Publisher's Note: Long hard choices
By Jody Reese
As the governor and folks at the Statehouse struggle to figure out how to pay for our government services, they are turning to one-time solutions, including millions in federal stimulus money. While it’s admiringly optimistic to think business and housing will be flying high again in just two short years, it’s not a reasonable solution to our revenue-raising issues.
Like many businesses and homeowners, the state has been living in the midst of a bubble. Now that that bubble has burst we need to take a conservative look at how much money the state can reasonably raise year in and out. Just as most families can no longer tap home equity to send a child to college, pay for a new kitchen or buy that extra toy, the state too can’t expect to keep spending at bubble levels or to continue to tap one-time revenue sources. We can’t expect to keep finding revenue sources.
This does mean that the tough questions need to be asked: what services can our government afford to offer? Lynch has done some of this, asking many of his department heads to come back with additional cuts to their budgets, but such reductions are beside the point. This can leave very important public policy decisions up to unelected department heads instead of the governor and Statehouse officials who we elect to make those decisions. And that’s too bad.
The debate over what services government should be responsible for is a debate that should be had in public — in the legislature with the participation of department heads. As it is now, this process is rather haphazard and skirts these tough debates.
The other big question that seems to get shunted aside is how much the state pays for things. From bridge contracts to state employee pensions, is the state getting the best deal it can negotiate? Do connections from unions to friendly contractors drive up the price the state has to pay? If we pay too much for a set of state services, other services can get crowded out — it’s like a larger tree stunting the growth of neighboring trees around it. The questions isn’t just can we afford to pay X amount for a service, it should also be what is the cost to other services we want?
Does this mean state government can’t raise taxes? That we have to freeze state spending and increases in taxes? No, of course not. Inflation, especially in health care, increases at an increasingly faster rate and we as taxpayers must foot that bill — especially since we have never enacted meaningful health care reforms to keep prices down — but that’s a whole other issue.
We taxpayers should expect a modest yearly increase in our taxes and more than modest if we as a group decide we want government to pick up more services. For example, each time we decide state government should offer health care to children, we are accepting paying more of our income to the state to cover those costs.
It’s important our elected officials don’t run from this kind of discussion; it’s important to the kind of government we have and how we see our government — and the services it offers.