Microbrewmeister John Hickenlooper is touted as the most business-savvy of the gubernatorial candidates. It's this quality, above all others, that earned him the endorsement of the Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. But you can have success as a businessman while not knowing much about economics, as Hick seems to be proving with his half-baked proposal to boost state subsidies for higher ed through a "voluntary" hike in the severance tax paid by energy companies. The idea is naive in several ways.
The Ritter administration has been on a four-year crusade to make life miserable for energy companies operating in Colorado. I'm not sure, if they ever return in force, that they'll be in the position or the mood to engage in education philanthropy at the state's urging. That's not their job. And they would be completely justified -- to echo one Rhode Island politician -- in telling the new governor to take his severance tax hike and shove it. The energy sector has no more obligation to help fund higher education than any other industry. It just seems like the most convenient cow to be milked. Why doesn't Hickenlooper ask micro-brewers to volunteer to pay a special "higher education" tax on every pint sold, if he's taking us down the road to coerced corporate "philanthropy"? The nexus between beer drinking and college students seems much stronger to me.
But here's the truly troubling part. Hickenlooper must understand, even vaguely, that these additional severance taxes wouldn't come out of the company's till, but will be funded by energy consumers -- meaning us -- in the form of higher utility bills. Energy companies may somehow be gulled into going along with the scheme, given the relish with which big government and big business bed down together (see the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act), but they will really be "volunteering" to help keep higher ed fat and happy on behalf of their customers, who won't be polled on the matter. We'll be paying for this whether we volunteer or not.
What Hick really wants is to "volunteer" Colorado energy users to bankroll a higher ed establishment that refuses to economize, refuses to cut costs, refuses to change the way it operates. But he's afraid to ask us point blank, or to say that he wants to raise energy taxes, so he opts for this subterfuge.
And we all know what happens in this country when you don't "volunteer" to cooperate with politicians and regulators: those friendly overtures have a nasty habit of becoming threats, and then mandates. If this is what we can expect from Hick The Business Wiz, we may come to look back fondly on the Bill Ritter years.