As your state senator, I have the responsibility to study the facts of policy issues in depth and make decisions based on evidence. Our democratic republic operates upon a level of trust that elected officials act in a logical, reasoned manner using valid evidence. For representative government to be successful, voters must also critically and skeptically evaluate information presented to them.
This is no easy task. We all have our own preconceived biases and ideology influencing our objectivity. Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman summed up our ability to misinterpret information by stating “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.
A frequent logical error in political rhetoric is known as the “false dilemma”. This strategy reduces an issue down to an either-or decision, with one choice being mutually exclusive of the other. Many of the funding discussions during the past legislative session were portrayed as such a false dichotomy. For example, it has been asserted that since I did not support the full request for funding increases for developmental disability, mental health, or other health care providers, then I do not support the disabled, the elderly, or the vulnerable. This is a false choice.
When I cast a vote on a budget item, there are many constituencies I must consider: those who receive the funds, the taxpayers who pay for it, and other programs that must be prioritized for finite funds. My consideration must also take into account the magnitude of the funding, as well as the current and future trends in revenue and needs of the state. There is no “either-or” choice. The costs and benefits are spread across a continuum, with multiple choices and outcomes.
With regard to the state funds appropriated to programs that assist vulnerable Nebraskans, I voted to invest $833 million each year in Medicaid, $149 million in developmental disability aid, $104 million in public assistance, and $72 million in behavioral health aid. The two year budget funds Medicaid at 99.2% of the prior biennium, developmental disability aid at 99.1%, public assistance at 98.5%, and behavioral health aid at 98.9%. Supporting $2.3 Billion of General Funds over the course of a biennium is a significant commitment to vulnerable Nebraskans. Furthermore, the Department of Health and Human Services is confident it can manage these small, target reductions through operational efficiency without reducing funds available for care. The false dilemma created by the political rhetoric is not logical.
Evidence and factual data are essential for sound policy. From a reasoned point of view, the burden of proof lies with the individual making the positive claim. In the scientific method, the hypothesis, or claim, being made is assumed to be false until proven otherwise. This is known as the “null hypothesis”. A failure to meet the burden of proof is best illustrated by the claims made by administrators about reductions to the University of Nebraska appropriation.
Over the course of the biennium, the University received an average reduction of 0.2% over the previous budget. University leadership made a variety of dramatic claims and generalizations about the impact of this reduction. However, they provided no clear evidence of direct, specific impacts to programs, much less harm to the overall mission of the University. It is particularly ironic that higher education administrators would fail in this basic logical tenant, whose roots lie deep within the scientific method and academic inquiry.
The lack of proof is likely because the data to support the claim does not exist. The $1.15 Billion Nebraska taxpayers will invest in the University system during the next two years is not tracked and accounted for beyond the campus to which it is allocated. Following requests to University administration for information about where state tax dollars are spent so I could better understand the potential impacts of any reductions, I was provided only a “best estimate” about distribution of tax dollars. It is impossible to logically evaluate the impact of a reduction in state funding if there is no knowledge of how much taxpayer money each program receives and what the state tax dollars are used for.
Political talking points may make for great headlines, but they fail to adequately capture the complexity of most policy decisions. This is particularly true when discussing issues of funding. Constituents may note that I am not a very “quotable” state senator. Reducing all of the evidence and perspectives of an important issue into a media sound bite is a political skill that continues to elude me.