07/26/2011 07:48 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

Excuse Me Republicans, But How Will You Pay for That?

Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty must have a low opinion of journalists to think he could issue a news release with the following statement without reporters making him look pretty bad:

The days of balancing Colorado's budget on the backs of seniors are over. Tough budget times led to the suspension of the senior homestead exemption. That meant less money for seniors to spend on medicine and food during this economic crisis. This is money we can now get back to them.

Denver Post reporter Tim Hoover received McNulty's good news about the end of the "tough budget" era, allowing seniors, in his view, to enjoy a tax break on property taxes, which is what the homestead exemption grants them.

Hoover did some minor math showing that, as things stand now, the only way to bring back property-tax breaks for seniors would be to cut the state budget elsewhere.

And so he did what you, I, or any sane journalist would do.

He asked McNulty about how he'd adjust the state budget to pay for the tax break.

But the Highlands Ranch Republican House Speaker refused to tell the Post where the necessary cuts would be made.

Here's McNulty's non-answer:

"It's a matter of living up to our commitment to seniors who have been hit so hard by the recession," McNulty said. "As state revenues slowly improve, those revenues must be directed to meet the state's obligations and, in this case, meet our commitment to Colorado's seniors."

McNulty's substance-less response led to this headline of Hoover's Spot blog post July 21 on the topic:

"House Rs vow to restore senior tax break but don't say what they would cut to do it."

A day after the Post piece appeared, the Durango Herald covered Gov. John Hickenlooper's response to McNulty's plan to restore the property tax break for seniors. Hick said more budget cuts were forecast, despite the slow improvement in the economy.

And so, Hick told the press, the only way to pay for a tax cut for seniors would be to make even deeper cuts to the state budget.

But unlike the Post, the Herald didn't get a direct response from McNulty on how he planned to pay for the tax break.

Neither did the Pueblo Chieftain, in its article about Hickenlooper's response to McNulty. The Chieftain reported:

"McNulty said he is optimistic that a rebound in state revenue will enable Colorado to restore the tax break to seniors."

I'm glad McNulty is optimistic, but the Chieftain should have asked the follow-up question: What if the rebound doesn't materialize? What's McNulty's plan? What would he cut?

Those are the essential questions reporters should be asking GOP politicians, as well as Democrats, if they roll out nice-sounding proposals to cut taxes, give tax breaks, or spend tax dollars on favored projects.

But too often the how-will-you-pay-for-it question isn't asked.

In 2009, state Republicans and Democrats were both saying they wanted to pass legislation to upgrade Colorado's roads and bridges. The Dems' plan, the FASTER legislation that passed over GOP objections, was funded by increased vehicle registration fees and a $2 fee on rental cars.

Speaking for the Republicans, Rep. Mike May said: "The Republican plan is: Building roads, not bureaucracies."

How nice does that sound?

So nice that you'd think even a lap dog staring up from the floor at May would ask what it means. Yet, reporters couldn't bring themselves to writing, plainly, that the GOP had no plan to fund road construction.

Instead reporters mostly regurgitated vague GOP notions to sell bonds, maybe raise vehicle fees way lower than Dems proposed, or leverage the "value of state buildings."

In the last few years, reporters have gotten better at stating that Republicans have no plan, when they don't have one for paying for tax cuts or pet spending increases.

Hoover's work in the Denver Post is an example of the show-me-the-money approach that should be standard operating procedure for all reporters.