Beware the Big-Number Boogeyman

Colorado’s total state budget is $29 billion. That’s right; billion with a “B.” That’s a big number. It’s bigger this year than it was two years ago.

All too often, Colorado’s most extreme conservatives use these oversimplified statements as if they are some kind of thunderclap in the raging debate over our state’s finances. It’s a particular line of attack I call the “Big-Number Boogeyman” argument.

The Big-Number Boogeyman’s tactic is cynical, yet effective. He throws around big numbers most of us can’t relate to and points out how the budget keeps growing. He is quick to dismiss those advocating for more public investment as hopelessly greedy liberals who can’t prioritize.

Last week, the Colorado Springs Gazette took a page out of the Big-Number Boogeyman’s handbook.

In an editorial, it erroneously depicted a shrinking K-12 budget as a direct consequence of the state’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage for those with incomes at 133 percent of the federal poverty line ($16,000/year).

To make its argument, the Gazette relied on the wrong facts. Instead of looking at the $11 billion general fund, it used Colorado’s $29 billion total state budget (all funds).

(If you’re starting to think like the Boogeyman and his followers, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Wow, $11 billion is a big number.” Before I lose you, divide that $11 billion by our population. It accounts to a mere $2,000 for every man, woman, and child.)

Remove the Big-Number Boogeyman bias and here’s what’s left: It may seem like Medicaid’s share of the budget is exploding, but that’s because Medicaid expansion is funded by a federal government match. When you look at the general fund — the true measure of where our tax dollars are going — you see percentages for Medicaid have remained virtually unchanged over the last five years.

Based on its incorrect theory, the Gazette then declared a solution to the problem (one it created by using out-of-context numbers): If we want higher paid teachers, kick people off Medicaid. Fiscal crisis solved!

The Big-Number Boogeyman and his henchmen went wild.

“$29 billion and we can’t find money for roads and schools?”
“We just need to prioritize better!”
“The budget grows bigger every year. How much more do you want?”

Dismantling these arguments requires us to deploy counterpoints Big-Number Boogeyman proponents dismiss as “fancy talk.” First, we must point out how people are looking at the wrong chart and show the difference between total funds and general funds. Then, we need to explain how the budget gets bigger year after year, but it’s actually funding less every year. In fact, adjusted for the population, the revenue Colorado is collecting is actually smaller than it was in 2008.

It shouldn’t be this hard, especially when the proof is on display every day. School districts are strapped for cash, roads and bridges are dangerously unmaintained, child care remains unaffordable, college tuition moves upward every year. If we had it within our means to fix these issues with resources at our disposal, wouldn’t we?

The Big-Number Boogeyman says no. He says we’re not trying hard enough and we’re maliciously lying about the financial realities of our state. To him, this whole debate is a ruse.

Just this week, State Representative Patrick Neville argued Democrats are advancing a plan to build “terrible” roads just so they can justify a tax increase. There’s no such plan; Colorado roads are already approaching terrible because we lack the funds to make them better.

The Big-Number Boogeyman wants you to believe there’s a conspiracy at play, but the only conspiracy here is the false narrative perpetuated by him and the Gazette. If these numbers are portrayed correctly, readers would see the reality of Colorado’s fiscal troubles is less about how we cut the pie and more about how to grow a bigger one.

Distorting or disbelieving reality is the linchpin to every boogeyman’s existence. The Big-Number Boogeyman is no different. If we let him, he will continue to mislead Coloradans into thinking this debate should be about whether we need revenue, rather than how and when we intend to raise it.

Any kid can tell you a boogeyman disappears when the lights turn on. The Bell Policy Center is proud to flip the switch and ward off the Big-Number Boogeyman. We’re committed to shedding light on this and other complex arguments affecting economic opportunity in our state.