When I wrote this column for Newsweek a couple of weeks ago about the University of California tuition crisis, condemning California as the worst-governed state in the nation seemed like a pretty safe bet. But now I see that Arizona legislators have also embraced the strategy of cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from public universities, forcing tuition up 24 percent from last year and, according to UA President Robert Shelton, another 34 percent over the next two years.
Putting aside the essential cowardice of eschewing broadly-shared budget-balancing tax increases for equivalent tuition hikes that hurt poor and middle-class students, you’d think that state lawmakers in a budget crisis would look askance at a program that primarily benefits rich people, cost nearly $400-million over the last decade, and has been rife with illegality and self-dealing, i.e. Arizona’s notorious private school tuition tax credit program, the details of which you can read about here. Instead, a panel of lawmakers voted on Friday to expand the program while rejecting proposals to curb abuses such as private school parents forming cabals to donate dollar-for-dollar tax credits on behalf of each other’s children and refusing to give the state resources to audit the non-profit organizations that adminster the credits and pay their executives lucrative salaries to do so. This may, possibly, have something to with the fact that some of those executives are the state lawmakers who sponsored the legislation in the first place. The Arizona Republic endorsed expanding this massive boondogle in the teeth of a fiscal crisis, despite admitting that, when it was first proposed twelve years ago,
We did not anticipate the appalling — and, possibly, illegal — practice of “credit swapping,” for example. Parents today go hunting for friends and neighbors who promise to “recommend” their children to receive the benefit of their tax credit. This is definitely not what we had in mind in 1997. We did not anticipate lawmakers and even lobbyists who had direct hands in creating the tuition tax-credit legislation erecting middle-man empires off the 10-percent “administrative cost” allowance built into the law.
Props for admitting past failures and all that, but shouldn’t their total failure of judgment back in ’97 give them pause now? There are several species of egregious thinking on display here, including the bizarre-yet-prevalent idea that spending money via the tax code isn’t actually spending money, and a certain weird naivete that people will forgo the opportunity to suck large amounts of money out of the public treasury simply because of the goodness of their hearts.