Thursday, April 13, 2000

Spending too hard to resist




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — State Sen. Jack Westwood got a call while vacationing in Florida last week. It was the state capitol. More money may be available, a staff person said. Did his district need anything else?

        Like a lot of senators, Mr. Westwood dutifully thought up other ways to spend our taxes. When I saw him in Frankfort this week, he wasn't sure what all had been added to the state budget — something about talking books for the Kenton County library, he said.

        I don't mean to single out Mr. Westwood, an Erlanger Republican. He and five other senators even voted against the plan to fund their own projects. This is just how Frankfort works.

        For the first few months of a session, there's tough talk about cutting taxes. Then vagueness sets in. Numbers are juggled and euphemisms tossed about. New spending looks inevitable, so even conservatives figure they might as well pile on.

In secret meetings
        I went to Frankfort on Tuesday to follow the process. At first I kept confusing the nice doormen for senators. Then I realized the important senators were all holed up in secret meetings.

        Republicans control the action because they outnumber Democrats 20 to 18. On Tuesday, they secretly debated a tax proposal while Democrats milled around, occasionally breaking the boredom with witticisms. (One senator's favorite: “You can't tell which way a frog will jump by looking in its eyes.”)

        We reporters lurked in the hallways, trying to read expressions as Republicans emerged for breaks.

        When legislators come up with nifty ways to disguise tax increases, they're hoping we won't notice that the budget makes no sense.

        For half the day, I chased after random scraps of paper that purportedly explained how the numbers balance.

        Here's an example of one explanation:

        A 6 percent sales tax on out-of-state phone calls would raise $25 million next year. Another $5 million would come from other sources.

        This $30 million would be offset by a $37 million cut in the unemployment insurance tax. This means, yes, taxpayers come out ahead!

        But wait — the House and Senate need millions for 689 new projects they're planning. These include that talking library ($35,000); a convention center in Lexington ($15 million); and a Kentucky Civil War museum in Mississippi ($250,000).

Sorcery's the answer
        How is this possible? Sorcery, I tell you.

        For one thing, the cut in the unemployment tax doesn't affect the general fund, which pays for some of the projects.

        Also, the legislature is hoping to collect a tax on access fees for long-distance service. This would boost the general fund by another $39 million.

        I say “hoping” because the tax was approved several years ago but has never been collected, because phone companies threatened to sue.

        What happens to the budget if that standoff continues? Beats me. Nobody seemed to know.

        I left Frankfort thinking money is just chicken scratches on paper to our representatives. Add a few zeros, subtract a few, what's the difference? We taxpayers won't know any better.

        Sadly, I suspect it's true.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Email her at ksamples@enquirer.com or call (859) 578-5584.