There’s a magic formula for economic prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council is all too happy to share it.
All you have to do is elect a boatload of Republican legislators who’ll play ball with a Republican governor.
OK, ALEC didn’t exactly put it that way. But that big box store for free-market and small-government thinking — offered helpfully under the guise of “model legislation” — implied it clearly enough.
Clearly enough that I don’t mind putting the words in ALEC’s mouth, much in the way that ALEC puts words in the mouths of legislators.
ALEC has released its fifth annual report titled “Rich States, Poor States,” its forecast of the states’ economic outlook. One of its co-authors is Arthur B. Laffer, the former Reagan era economic adviser best known for developing the “Laffer Curve,” which holds that cutting taxes can actually result in increased revenue.
You know where this research effort is headed.
If you want good news, it’s this: According to the ALEC-Laffer braintrust, Idaho’s economic outlook is ranked No. 6 in the nation.
Idaho earns that lofty ranking based on 15 metrics, many that would make any predictable small-government wish list: a right-to-work law; a low minimum wage matching Uncle Sam’s; a relatively small number of government employees per capita; low debt service. Idaho might have graded higher, had the report reflected the corporate and high-end personal income tax cuts passed by the 2012 Legislature.
But according to the ALEC-Laffer scorecard for building a state economy, there is no correlation between education and job creation. None. It doesn’t matter which metric you choose. If you don’t think per-pupil spending or state higher education budgets are good yardsticks of educational quality, fine. If you think state-funded pre-kindergarten is a gross usurpation of the family, fine. Pick something else. High-school and college graduation rates. Growth of charter schools. In-state college tuition. University research grants. You’ll find nothing.
Nothing that even suggests that funding and setting policy for public education is probably the most important function of any state government. Or that education is a strong consideration for businesses looking to expand or relocate.
In other words, Idaho ranked No. 6 in a junk study that doesn’t reflect the nuanced reality of governing. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider how the Idaho Legislature closed its business for 2012. Its compromise to set the 2012-13 budget included nearly $36 million in tax relief, but $35 million in restored teacher pay. Idaho lawmakers tried to strike a balance that the ALEC-Laffer study fails to contemplate.
Looking at the ALEC-Laffer rankings, some patterns are impossible to overlook.
Among the top 10 states, eight have GOP governors. Republicans control the House in all 10 states and hold the Senate in eight states.
Looking at the bottom 10, seven have Democratic governors, and Democrats control the Senate in seven states and the House in seven states. The outlier is Maine, a Republican state that ranked No. 47 in the study.
These findings aren’t surprising nor nefarious. If ALEC is going to grade states based on criteria such as tax burden and the minimum wage, it only holds that Republican statehouses will fare better than Democratic statehouses.
My problem with the ALEC study is in its labeling. If this were called a scorecard on tax rates or even “the cost of doing business,” I wouldn’t have any heartburn. But this study suggests that the lone true path to prosperity comes by lowballing the cost of state government. That’s political spin, pure and simple. And it helps explain why ALEC, despite its claims of nonpartisanship, is viewed with such suspicion.
Not only are the ALEC rankings spurious, they arew unreliable. Consistently conservative Idaho has ranked in ALEC’s Top 10 three of the four previous years. If we’re so poised for economic recovery, wouldn’t we be doing better?