Monday, June 11, 2007

A Soundbite's a Soundbite

Cost is unquestionably a factor that deserves top consideration with any budget. But right alongside cost is another top consideration: What are you getting in return for the cost?

An informed decision on any budget, whether it's a state budget or a personal budget, takes consideration of both cost and what you're getting in return for that cost.

The GOP has left the latter part of that equation out of its criticisms of the governor's budget proposal over the course of the spring. To an extent, this focus on one half of the equation from state Republicans is understandable, at least politically speaking.

The GOP thrives on making public finance about taxes alone. And it's an efficient political strategy that's played well for many years. Few people like paying taxes, and even fewer people like the idea of paying more in taxes.

(Side-Note: Tax rhetoric makes for good campaign fodder, but not, however, good governing. Case in point, Tommy Thompson didn't become one of the most popular governor's in Wisconsin history by living up to the fiscal conservative message he ran on during the mid-80s; that just helped get him elected. His broad popularity came by opening up the state wallet as governor in the mid-90s.)

So that's the GOP's excuse. What do you suppose is the Journal Sentinel's excuse?

On Saturday, the biggest daily in the state ran an article on the JFC's passage of a budget that's virtually the same size as the one the governor proposed. Nearly the entire article was focused on cost.

After a subtitle that reads, "$58 billion spending plan includes higher car registration, cigarette tax," here are the two lead paragraphs:
The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee on Friday forwarded a $58 billion budget that largely strengthens Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's position on many key issues.

Hundreds of budget provisions are a step closer to becoming law, including higher fees for residents registering their cars and renewing their driver's licenses; a rise in the cigarette tax; and increasing University of Wisconsin System tuition.
There was a small section on the goal of the hospital assessment to generate more federal Medicaid dollars to better reimbursement rates, but, other than that, proposed services were absent from the discussion. Even the section on the proposed Stewardship fund extension failed to explain to readers the purpose of the program; instead, it just focused on how much that extension would cost.

The JS followed-up that article with another on Sunday that asked readers to consider: "What will survive budget battle?" Here's the second paragraph:
The budget drafted by the Legislature's budget-writing panel includes Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's plans to impose new taxes on oil companies, hospitals and cigarettes. It also includes proposals that could mean higher fees for residents registering their cars, renewing their driver's licenses, selling their homes or paying tuition at University of Wisconsin System schools.
The article goes on to explain a variety of instances where costs would go up, and, in a few, it does explain what the increased revenue would fund. But the overriding emphasis is clearly on cost, just as it is exclusively in the lead paragraphs.

Getting back to my question about the JS's excuse, some may read it as the workings of a right-wing news desk. And there may be some truth to that. But I'd say what's an even bigger driving factor is the plain old desire of the JS to sell newspapers.

If you want to catch a reader's attention on a story about the budget, you're not going to ask them to consider a nuanced equation of cost relative to services to determine the most equitable route for the state to head. Nope. You're going to hit them with a $58 billion price tag and how much more in individual taxes and fees they're going to need to pay in order to fund not the services, but the price tag.

In this sense, the paper's aims are tied to the GOP's not in ideology, but in expediency. The GOP wants voters; the JS wants readers.

And who can blame them? Soundbites make great business sense for media outlets, just as they make great electoral sense for politicians.

So what if they don't make a whole lot of civic sense? Civics is boring, anyway, right?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seth,

They are both regressive taxes that hurt the most vulnerable the greatest. Doyle taxes like he's Tommy Thompson in Vegas. The ends justify the means argument just doesn't hold up for me. WSJ actually likes Doyle's form of taxation.

How would I make up the difference, I'd take out that loophole that cheats Wisconsin out of billions of dollars in taxes.

June 17, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I agree, Nate, combined reporting would be a more efficient route to go than the oil assessment. However, increased business taxes through combined reporting would be passed on to consumers just as the oil assessment would be passed on to them. So, really, they're both regressive. The only way to significantly increase revenues in a truly progressive way is to raise the individual income tax rate, specifically on the middle and upper classes, which would be political suicide.

Now how does this relate to the topic of my post?

June 17, 2007  

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