Friday :: Jul 1, 2005

Paying The Piper


by pessimist

There comes a time (generally monthly) in everyone's life when the due bills arrive. That is the time when it becomes necessary to examine where the money went - and decide if it should go there again. Many states across the nation are in the midst of that very budgetary process as I write.

The immediate blame goes to King George for his profligate cut-taxes-in-wartime 'programme', but the roots of the problem go way back to the beginning of withholding back in the early Sixties. Even as a kid of single digits, it didn't make much sense to me that every state would pour money into the Federal coffers and then apply to get it back in the form of grants and loans.

And I used to wonder about where the idea for debit cards came from!

Believe it or not, there is a conservative side to me, one that emerges when money is mentioned. In principle, I buy into King George's infamous tag line of 'It's Your Money', but I also believe that common expenses need to be shared equally. Stealing the conservative's favorite expense, the military, the costs of defending this nation require that taxation in some form occur to cover those massive expenses, which rounded to easy numbers means that each America owes about $1517 for military costs this year. Add another 43.4% 'tax' for the special $200 billion Iraq Oil War costs, and each American must pay $2184.48.

That's every man woman and child living in America today. $2184.48 American dollars, or $8737.92 for the stereotypical American Family of Four at a time when the 2000 poverty level for a family of four is $17,463. [2004 poverty levels here]

This per capita miltary 'fee' assumes that we are giving all business a free ride when it comes to this tax, otherwise I would owe more for my family's domestic defense ALONE than I owed in Federal taxes this year. [No, you may not ask!]

I also believe in fully funding the medical care of those who do serve the nation in wartime and violently oppose diverting those funds to the Oil War which creates more wounded veterans.

But one proposal I don't hear anyone in politics present - not liberal, nor centrist, nor conservative - is an honest accounting of where the money is going, which precludes being able to make informed choices of whether such expenses need continue.

In several states, this process is underway. In some it's dire: Minnesota is closed due to lack of funds.

There is plenty of blame to go around in Minnesota:

Gov. Pawlenty said he was startled to learn that Senate Majority Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, had motioned to adjourned the Senate, standing in a largely empty chamber. At the time of adjournment, more than two hours were left before the partial state government shutdown beginning at midnight.

Some Senate DFLers, too, expressed surprised at the abruptness of the adjournment. Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, said he left the Senate chamber for a cup of coffee and came back to find the Senate was adjourned.

Pawlenty accused Senate DFLers of playing politics. “They believe they stand to gain by making the people of Minnesota lose,” he said.

When times are tough, everyone loses, Governor. But your party doesn't seem to recognize this:

But Republicans were on the receiving end of criticism, too. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, charged that Republican were constantly changing the elements in their budget offers to Democrats. “It’s hard to negotiate when the target is constantly moving,” said Entenza.

He also criticized Republicans for including non-negotiable items in their budget negotiation offerings — racino, for instance.

To be fair to Governor Pawlenty, he "took off the bargaining table all previous offers, including the 75 cents per pack cigarette fee increase — his healthcare impact fee." He had agreed to raise taxes - a mortal Republican sin - and he had removed 12 items from the budget using his line-item veto - another executive tool I support, but in the end, the Minnesota Legislature only took care of that which they consider important:

The House and Senate passed the agriculture, environment and economic development finance bill on Thursday that provided funding for state parks and state forests, keeping campgrounds open. Gov. Pawlenty signed the bill late Thursday evening.

Agriculture and environmental tourism are two of the biggest income generators Minnesota has, so this is understandable to a point. But what was in this bill that was pure pork? The voters of Minnesota aren't going to know, because their attention is being diverted into the debate over the nearly 16,000 state employees taking an unwelcome vacation to reduce state government expenses and a $455 million deficit.

As a Californian, that's nothing - we're in the hole much deeper than that! But it makes no sense to me as a voter why there should be so much debate among these legislators about some of the proposed solutions to this problem. The Guardian link presents this impase:

Sticking points include a Republican plan to put a casino at Canterbury Park racetrack. The proposal has fallen flat with Senate Democrats who say they don't want to balance the books with gambling revenue.

Note to Minnesota State Senators: this makes so much money, Der Governator tried to repair the California deficit on the backs of the Native tribes which run our casinos! Get a clue! You could easily repay the state's debt and keep the state's employees from paying with their wages for your incalcitrance.

But that state's Republicans share the blame. Presenting 'non-negotiable' budget items is a crime, and you should all be recalled by your constituents for not representing them as you were elected to do. Every item on a state's budget proposal is of necessity negotiable, and to insist otherwise is an abuse of power.

But I digress.

Non-state employees will also be affected by the shutdown, and the state will run up increased debt through the maintenance of Medicaid and other subsidized medical support per a court order already issued.

Here in California, the majority Democrats have taken a stance that I lean toward supporting. If the issues involved aren't clear to the voters, as our state budget battle isn't thanks to Arnold's lying political ads, it might be necessary to let one's political opponents advance themselves into a trap of their own design:

The Democrats who control the Legislature have abandoned their effort to add billions of dollars in programs to the governor's proposed state budget, and are preparing to vote for a spending plan with no new taxes and no extra money for schools.

I can tell you that school funding in this state is a huge reason why Der Gropinator has lost favor with California voters. Such news may be why the Democrats have taken this stance:

"We are not going to hold up the budget and have a protracted budget battle," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles). "We want to send the message to voters of this state that we are serious about getting things done."

It's also clear, however, that the Republicans in the California State Legislature are not serious about getting things done:

GOP lawmakers — whose support is needed for a budget to be approved — say they will withhold their votes until the Democrats make clear their education agenda for the rest of the legislative session.

This is nothing more than a case of declaring that they don't care a whit about the needs of the state as long as they get their own way. The issues of disagreement are minor, as state Finance Director Tom Campbell has declared them 'not insurmountable', and in light of the pending $6 billion state deficit, are relatively small.

But such inter-party intransigence is the norm all over the nation - in Illinois, North Carolina, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc., etc. It makes one really understand why George Washington warned against the rise of 'factions' in his Farewell Address!

Across the nation, Republican governors are finding it necessary to propose raising taxes in order to balance their budgets, and the Republican legislators in particular, although not exclusively, block any such moves due to ideological considerations.

But do they ever propose what items should be deleted from the state's budget? Generally not. They merely present the position that they are against raising taxes and leave it to the other side to figure out how to please their partisanships. But this doesn't keep them from supporting some kind of government dole to their favorite 'charities': Louisiana legislators are in favor of supporting an NFL team to the tune of $15 million a year along with spending $3.6 million to support a gambling casino - all paid from state tax revenue - while their teachers go without a raise for another year and their health coverage will be in crisis again with the next budget!

Meanwhile, teachers in Florida face no money for wages much less raises. Michigan Medicaid recipients might have to start paying monthly premiums for coverage, and Michigan might have to end the operation of a popular rail line. It's getting to the point that the Michigan press is accusing the state's legislators of being hyenas fighting over the bones of the state budget:

It's a battle over the bones because we haven't started searching for solutions with an open mind and a common vision. Times are tough. But the answer to Michigan's budget problems should not be to deconstruct the things that have made Michigan a desirable place to live: our schools, colleges, highways, parks, local governments and the basic social infrastructure that we value.

Wisconsin's Legislature is drawing media heat also.

We don't all have NFL football teams and gambling casinos in our hometowns, but we do have schools and roads and land development issues and other common problems. Take California's fight against the West Nile virus, for example. All the Legislature could agree on was about $12 million - with strings attached on its usage.

Some point the finger at Big Labor as being at fault for state budget shortfalls while impoverished kids whose parents would have benefitted from this supposed union political power lose funding for programs that would have eased the poverty burden these parents face.

A couple of Michigan legislators display the divide between those who care from those who don't:

Rep. Jerry Kooiman, a Grand Rapids Republican, said "Sometimes you have to have limits to force people to do the things they have to do. We want to move from an entitlement welfare state to an empowerment state."

Rep. Chris Kolb, D-Ann Arbor, said "What we like to do in Michigan is build ladders without steps. Saying a hungry belly will motivate you to get a job turns my stomach."

Some, such as Ohio Republican Gov. Bob Taft, push through a budget that reduces taxes for business while increasing them on the workers. The only consolation? Coin dealers lose their tax exemption! One does, after all, have to punish one's contributors who stray from the law somehow without costing contributions later!

Some states, adversely affected due to hard times by laws restricting their economic flexibility when things improve, might seek to save something for a rainy day. But they can't. As Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic Speaker of the Colorado House said recently, “It forces us to live at a recession level,” he said. “Even as the economy recovers, we’re stuck. We’re punished for an economic downturn.”

Why should a state government not review what is being covered? Georgia's Gov. Sonny Perdue did, and got Viagra funding removed from the Georgia state budget [A good move, as I disapprove of states funding penile performance drugs when they won't fund birth control pills.] In fact, they should take a close look at everything in a state's budget. As Merrimack, New Hampshire Republican Rep. John Gibson says: "It might actually give us a chance to get it right. Imagine if we had the whole summer to actually go through that budget to find where there could be more slush." Or maybe they will discover why there are so many expenses in the state's ledger.

One thing that we taxpayers don't know anymore is where our money IS going. Do the taxpayers of Louisiana know that almost $20 million of their tax dollars needed for trivial things like educating their kids is being spent on wealthy businesses that can easily afford to pay their own way? Why should businesses get a break while individuals can't? I know the Santa Clara decision had far reaching effects upon the legal status of corporations as individuals with rights equal to humans, but I wasn't aware that humans and their rights were adversely affected at the same time! Where is Tony 'the Fixer' and his 'Equal Protection' argument now?

The People of the States have tried many things to get their elected representatives to do their jobs: line item vetoes, mandatory budget deadlines, two-thirds voting rules - nothing works better than partisan intransigence while the needs of the people suffer. It might require judicial activism on behalf of the people to break the logjam created when some elected officials refuse to face reality.

Sure, the Democrats have to get serious about cutting spending, but the Republicans have to be willing to have some of their sacred cows gored as well. Offering 'non-negotiable' budget items while expecting the other side to do all the giving is not what is supposed to happen.

It's not the American Way, you flag waver!

Some states do manage to arrive at acceptible (and certainly by no means perfect) compromises: Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire.

At least none of these entities have to deal with these problems!

But I digress.

These states have a tradition of public town meetings to discuss and vote on local issues, so maybe compromise is wired into these voters, and their representatives are more attunded toward it as well. It might be a good thing if more Americans had a direct say in what their legislators do, and I have a proposal that you readers might want to discuss.

I feel that every legislator at every level of government has to face the consitutuency every year, and ask for an evaluation of his performance. If s/he fails this evaluation, then they don't get paid.

If they can't afford to not listen to the Will of the People, then they can resign and go back to being one themselves. Those who can afford not to heed the Will of the People will still have to stand for reelection, and can be removed at that time.

This way, every elected official has to be accountable for their actions in a timely and direct manner.

What say you?


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