Charter change proposal is a political mondegreen

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When Jimi Hendrix sang, ¿¿Scuse me while I kiss the sky,¿ many people heard, ¿¿Scuse me while I kiss this guy.¿ (AFP/Getty Images / March 7, 2014)

I had a lot of fun a few years ago writing about mondegreens, which are instances of misheard lyrics or other statements.

Readers kept sending them to me for months, and they resulted in several columns.

One of the most famous mondegreens got repeated airings during the Olympics with the TV commercial that used Jimi Hendrix and his lyric, "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky."

For years, people have misheard that line as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

Politicians often engage in their own form of mondegreening by making statements that sound like they mean one thing but actually mean something quite different.

For example, I've been criticizing new Northampton County Executive John Brown, whose repeated claims of a quest for transparency and more efficient government are belied by his remarkable nontransparency and the way he's modeling inefficient government by hiring a succession of consultants without any kind of competitive bidding, among other oddities. What we're hearing isn't what he's doing.

The same thing has been happening to his west for years.

The slate that dominates the Lehigh County Commissioners campaigned in part on the idea that it would roll back former County Executive Don Cunningham's 16 percent tax increase.

It not only failed to do that, but its actions helped increase the structural deficit that is likely to lead to another increase, which I'm sure it will passionately oppose.

'Scuse me while I kiss this guy.'

In the latest example of mondegreening, the board has begun discussing a draft ordinance from Commissioner Mike Schware that would change the Home Rule Charter's provision regarding county budget passage.

Under the charter, the executive's proposed budget goes into effect by default if the board fails to adopt a budget by a certain date. Under Schware's proposal, which hasn't been formally introduced and may be fine-tuned — preferably out of existence — if the commissioners don't pass a budget, tax rates would default to the previous year's levels, triggering across-the-board cuts if necessary.

Schware told reporter Samantha Marcus that the proposal is about providing fairness and accountability to the taxpayers.

"There's nothing worse than being in this office and having it come before you and having it go into effect even if you don't want it to," said Republican Commissioner Percy Dougherty.

Dougherty should know. He once helped allow a 70 percent tax hike go into effect rather than take the political risk of voting for a smaller 43 percent increase.

I suppose you could argue that this proves the point. With this proposal in effect, that 70 percent tax increase would have disappeared altogether despite the commissioners' failure to agree on any changes. But it's telling that after weeks of meetings, the best the commissioners could do was trim the increase to 43 percent — and then not vote for it. Automatically dropping to zero would have required massive cuts in county services, the vast majority of which are not expendable.

In a more recent example, when Cunningham proposed that 16 percent increase, the best the commissioners could do was come up with $3 million in mostly one-time cuts, which would have brought the tax increase down to 12.8 percent. Then, in a craven publicity stunt, some of them tried to toss it back in Cunningham's lap at the last minute, instructing him to pull a zero increase out of his hat. The attempt failed, barely. But the ruckus over Cunningham's increase propelled that slate of three fiscal conservatives onto the board.

Their promise to roll back the tax hike seemed ridiculous then and even more so today. The county probably is facing another tax increase in 2015, and the board majority led by the slate has shown more taste for posturing about federal spending than for identifying the real permanent cuts in county spending that would be needed to prevent another increase.

In fact, by proposing to cut the tax millage for the 2013 budget without offering specific permanent spending cuts to pay for it, the board majority set the stage for a compromise that actually increased the county's structural deficit, making a future tax increase more likely.

Here's the reality of this misheard lyric. Changing the charter would pave the way for future commissioners to cripple county services by default without voting to make cuts that might be unpopular. That's not about accountability. It's about avoiding accountability for doing what we elect county commissioners to do.

So I hope the commissioners drop the whole idea of changing the charter and adopt this approach instead:

To avoid any proposed tax increase, board members should find and approve enough specific spending cuts — not one-time gimmicks, but real reductions — to balance the budget. If that's not feasible, it means taxes really do need to go up to fund vital county functions, so they should support that.

Not as popular maybe, but much more honest. Enough mondegreens. How about saying what you really mean?

bill.white@mcall.com 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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