If It Is Broke, Fix It!

| August 09, 2007

One of the most tiresome aspects of the current political situation in this country is that our two major political parties — which, until quite recently in our history, were aggregates of various constituencies, not ideological monoliths — now oppose each other almost solely on the basis of catechisms.

Nowhere is this more odious than when it comes to dealing with taxes and government expenditures. Everybody on both sides toes a party line. Though few Democrats like to admit it, their party has indeed, as the rival GOP charges, been too dependent on throwing money at intractable social problems. A case in point was the debate in the Tennessee General Assembly this year, in which the Democrats, at Governor Bredesen's behest, insisted on routing an expected $230 million tobacco-tax windfall into state education. The state House of Representatives' Republicans proposed a panoply of amendments whereby the money would go to this or that alternative worthy cause — eliminating the sales tax on groceries, for example. Unfortunately, it was generally recognized that the GOP's strategy was to get the bill amended so it would have to be approved all over again in the Senate — where the Democrats at the time happened to have a couple of absent legislators. Meaning: disapproved. The sad fact is that too many Republicans think no public money is ever required to do anything at all.

Though here and there some brave and independent souls — Democratic state representatives Mike Kernell and Larry Turner of Memphis were two such — broke with party discipline (in their case, to advocate a serious catch-up program in health care), the argument came down to My Pork versus Your Pork. Or more precisely, Pork vs. No Pork. And, nationally as well as statewide, variants of that argument continue on a more or less party-line basis. (See Preston Lauterbach's "Pork Product?," on p. 11.)

But maybe the recent bridge catastrophe in Minneapolis will be a prod to both parties, as the Gulf Coast's devastation by Hurricane Katrina was — or should have been — in 2005.

Unfortunately, not much has been done to amend the still perilous circumstances facing New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf area. The current national administration seems to believe that Katrina was a freak event, not due to be repeated for another thousand years or so. (That's one thing that comes from a willful disbelief in global warning.)

But, encouragingly, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who only a month ago was basking in the praise of his Republican colleagues for refusing to approve two different tax proposals to fix his state's aging infrastructure, has experienced a sudden enlightenment as a result of the lethal collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. "He's open to that" is what a spokesman for the governor now says about a new tax for repairing infrastructure.

To paraphrase the poet Schiller, he comes late but he comes. Hallelujah! Having just learned from the federal government's latest National Bridge Inventory that no fewer than 150 bridges right here in Shelby County are adjudged to be either "obsolete or deficient," we'd just as soon that our own state government rethink its own priorities — free from all the tired old arguments about "pork" and taxation.

We live here, and we happen to think public safety is worth paying for.

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