Sunday, August 19, 2007

To raise taxes or not to raise taxes

Alternate title: Mitch in tights

The curtain rises, and a short, chubby man walks toward the circle of light on the stage cast by the spotlight. He is wearing black tights—that apparently constrict his stride, for he is shuffling—a too-tight black tunic with puffy sleeves, and an absurd triangular velvet hat with an ostrich plume. The man arrives in the circle; he looks up at the spotlight and is instantly blinded; he ducks his head quickly and rubs his watering eyes for several seconds. Then, still crying, he slowly raises his head, this time shielding his eyes by making a visor with his hands. He clears his throat and begins:

To raise taxes, or not to raise taxes,
That is the question!

Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the crumbling Bridge,
Or to fix it?

Aye, there's the rub!
To take up arms against the gas tax,
Or to swallow it?

And end the thousand shocks
That we are heir to.

To drive, perhaps to pitch,
Headlong into the abyss
And then to sleep.

For some, well, a consummation that's not so bad!

Who is our Prince of Denmark? It's Mitch Pearlstein, the dead center of the Center of the American Experiment, writing in today's opinion section of the Star Tribune. Poor Mitch writes as though he was deciding whether to kill his step-father, not whether to raise the gas tax a nickel or a dime. You take yourself way too seriously Mitch. We don't, so lighten up. It's too bad you and yours couldn't summon up as much gravity in deciding whether to invade Iraq. Here's the lede from Mitch's soliloquy:

Several critics over the last two weeks have made the case for at least a dotted-line connection between the terrible collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge and the determination of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his allies not to raise state taxes over the last five years. But for any connection to hold, at least one of the following conditions would have to be true, when not a single one is.

It would have to be demonstrated, for instance, that decisions by the Minnesota Department of Transportation about what to do about the bridge -- whether to repair it, how to repair it, when to repair it -- were made on the basis of what such steps might cost. But I know of no evidence that money played any role in determining what state officials or anyone else did or didn't do in maintaining the bridge.

Likewise, to draw any suspect connection between the collapse and the consistent preference of large numbers of Minnesotans to hold the line on taxes, one would have to assume that inspectors and other officials charged with protecting and serving allowed anything other than their professionalism to determine how they gauged the sturdiness and fragility of the state's infrastructure. Without a morsel of evidence that any of them compromised their integrity, it's slanderous to imply that any of them did.

You know Mitch, sometimes karma just comes up and whacks you upside the head. This is from a story in today's Strib, the very same issue that printed Mitch's soliloquy:

Internal MnDOT documents reviewed by the Star Tribune reveal that last year bridge officials talked openly about the possibility of the bridge collapsing -- and worried that it might have to be condemned.

The documents provide the first look inside MnDOT's decision-making process as engineers weighed benefits and risks, wrestling with options to prevent what they believed was a remote but real possibility of the eight-lane freeway bridge failing.

Their concerns were not generalized, documents show. [In other words, they had some areas they were especially concerned about.] The San Francisco-based consultant, URS Inc., identified 52 crucial steel box beams deemed most susceptible to cracking. URS also had a specific recommendation that 24 of the 52 members be reinforced while the remainder would be kept on a special watch. Video of the Aug. 1 collapse being examined by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the bridge first falling on the south end over its shoreline pier -- a section of the superstructure where eight suspect beams were specifically tagged for reinforcing.

'Investment strategy'

Dorgan and senior engineer Gary Peterson denied in interviews that money was a factor in deciding what to do with the Interstate 35W bridge, which was not due for replacement until 2022. They provided a written timeline showing that MnDOT supervisors on Nov. 1, 2006, funded the reinforcing project for $1.5 million, with work to begin in January 2008.

But at least three internal documents suggest that money was a consideration.

The premise of our nebbish Hamlet's argument has just suffered a fatal blow, but let's see what else he has to say, just for fun, eh, boys and girls? This is really what our Prince wants to get at:

For example, Robert Poole of the California-based Reason Foundation has written about how Texas, Virginia and other "fast-growing states" have demonstrated the efficacy of private companies competing for long-term contracts to "design, finance, build, operate, and maintain major highways and bridges." In return, they recoup their investments by charging tolls.

I'm convinced that if done properly, such public-private partnerships would work terrifically. But I also realize how the very notion of privately owned roads and bridges, not to mention tolls, is anathema to enormous numbers of voting citizens. Similarly, and as teased, I recognize how getting Congress to constrain itself is problematic (though it does seem to be making progress on earmarks). And it's clear that while subtracting a quarter of billion dollars from other Minnesota constituencies may not be the hardest political job in the world, it may be close.

Which leaves us where? While those who are intent on raising taxes would face a rough road, and properly so, their opponents -- surprisingly, perhaps, and to my regret -- may find themselves on a no less hazardous one politically. But if ever there was a time to rethink priorities, try new methods, stay within our means and change political equations, how can it be other than now?

This is known, boys and girls, as trying to make lemonade when all you've got is lemons. King Banaian has been furiously squeezing the lemons, too, about which Spot will have more to say later.

Our Prince's argument is essentially, echoing the Grover Norquist theme nationally: Republicans are incompetent at governing, therefore, we should abolish government. Excuse me? Excuse Spot? (Almost fell out of the Bob Dole Speak there!)

Spot has a three word response, which he will explain later: Paris Sewer System.

[update] MNO did a nice job of comparing our Prince to the news, here. Spot also wanted to mention that despite all the floggings in the newsroom by Avista Capital and Par Ridder, Spot thinks the Strib has done a good job of getting to the bottom of the bridge collapse. [/update]

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