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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 07:05 am

Dogs and ponies

Scoring political points instead of fixing roads and schools

Despite what they said, it’s not too hard to figure out why the state Senate Republicans blocked two construction bond bills proposed by Democrats, one for education and the other for roads and bridges. The idea is to starve the governor and the Democrats of cash for projects that they could use to promote their reelections this fall. No more, no less. Everything else they’ve said or what you may have read in the papers has pretty much been a diversion from that core issue. For instance, Republicans in both chambers have complained for months that the governor doesn’t have a “revenue source” for his proposed bond plans, and they repeated that claim when the Senate Democrats moved a much larger school-construction plan and a road plan of their own. The media have repeated these Republican claims without comment every time they’ve been issued. But these are general-obligation bonds, which means that they are backed by the full faith and credit of the state, so the money comes right out of the general-revenue fund — no matter what condition the state’s budget is in. Essentially, the Republicans want the Democrats to increase taxes to pay for any new bond plan, but they don’t come all the way out and say that and they know full well that they would loudly rail against a tax hike even if the Democrats were foolish enough to back one. On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats knew that the Republicans wanted to “starve the beast,” so they designed their legislation and the debate for maximum political impact. The Democrats spent almost the entire day on the bond issue — even though everyone knew it was a doomed effort. From an hours-long committee meeting to an excruciatingly lengthy floor debate, the Senate Democrats made sure that the Statehouse media could not ignore the issue. The two bills were drafted without any Republican input whatsoever, even though they both needed a three-fifths majority to pass, which guaranteed a negative reaction from the GOP. Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson said during the debate that the governor at first agreed to meet with him Thursday to discuss the bond bills, then at the last minute postponed the meeting until Friday — a day after the vote was to be held. The governor’s office claims that the guv didn’t know about the Senate Democrats’ plans in advance, but he certainly did know what was going on when he canceled the meeting with Watson that afternoon. Knowing the bills were destined for the dustbin, the Senate Democrats did all they could to make as much political hay as possible, accusing Republicans of not caring for schoolchildren, hating the governor, and cheering President George W. Bush’s massive spending in Iraq. Neither side told the truth before, during, or after the debate, so the coverage you saw in the media was mostly generic “he said, she said” stuff that made it impossible to know what was really going on. In reality, it was a dog-and-pony show designed merely for the consumption of anyone who might glance at the headline or read the story. This has happened many times before. In fact, the governor himself participated in one of these charades back in the mid-’90s, when he was a House Democrat and the Republicans controlled both chambers and the Executive Mansion. The Republicans tried to push through a construction bill, and the Democrats, who had been locked out of every major decision that year, took their revenge by voting against it. The bill died. Back then, the Democrats complained that the state couldn’t afford the new borrowing (even though that proposal was much smaller than both the current governor’s plan and the Senate Democrats’ much larger spending effort), just as the Republicans did this time around. They also complained about a lack of a revenue source, but, like the Republicans this year, they wouldn’t propose any new taxes to cover the increased borrowing costs, and the bill failed. The problem during the mid-’90s was that the Republicans threw bipartisanship out the window and then suffered the consequences whenever they needed a Democratic vote. The same exact thing is happening now. The arrogance of the majority and the intransigence of the minority have combined to stop a much-needed road- and school-construction bill from passing. It’s a shame, but it’s what passes for governance in Springfield.
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