Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What Mr. Schilling And Mr. Brownback Could Teach Us All

What Mr. Schilling and Mr. Brownback Could Teach Us All

Earlier this month, I wrote about the rise and fall of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios.  It is a topic that keeps on giving.  Just to review, Curt Schilling, baseball star, wanted to be Curt Schilling, entrepreneur.  Unable to raise money in the private arena, he turned his charm on the gatekeepers of taxpayer funds.  In May of 2010 he hosted a GOP fundraiser at his Medfield, Massachusetts mansion (a house featured as an “Estate of the Day”).  There, he met and dazzled Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri, who stepped up to the plate with a $75 Million loan guarantee program.

The rest is history.  Schilling’s company turned out one videogame of indifferent success, and then ran out of funds. Last week, after the great man himself met with Rhode Island officials and failed to extract even more taxpayer money, he did the graceful and humane thing.  He fired everyone on the spot.  By email.

OK, so Schilling is an egomaniacal heel.  So he took $4 million of his own money out of 38 Studios shortly after he received taxpayer largess.  So no rational private equity investor nor commercial lender was willing to touch 38 Studios-even non-partisan C-Net notes that investing in this area is “known to be incredibly risky." And so we can all derive the inevitable conclusion-if Schilling hadn’t been a famous baseball player whose intellectual home was Fox News, he would never have received the warm and lucrative embrace of Governor Carcieri.  Host a fundraiser for the GOP, get $75 Million of taxpayer money.  Excellent return on investment.

And that’s where our story gets off course. Schilling-the-hypocrite talking small government out of one side of his mouth while lapping at the “all you can drink” taxpayer bar with the other side is fun to talk about, but it’s also misplaced.  He is a bum, but an enabled bum.

The lesson of Schilling’s fiasco isn’t the appearance of mere favoritism or even corruption.  It is the fact that, in the real world, politicians like Carcieri make choices, and those choices don’t exist in a vacuum-they play out in the communities the rest of us live in.  It takes revenue to pick up the garbage, or teach first grade, and when the revenues go, the garbage stays.

Rhode Island was such a place.  In the summer of 2009, before the good Governor Carcieri was overcome by the spirit of generosity to Mr. Schilling, he went to people of his State, and demanded they make sacrifices in the name of fiscal prudence.  On August 24, his office issued a self-congratulatory “Shutdown Day Press Release”.  The release identified 12 days where the Rhode Island government would shut down (no pay for government workers, including schools) and substantial cuts in State aid to counties and towns.  Carcieri mouthed compassion “We are very well aware of the impact shutdown days will have on state employees and state services. For Rhode Islanders there will be inconveniences; for state employees there is sacrifice. I am asking everyone’s patience, understanding, and awareness that these steps are unavoidable if the State is to live within its means.”

So, just how much money did the Governor’s press release tout as a savings for all that sacrifice and inconvenience?  $67.8 Million. Now, it is unfair to make the linkage between that $67.8 Million of pain absorbed by the common folk, and $75 Million handed to Mr. Schilling for his private profit-the cuts and the gift were not synchronized.  What is not unfair, however, is to ask why any elected official would choose to bring so much economic discomfort to his constituents, and then turn around and act so recklessly with the power (and money) given to him.  Where’s the accountability? 

And that brings us to Kansas, where the Republicans so dominate state offices that every possible trace of liberalism has been stamped out.  Kansas is led by the formidable Governor Sam Brownback, a Tea Party favorite and a social and fiscal conservative of impeccable credentials. Brownback has been merciless-he’s cut aid to schools, social programs, the elderly, the arts, and he’s even opened an “Office of the Repealer” where “needless government regulations” are taken to die.  And Brownback takes no prisoners.  Nine “moderate” Republicans who expressed concern about the scope of the cuts last year found themselves on the wrong side of primary challengers supported by their Governor.  Kansas has just passed yet another tax cut bill, this one projected to result in a 12.8 % reduction in state revenues-all of which will come out of spending at the local level, causing even the Republican head of the State Senate to pause.  Kansas has become a laboratory of Tea Party ideas.

And I say, good for Kansas.  These aren’t choices I would make, but I don’t live there.  This is what the electoral process is all about, not some back door gift to a political friend at the citizens’ expense.  If the voters of Kansas are happy with lower tax rates on some people and a lower level of services for the rest, why shouldn’t they have them?  And, if they are not happy, they can go to the polls the next time around and express their discontent. 

In the end, what is happening in Kansas should become part of the national discussion-just like Mr. Schilling’s all-expenses paid Rhode Island holiday. 

As voters, we should demand it.  And, with five months until the elections, there is no time like the present to start.