Steel City Cowboy

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Lion or the Tiger?

Allegheny County Democrats, including our County Executive Dan Onorato, are about to saddle county residents with a false choice. At issue is funding for the Port Authority, which, despite claims that it has its financial house in order, is still a bloated mess that amounts to little more than welfare. It is over $70 million in the red for the year.

Allegheny County's solution is to raise revenue from the general electorate, and the only legal options they have to do that are through a series of drink/car rental taxes or through property taxes. So, the county instituted a 10% poured beverage tax this year, to much outcry from business owners.

After taking a lot of grief for it, the Democrats have decided to through a toddler-level hissy fit. On the November ballot will be a referendum that gives voters a choice between keeping the drink tax or raising property taxes. Clearly, they're doing it so that when everyone votes to not raise their property taxes, County Council (and other) Democrats can go back to the complainers and say "Look! The People voted for our tax! Suck it!"

Of course, it's just more dishonest condescension on their part, the same kind that has kept our region economically restrained for... well, forever.

"Well, you people didn't like the drink tax," they seem to be saying. "So, we have no choice but to do this!" As a parent, I know that I've used this tactic on kids who haven't thought through all of their options. Part and parcel of this tactic, though, is that there are often other options that aren't even mentioned. That's what is going on here.

County Republicans have made the point that the Port Authority needed just upwards of $30 million in revenues to balance, and that the drink tax so far this year has brought in almost $25 million. They concluded that the tax should be minimized for the rest of the year so that only the proper amount is raised, instead of the nearly $50 million it is on track to collect. Is that going to fly? Of course not. It would make too much sense. But a plan like that recognizes that those collected taxes aren't just magic money that materializes from nowhere. The Democrats don't seem to understand that if your tax takes $15 million more than its "goal," that is money that the government just sucked right out of the pockets of the local economy.

So, the Democrats try to sell us on the false choice of drink tax or property tax -- the lion or the tiger. Their talking point is that "this is all the state allows! We don't have any other way to generate the revenue!" By the way, I like how they always say that a tax "generates" revenue, when it does no such thing. People who work for a living and add value to products and services in their jobs generate revenue. People make. Taxes take.

Anyway, they keep repeating that line over and over to try to distract from the fact that there are other options, just not ones that are based on taking more money from people. They could try cutting the budget in other areas. County Republicans have made the point that there are still a number of areas that have yet to realize promised efficiency gains and savings in the current government structure. They could try drastically restructuring (or nuking and rebuilding) the Port Authority so that it actually reflects the current demand for mass transit in the region.

Or, and this is my favored solution, change the fares of the system to accurately cover the costs. How high would fares have to be in order to pay for the bloat they're enacted? Would anyone still ride if it cost $15 for a bus trip across town? We always hear how much more efficient mass transit is than the horrible, Earth-killing, selfish automobile. I wonder, though, if this talk of efficiency takes into account the massive subsidies that are needed in order to make such a system function at even a subsistence level.

The details of ridership numbers are hidden from us, and you have to wonder why. If we could see them, would it turn out that the Port Authority is just a gigantic welfare program? Would it turn out to have been more cost-effective to call a cab for every single rider last year? Or perhaps to buy them a cheap car, in which case they wouldn't have been beholden to the government's transportation schedule? Would that money have been better spent on something else?

In the end, it's obvious that county Democrats just want to continue business as usual at the Port Authority, propping up a system that has let them give patronage jobs to their friends and family and to provide another form of heavily subsidized services to the large but mostly penniless core voting block that keeps putting them back in office.

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