‘The Children’s Fund’: A dubious ballot question

‘The Children’s Fund’: A dubious ballot question

Allegheny County voters will be asked to buy a pig in a poke on Nov. 6, one that very well could end up subsidizing pigs in clover.

Now, just in case some of you aren’t familiar with the double pig reference:

A “pig in a poke” is a blind “bargain” that’s no bargain at all – the product of sleights of rhetoric that underlie an overriding deception.

“Pigs in clover” is, in the macro, a reference to people who have money but don’t know how to behave decently. Or, in the micro sense of when it comes to public servants given ill-defined or carte blanche charge over a bolus of public money, acting with plenty of subterfuge.

Which brings us back to next month’s ballot issue asking county voters to adopt something called the “Children’s Fund.” As expected, it has come with a slick sales pitch — the proverbial being “for the children.”

Here’s the question Allegheny County voters will see (brought to the ballot by voter petition):

“Shall the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter be amended to establish the Allegheny County Children’s Fund, funded by Allegheny County levying and collecting an additional 0.25 mills, the equivalent of $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, on all taxable real estate, beginning in January 2019, and thereafter, to be used to improve the well-being of children through the provision of services throughout the County to include early childhood learning, after-school programs and nutritious meals?”

The primary problem with this ballot question is two-fold:

First, the verbiage is so expansive as to be corruptible. Consider the phrase “well-being of children.” That, in and of itself, could be hijacked to mean virtually anything. (Think of how federal lawmakers routinely have employed the phrase “general welfare” to promulgate all manner of unjustified spending.)

But, second, even when “well-being of children” is paired with “to include early childhood learning, after-school programs and nutritious meals,” serious questions arise.

Given that “early childhood learning” has a notorious reputation for being benefit-less, will this effort be anything more than glorified, taxpayer-funded babysitting? Whose “after-school programs”? New ones? In augmentation of existing ones? Styled how?

Then there are those “nutritious meals.” Breakfasts? Lunches? Dinners? All three? New, and possibly duplicative, programs or in concert with the many existing efforts?

That said, the ballot issue allows for the inclusion of the aforementioned loosely defined programs while excluding, well, nothing.

Proponents of the “Children’s Fund” say all that will begin to be addressed with enabling legislation that Allegheny County Council must pass – if, that is, voters adopt what, boiled down, is pretty much a blank check for abuse.

But even sample enabling legislation proffered by proponents is unclear about who really will run this thing. It calls for the county manager to “supervise” the fund with, by ordinance, an “advisory commission” to be chosen – by whom, their number, their terms to be decided – to make program recommendations.

Additionally, the prototype enabling legislation bars, among others, anyone serving on the advisory board from having contracts with the fund.

But shouldn’t there also be a prohibition of the covey of nonprofit organizations who bankrolled this initiative from receiving contracts? If there’s not, it’s a horrible conflict of interest, as one blogger notes.

As others have noted, voters are, based on the referendum language, being asked to approve a property tax hike that will create an annual fund of between $18 million and $19 million to support generic feel-good efforts.

Trust us, the proponents are saying; details to come. No thanks.

Elected county and city public officials haven’t exactly been falling over themselves campaigning for this referendum. In fact, county Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald has expressly criticized the attempt to raise property taxes to do so.

(That said, he did tell KDKA-TV that an extraction tax on shale gas would be a better funding source. Sorry, but no.)

Other public officials have questioned the vacuum in which the proposal was hatched, with little or no consultation and with little or no regard for existing local, state and federal efforts.

Other critics have assailed the proposed tax hike as hardly being the “grassroots effort” portrayed by proponents but rather the work of paid, professional signature-gatherers doing the bidding of those looking to increase their power base.

Here’s the bottom line:

On Nov. 6, Allegheny County voters will be asked to raise their property taxes to produce a multimillion-dollar kitty of money to pay for programs inadequately defined and with no need documented by any kind of credible study.

It is the definition of a pig in a poke. And, as presented, taxpayers have no business financing such clover for the poke’s pigs.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).