DON'T SWEAT it, students and parents: Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer is not on a crusade to strip the air conditioning out of school bathrooms.
It just sounded like that during the GOP gubernatorial debate last month, the lieutenant governor assured me after I noted with bemusement his complaint that schools are wasting money air conditioning bathrooms.
His target, he explained, was air-conditioned bathrooms in new high school football stadiums. ("They don't even have air-conditioned bathrooms at Carolina and Clemson," the former USC cheerleader said.)
Mr. Bauer said he added the complaint about stadium-bathroom air-conditioning to his list of wasteful spending after a contractor told him about one such project that he had been hired to work on. The lieutenant governor and probable though not absolutely certain gubernatorial candidate has not yet been able to confirm the charge - when he called the district in question, he got a brush-off - but he's trying to pin it down.
If the story pans out, it's a truly fabulous little exclamation point to his on-point criticism about the proliferation of high school football stadiums. ("Dutch Fork and Irmo used to share a stadium," he said. "But not anymore. It's so much smarter to say, let's tough it out these seven times a year we use a football stadium.")
And that complaint, which he tacked on to the end of his complaint about the excessive number of school districts (85) in our small state, is in turn part of what Mr. Bauer describes as his attempt to set himself apart from the rest of the field, by putting substance ahead of theory.
"I was trying to give examples of where I would cut, because Republicans always say, 'I'm going to reduce the size of government,'" he said. "They never, ever, ever say where....
"I fully believe in throwing ideas out there. You can't keep saying I'm going to cut government and not tell people how you're going to do it, or I'm going to cut taxes, but not tell people how you're going to fund it."
Actually, you can do that, as politicians demonstrate every election cycle. But his point is certainly correct that you shouldn't be able to get away with it. And he's spot-on about the failure of most Republicans to back up their pledges with specifics.
Of course, most candidates say that they're the ones talking specifics while their opponents speak in generalities. The problem is that most candidates - even the best-intentioned - have a tendency to make their specific criticisms and proposals look like more than they are. Mr. Bauer's money-saving ideas provide a nice illustration of that, so let's use them to remind ourselves of some of the things we as voters need to keep an eye out for as we evaluate the candidates for this and other offices:
- Overstating the significance of proposals. This is a particularly large problem when it comes to fiscal matters, because the numbers involved in a state budget - or a single state agency's budget, for that matter - are so huge that we simply can't judge them out of context.
I believe strongly that large savings can come from a mountain of small savings. But it truly does take a mountain. Most of us never see $1 million, so when people start complaining about $8 million stadiums and multi-million-dollar administrative buildings, it sounds like a lot of money. It is in real dollars; but as a percentage even of the state's emaciated $5.7 billion budget - or even the (most recent) $200 million shortfall - it's chump change.
If we never built another high school football stadium, if we didn't air condition any bathroom in new schools - or in any new government buildings, for that matter - the view from the bottom of our budget hole would be just as dark as it is right now.
Any candidate worth his salt has a handful of dramatic examples of waste. Everybody on the stage with Mr. Bauer, for example, wanted to save money by consolidating school districts. What we rarely hear is enough of those relatively small savings to make a big difference or any large targets that are at all realistic.
- Complaining about things over which the official would have no control. I agree with Mr. Bauer about the football stadiums. But whether to build football stadiums is a decision of local school boards; the governor has no say in the matter. In many cases, those stadiums are built with money from bond issues that voters approved.
Candidates do tell us something about their values when they cite policies they like or dislike outside of their control. But they need to make it clear that that's all they're doing, and not encourage or even allow people to believe that they would be able to deliver on what sound like campaign pledges.
- Overstating - either explicitly or implicitly - the possibility of complishing the objective.
Even if a goal is technically within the purview of an elected official, that doesn't mean there is any realistic hope of achieving it. I don't want to say that consolidating school districts falls into this "no realistic hope" category - dum spiro spero - but there are powerful forces aligned against it that a lot of people simply don't understand. When candidates start saying they want to cut the number of districts, most of us say: "Wow, what a great idea. I'm glad a politician finally picked up on that; now, finally, we can get something done."
The fact is that a lot of politicians have favored this for a long time. Obviously not enough, but a lot. But it's a very difficult fight. If a governor doesn't put a lot of muscle behind it, it has almost no chance of happening; even then, the chances are slim.
What we need are candidates who will treat us like grown-ups. Level with us about how significant our challenges are. Tell us there are no silver bullets. Quit telling us what we want to hear (all our problems will go away if we just slashed taxes; all we need to do is to spend a lot more money on education, and there's plenty to be found with no pain). Explain not just their proposals but how they're actually going to get past the train wreck that is our Legislature - and what they need us to do to make it happen.
That might seem unrealistic, but I think we'll all be amazed at how much more responsible candidates will become if voters start holding them to a higher standard.