In March, in western Colorado, the Tea Party died, along with the anti-tax ideology that has taken over the right. Here's how it happened.
This fall, there were elections all over Colorado to increase taxes to fund local schools, because the state has been forced to make severe cuts. A couple of counties passed the taxes, but most, like the RE-2 school district in Garfield County, voted them down. It was, after all, a tax question in the aftermath of a recession.
But in mid-March, that same school district dropped a bomb: it announced that it was moving to a four-day school week as a result of budget cuts. The failed tax question had been designed to address that shortfall.
So now, voters in that district face the following harsh reality: instead of paying a roughly $50 annual increase in property taxes to keep the schools running, parents of school-age children will have to pay that much for child care for every Friday of the school year. Even if you ignore the hassle and cost of dealing with the change, over nine months, that's going to cost parents with two kids $3,600, a huge hit to the family budget and a vastly greater burden than the tax.
But that isn't even the end of it. Children in Garfield County will now get an inferior education -- something that will hurt them later in life, and hurts businesses in the region that need an educated workforce. Property values certainly won't go up with underfunded schools. It seems highly unlikely that parents -- never mind businesses and governments -- are happy with this outcome.
Why is this situation so new and different that it spells trouble for the Tea Party and its anti-tax ideology? What's different is that in the past, people who voted against their self interest didn't necessarily get hurt by their decision in such a tangible way. We've been such an incredibly affluent country, that all the things taxes pay for -- good roads, police, fire fighters, schools -- had a reservoir of funding and a level of durability that meant we took it all for granted. Just like avoiding maintenance on a new car, this strategy works great -- until it doesn't. In Colorado, we could cut schools year after year and still skate by. No longer. And this is likely just the beginning of the pain as our state, and others, are increasingly crippled by a no-tax-increase ideology.
Political scientists have long asked why people might vote against their self-interest. The book What's the Matter with Kansas? argued that politicians duped voters with values arguments around abortion or contraception. Once in office they focused instead on regressive tax and economic policies. Political scientist Larry Bartels wrote a famous article called "Homer Gets a Tax Cut," in which he concluded that most people didn't have the depth of understanding to reason effectively about complex tax policy. Who can blame them?
Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, during the Bush tax cuts, wondered if voters
"..will see that their new $400 child credits are chump change compared with all the new fee hikes and service cuts? Will they understand that they're paying more in state and local taxes so that a guy with a Jaguar putting up a McMansion down the block can pay less in federal taxes? Will they connect those 30 kids cramming their child's classroom to decisions in far-away Washington?..."
Bartels concludes that the answer is, unfortunately, "Not likely."
The experience of voters in Garfield County suggests another, perhaps less condescending rationale. Maybe America, which by mid-century was by far the richest nation the world has ever seen, simply had enough of a cushion from years of infrastructure investment and progressive taxation that it could withstand cut after cut after cut. In that sense, voters were, perhaps knowingly, just pocketing a little cash, benefiting from years of prudent investment. At some point, however, bridges start to fall apart. Roads crumble. And schools move to four day weeks. At least in Colorado, that time is now.