I can tell, only in Muncie did significant promises to increase non-educational public services accompany a solid victory. Mayor-elect Tyler won handily while promising to expand fire protection services, though the fiscal realities of Muncie will shortly provide an uncomfortable schooling on the verisimilitude of this campaign pledge. Muncie’s new mayor faces some of the toughest fiscal decisions in the state.

In the end, this election reflects much local concern about schools, taxes and public services. That is as it should be, but something else matters, too: For paltry pay, men and women of Indiana pursue public service that brings neither glory nor wealth, and often only vitriol and calumny. Regardless of what we think of their politics, we owe them thanks.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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