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David Hill: Economy hijacking the agenda

Greg Nash

All across America, political pollsters will be in the field today. Phones will ring. Email boxes will ding with invitations with links to Web surveys. One of the most ubiquitous items in these polls will be asking respondents to identify the top issue or problem facing the nation, their state, county, city or region. And the most frequent answer in virtually every poll will be something related to jobs and the economy. 

We are long past the “flat issue agenda” era that plagued us before 2008, when there was no single top issue. A range of issues, from education and healthcare to crime and the environment, once competed to be a top priority. But now jobs and the economy have become the black hole that draws all light to itself, leaving almost no luminescence for the other second- and third-tier concerns. 

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The consequence of our collective preoccupation with all things economic has far-reaching implications for every other public good.

Our singular focus on the economy has made it nearly impossible to raise revenue for any other governmental purpose, even to maintain existing programs. The most obvious example of this is roads and transportation. 

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation projected that the gas-tax-funded trust fund that the 50 states use for road building and maintenance will dry up before the end of August. We have charged the same tax rate of 18 cents per gallon since 1993, but have lost ground to inflation and the fact that we use less gas because of more fuel-efficient engines and our newfound frugality when it comes driving. Even gas-hog vehicles like large trucks and SUVs are more economical than ever. So we buy less gas, and fewer tax dollars roll in. Come the late fall, we could be going cold turkey when it comes to paying for road and bridge maintenance, at least with federal funds.

The situation in the states and their localities is not much better. Everyone is running out of road money. I have worked with state officials and business interests in several states to try to better understand and find a solution for our collective conundrum on transportation funding. 

The problem starts with the public. They simply aren’t interested in paying more. 

Most Americans think we should live with what we have. And they think that roads are a lesser priority than economic development and job creation. Instead of raising the gas tax, they are more interested in tax cuts to stimulate job creation and incentivize investments in economic growth. And they don’t grasp the argument that good roads and transportation options are a key factor in economic growth. To the public, these are competitive interests. 

While I am sympathetic to the states and the transportation-related industries like road contractors that depend on trust fund revenue, they have to share in the blame for failing to educate the public about how this all works. Frankly, road building was too easy for too long because of the trust fund, and the road-builders became complacent.

Roads aren’t the only victim of our pre-occupation with jobs and the economy. Schools have a tough time passing mill levy elections for operations or new facilities. College tuition rates soar as state support for colleges and universities ebbs. The budgets for parks and recreation programs are being cut with no means of restoration in sight. Hospitals and their emergency rooms are getting stuck with more expenses that states or localities can’t or won’t cover. Cops can’t afford to upgrade aging communications equipment or vehicles. 

Until the economy improves or these other priorities are more closely linked in voters’ minds to economic recovery, this won’t change.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.