President Trump says he wants a trillion dollars spent on infrastructure. Taxpayers say they are skeptical (at best) and violently opposed (at worst).
Gosh! Why is everyone so suspicious when tax money and infrastructure are mentioned in the same sentence?
Let's look at a tiny example from Palm Beach County. The politicians painted a 1 cent sales tax increase as a way to improve infrastructure. Fix potholes, better drainage of areas that are prone to flooding, that sort of thing. All perfectly reasonable.
Then political reality set in: The Palm Beach Post reported a deal with the Cultural Council to spend vast sums of the sales tax money on things like the expansion of the Norton Museum of Art — clearly this is vitally important infrastructure :-).
Let's take a trip to Discworld for a relevant parable:
It was like Jason and the Battle for the Stationery Cupboard, Susan told herself. You soon learned that “No one is to open the door of the Stationery Cupboard” was a prohibition that a seven-year-old simply would not understand. You had to think and rephrase it in more immediate terms, like “No one, Jason, no matter what, no, not even if they thought they heard someone shouting for help, no one ”are you paying attention, Jason?” is to open the door of the Stationery Cupboard, or accidentally fall on the door handle so that it opens, or threaten to steal Richenda's teddy bear unless she opens the door of the Stationery Cupboard, or be standing nearby when a mysterious wind comes out of nowhere and blows the door open all by itself, honestly, it really did, or in any way open, cause to open, ask anyone else to open, jump up and down on the loose floorboard to open, or in any other way seek to obtain entry to the Stationery Cupboard, Jason!”
So, what taxpayers would need to feel safe is an infrastructure spending bill that is “Jason proof” :-). (Am I implying that our leaders are as irresponsible as seven-year-olds when it comes to other people's money? — I'm afraid I am.)
Can such a bill be written? It has never been done before, but in the new era of swap draining, perhaps it is time to try. I don't believe there are any constitutional obstacles to anything I'm about to propose below:
It certainly needs to list many things that are not infrastructure and do not qualify for funding under the bill. Stuff like museums dedicated to the works of some politician. Sports stadiums for the use of professional teams. New roads and/or bridges that do not go anywhere people actually live (yet).
It needs to provide a formula for prioritizing items. Are people's lives at risk without repairs of replacements? That's the highest priority. Is property at risk? That would be a lower priority. Would it be convenient, but not essential? That's the lowest priority. How many people? How much property? That should also factor in to the priority.
What good do all these definitions and examples do? The politicians will just ignore anything they don't want to see. That's where the most radical and innovative part of the bill comes in.
States, counties, cities can all make applications for infrastructure funding for specific projects they justify by writing proposals that describe how the project meets the guidelines and what they consider the priority.
These proposals then go to citizen juries. People selected just like jury duty to serve on a board to evaluate the proposals.
No jury will ever see a proposal for a project within 1000 miles of that jury's location. As much as possible, they will do their evaluation starting from a blank slate. Juries serve for two weeks and get through as many proposals as they can in that time frame.
If the jury decides a project doesn't qualify, then it is out.
If the jury changes the priority, then the jury's priority takes precedence.
Most important of all, the next step is the penalty phase. The governmental body that submitted the most rejected or inflated proposals has access to future submissions restricted or completely cut off. Deliberately attempting to waste the time of the jury and the money of the taxpayers must be penalized. Eventually they might realize the wisdom of honest evaluations.
Finally, the very highest priority proposals get funding in priority order. When the avilable money dries up, at least the most important problems have been addressed.
An infrastructure spending bill seems perfect to be the testbed for the first attempt to win back taxpayer trust. Perhaps other forms of government spending could adopt a similar program in the future.