What others say: As election nears, candidates must be more specific on policy vision

  • Wednesday, September 16, 2015 8:37pm
  • Opinion

One sure sign it’s campaign season isn’t yard signs and mail fliers, but hollow promises. These exist at every level of public office. Some are easy to spot, and some are harder. Regardless of whether they’re repeated by local, state or national candidates, it’s important for residents to be aware of the difference between genuine policy proposals and vague platitudes. As the election draws near, such statements are likely to increase in frequency.

The most common election tactic in advocating for a change from the status quo is to claim money is being spent wastefully, that government is inefficient or taxes are too high. This is a good impulse — pockets of inefficiency or stagnation can and do creep into government, and it’s important to keep an eye on budgets to make sure money is allocated in a way amenable to the public.

There’s a difference, however, between claiming inefficiency and being able to demonstrate it or specify where cuts should be made. How many times have you heard political hopefuls say government is too fat or your taxes are too high without telling you where they plan to make cuts? The fact of the matter is that absent meaningful decreases in services, it’s hard to do a great deal of cutting to government. The state got an object lesson in that this year, as Gov. Bill Walker and the Legislature made a series of difficult cuts to narrow the state’s budget gap. While some cuts were made without a great deal of disagreement, most spurred public outcry and opposition.

Candidates know this, which is why they tend not to specify what cuts they would prefer for fear of alienating large chunks of voters. They resort to generalities such as saying they would target “administration” with reductions, which isn’t actually more specific, given that the entire function of government is administration — the administration of public services. Without specifying departments or particular areas of government they’d like to see cut, candidates aren’t telling you much about their political philosophy. Would they like to see fewer animal control officers? Shorter pool or library hours? Thermostats set lower in the borough administration building? These are the concrete knobs the mayor and assembly can use to make a difference in the budget, and knowing which of them a candidate values and doesn’t is far more informative than promises to “reduce waste” — unless the waste reduction plan is actually a concrete proposal for recycling and not a platitude.

The flip side of the coin is promises by candidates to provide new or improved services without mention of how those services would be funded. Just as promises to cut without specifying which services would be affected are disingenuous, so too are claims that initiatives that would do more for residents wouldn’t cost more in taxes. Every flower bed on Airport Way, every minute the Big Dipper keeps its ice frozen and every book at the library costs money. As before, this isn’t a bad thing — over time, the borough has adapted to take on different services as residents demand them and shed others that didn’t have similar importance to locals. It’s through this process, which is admittedly imprecise, that government settles on the level of services it provides and taxes it levies. Just as it’s hard to cut without affecting that level of services, it’s nigh impossible to add services without long-term increases in cost to residents unless other cuts are made to balance them.

There are plenty of other hollow statements endemic to politics, but these two are the most often repeated by those who count on voters not asking for more specifics. With very few exceptions, you can’t cut without reducing services, and you can’t increase services without increasing costs. Those who tell you otherwise might be geniuses — but more often, they’re counting on you not asking the follow-up questions: If you propose cuts, where would you cut? And if you’re adding services, where will that money come from? Those unable or unwilling to answer don’t deserve your vote.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Sept. 10

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