RI dodged a notch of the progressive ratchet with the collapse of TCI.

I’ve been engaging in a back-and-forth discussion with a childhood acquaintance concerning the costs of public schools, trying to convey that the system is set up like a ratchet.

When operating costs go up — for electricity, say — school districts insist that they cannot absorb the hit and pass it along to taxpayers.  It’s just how the budgeting is done.  But when those same costs go down, the districts use the money for other purposes, like giving raises, starting new programs, and so on.  Maybe their budgets don’t increase as much that year, but they never go down.  Thus, when the cost goes back up, even if it only returns to its previous high, the districts have to increase taxes to cover the increase again.

This dynamic comes into play with other government policies, as well, notably around the environment.

When Democrat governor of Connecticut Ned Lamont announced his withdrawal of support for the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) last week, he explained, “The consumers are getting squeezed; right now they want to break.”  Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, was not as politically blunt about his reason for pulling back, but one needn’t be very cynical to assume he agrees with Lamont.  For Rhode Island’s Democrat governor, Dan McKee, the reasoning simply seems to be that it looked foolish to be the only state in a “regional” compact.

Under Republican President Donald Trump, fuel became less expensive.  The United States was energy independent and was even beginning to become an energy exporter.  In that situation, some politicians calculated that voters would tolerate a little bit of an increase to fund another environmentalist scheme.  Unfortunately for them, organized opposition arose, and the activists in government couldn’t get the deal done in time to lock in the ratchet before the fuel price increase blew up all their sunny estimates of the real effect on drivers.

One of the underappreciated tools in my van as a carpenter was a heavy-duty ratchet strap.  In that line of work, it had all sorts of uses for straightening walls, bending plywood around curved structures, and more, but most people will be familiar with them as a more-robust alternative for bungy cords.  You put an item up on your vehicle’s roof rack, wrap the strap around it, and crank the ratchet until it’s tight, tugging on the item until you can’t move it at all, but being careful not to click so many time it crushes your precious cargo.

Annual government budgeting and policies like TCI are like that, only we’re the ones strapped to the rack.  Every time we exhale, the special interests and ideologues click the ratchet, making it harder and harder to breathe, and they don’t seem concerned with our pain so much as the possibility that we’ll know that they are the ones to blame.

 

Featured image by Gabriel Cote on Unsplash.

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