Recently Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs, suggested that school gyms, playgrounds, and athletic fields should be opened to the public after hours. She argued that these “shared-use agreements” for public facilities would reduce obesity, especially in poor communities that may not have access to private gyms, parks, or safe sidewalks.
Aragon’s idea would be an effective and efficient use of public dollars based on a simple premise: the state identifies a public good and directly provides it. Contrast that with an obesity-fighting idea from a few years ago, when Sen. Mike Mazzei proposed a tax credit to reimburse 20 percent of the cost of health club memberships. This would have been more expensive than simply opening up schools and limited to those who could afford 80 percent of a health club membership. In addition, a substantial part of the credit would be wasted on those who would have joined a health club without it.
Sen. Mazzei’s tax credit was not made law, but it is emblematic of a common problem in public policy. Because we have stigmatized direct government action in many areas, we look for workarounds that are less efficient than if the state just went ahead and provided the service. This creates gaps in both efficiency and accountability.
Another example is how the state has encouraged rehabilitation of historic buildings. Lawmakers decided this was in the public interest, so they created a tax credit. However, because the credits were transferable, recipients sold many of them at 80 or 90 cents on the dollar. The buyers likely had no relationship to the rehabilitation project, so a significant percentage of the money was immediately wasted.
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