Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Government observers surely noticed that this year, even as the pages of the calendar turned, the political debates always stay the same. Every few months, the federal government nearly shut down (it never actually did). Every few months, the threat of widespread municipal bankruptcy reared its heard (that never happened either). Meanwhile, state and local governments spent the year dealing -- almost universally -- with the same set of challenges: decreased revenue, exploding pension obligations, and crumbling infrastructure, to name a few. It's a year most will be happy to forget.
As they slogged through 2011, some elected officials (and the reporters who cover them) got a bit lazy and began repeating the same old platitudes to describe the mess facing government. Here's Governing's list of political cliches that need to retire in 2012.
"Kicking the can down the road": In a year when deficit reduction was the the most important topic in federal government, it’s no surprise that many decried irresponsible legislators who aren't taking action. “We don't want anyone kicking the can down the road," Ellen Roberts, a Republican state senator from Colorado, said this fall as state lawmakers urge the federal super committee to come up with meaningful deficit reductions. Earlier this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown, discussing his own efforts to balance the budget, said that "kicking the can down the road" wasn't an option.
The debate over pensions, where actions today can easily have exponential effects in the future, was a natural place to see the phrase bandied about. And even this reporter is guilty of using it in attempt to warn lawmakers of the long-term impacts of their growing debt and liabilities.
But in reality, 2011 isn't that different from other time periods, and some politicians have made careers out of avoiding difficult choices. This year, it’s time to kick the phrase to the curb.
"We're bankrupt": The federal government can't go bankrupt. Neither can a state. Some municipalities can, but to do so, they have to seek and be granted federal Chapter 9 protection. But you wouldn't know any of that if you listened to politicians this year, who used the term as a way to describe any kind of budgetary pressure a government body may be facing.
Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul declared the country bankrupt back in August. In January, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said health care spending will bankrupt the state. In the past, President Obama has used that language to describe the federal government's own healthcare costs. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has frequently said "we're broke" to describe his state's finances. Even House Speaker John Boehner says the country is out of money. "We’re broke," he said at an event in Nashville. "Broke going on bankrupt."
Most citizens don't have sophisticated levels of financial literacy, and these politicians have been manipulating that ignorance to their advantage. Is the country facing serious issues with it's debt? Sure. But "a person, company or nation would be defined as 'broke' if it couldn't pay its bills, and that is not the case with the U.S.," Bloomberg wrote in a takedown of the bankrupt/broke talk earlier this year. "Despite an annual budget deficit expected to reach $1.6 trillion this year, the government continues to meet its financial obligations, and investors say there is little concern that will change."
Moreover, there's some evidence that such talk furthers investors' fears and drives up interest rates, making it more expensive for states and localities to borrow money during difficult time. So in an effort to score political points, these politicians may actually be costing governments and taxpayers money. Public officials -- except those who live in Central Falls, R.I.; Jefferson County, Ala.; or a handful of other municipalities that actually declared bankruptcy this year -- would be wise to stop using this cliche in 2012.
"Doing more with less": One of the grandaddies of political cliches, this phrase was particularly relevant in 2011, as local governments experienced their fifth consecutive year of revenue decreases, and state revenue still hadn't returned to pre-recession levels. Governing’s Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of the B&G Report noted the prevalence of the cliche at the start of the year. “We're sick and tired of the oft-repeated government mantra, 'We'll do more with less,'" they wrote back in January. "Maybe we're being a little too tough on leaders who talk about doing 'more with less,' but in these times, that sounds like a politically motivated phrase, not a realistic one." Yet few have taken those words to heart.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, expressed optimism at a highway bill that would reduce funding for states. "We believe we can do a lot more with less,” Mica said in July. "In an era of tight budgets, we had to do more with less,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in October. The City of Phoenix even offers the "More With Less Awards" to businesses and organizations that demonstrate efficiency during tight times. That's not dissimilar from this magazine's annual Public Officials of the Year Awards, which were given to leaders who, among other qualities, managed to "do more with less" in 2011.
Some localities are indeed finding efficiencies during tough times, and they should be applauded. But the sad reality is that doing more with mess usually means doing less with less. As the National Association of Counties reported earlier this year, localities are handling their declining revenues by delaying capital investments and infrastructure repairs, and instituting furloughs and hiring freezes. It's time to retire this type boardroom double-speak.
Praise for "courageous" layoffs and service cuts: In its recent endorsement of Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the Houston Chronicle noted her "courage, integrity and leadership" that included ordering the "painful layoffs of 750 city workers." Comments like that aren't unique. Across the country, mayors and local leaders drew praise in 2011 for instituting layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes, benefit cuts, and other moves that aggravated public worker unions. In a different era, such actions would be career suicide for a politician, given the political clout of public sector unions. But during this age of austerity, those maneuvers are now widespread. Yet for some reason, leaders who implement them are still lauded as bold.
Few local leaders are addressing budget shortfalls by looking towards the other side of the budgetary equation and making significant revenue increases. A report released this year found just 15 percent of counties increased their property tax rates in light of budgetary struggles, and only 2 percent increased their sales tax rates. Just 20 percent of cities increased property tax rates, according to another study.
Yet, at the same time, 72 percent of cities in the report made personnel cuts. As the country struggles with unemployment, there were 535,000 layoffs of public sector workers from August 2008 to May 2010. Personnel cuts are no longer unusual, innovative or particularly courageous -- they're the default option for local leaders seeking to balance their budgets without making significant revenue increases.
What would really take courage -- or perhaps foolish abandon -- would be an elected leader who sought to preserve services and staffing through unpopular tax increases, drawing the ire of a whole community of voters rather than just a handful of employees. Local leaders are required to balance their budgets, and more often than not, layoffs are more palatable than tax increases. "Courageous" may not be the best term for making the easier choice.
Comparing America's infrastructure to China's: America's infrastructure is, to put it mildly, a mess. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our roads a "D-" rating and our rail system a "C-" rating. Meanwhile, Congress has failed to take action. Instead, it's voted to stop federal spending on high-speed rail, and it opted against passing a much-needed highway and transit bill this year.
It's become popular for those making the case for increased infrastructure investment to compare America's deteriorating roads and rail to those of Europe and China. Those comparisons never portray the U.S. in a positive light. "There’s no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains when we can build them right here in America," Mica said earlier this year, drawing on the egos of his audience members. President Obama has made a similar point in the past too. But is it a fair one to make? Probably not.
Building high-speed rail is a laborious process. Governments have to solicit bids. They have to acquire land. They have to evaluate the environmental impact. But in autocratic China, officials have the luxury of dispensing with the "messy business of Democracy," notes Bruce Watson of DailyFinance. "When residents of Tsoi Yuen, a village that stands in the path of the proposed Guangzhou railroad, recently met with planners for a 'consultation,' they were offered a choice: accept money to move or don't accept money to move. Either way, the train was going through their town," he writes. The New York Times reports than the country's expansion of subway systems is being driven largely by cheap labor costs, since employees who work 60 hours per week are paid less than $400 per month. And the infamous Three Gorges Dam destroyed archaeological sites and displaced millions. It's the sort of infrastructure Americans can do without.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Charles Lane explained earlier this year that the World Economic Forum infrastructure rankings, which put Germany and France ahead of the U.S., should be taken with a grain of a salt. A more apt comparison would be the U.S. and the European Union as a whole, and the U.S. wins that contest. While this country's infrastructure needs improvement, this argument isn't the best one to be made.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.