Monday, February 28, 2011

A few gentle budgetary reminders

Alabama's legislative session begins Tuesday, but the next round of budget cutting began today. As you hear the incessant talk of "fiscal responsibility" and "living within our means" and "bold leadership to create jobs" continue at both the state and federal levels over the coming months, keep three things in mind.

There's no such thing as just cutting a budget: Budget cuts mean fewer resources for people to do their jobs in education, social work, health inspection, and other fields we've deemed important as a society. It often means they work longer hours and get lower take-home pay in return. And sometimes it means putting a lot of them out of work entirely. Public employees work hard and pay taxes just like everyone else, and their jobs are no less important just because tea-party types like to toss around the word government as though it were a slur instead of a device society uses to try to do things that are in our common interest.

Even if you don't care at all about public employees and are glad to see them climbing aboard the economic pain train, budget cuts are likely to make life harder for you and your family in some way. Your children may go to school in more crowded classrooms with older textbooks and technology than their counterparts elsewhere. Tuition may explode yet again and leave you even further in debt as you try to improve your job prospects with an associate's or bachelor's degree. Or you may find yourself standing in a much longer line to renew the license that gives you the right to drive on roads with an ever-growing number of massive potholes. Whatever the negative effects, they'll hit home -- or your car's undercarriage -- sooner than you think.

The depth of the coming cuts will surprise a lot of people: Alabama's budgets already have been slashed by about 20 percent in the last two years, and we're facing a minimum of two more years of cuts before the economy finally bounces back from the Bush recession toward anything resembling strong growth. Sure, Gov. Robert Bentley probably will tackle some administrative inefficiencies, or propose a few agency consolidations that would save money without hurting the public's health and safety. That's all well and good, and he should be commended for any productive steps he can take to make government better and smarter. But contrary to what some bloviation might lead you to believe, there's no Department of Waste that lawmakers can eliminate to solve our problems magically.

To use one of those medical metaphors of which our state's new chief executive is so fond: We're cutting well beneath the skin, getting into muscle, and will be lucky to avoid bone. If you think people are upset now about the prospects of closing farmers markets or losing federal funds for meth lab cleanups, just wait until entire agencies -- and the hundreds or thousands of jobs that go with them -- get slashed dramatically or eliminated entirely.

Things don't have to be as bad as they're going to be: Remember that a budget shortfall doesn't happen just because the government spends money. It happens because the government is set to spend more money than it collects in taxes. It's a two-sided equation, and there's more than one way to equalize it. You can cut spending, or you can bring in more revenue, or you can do some of both, which is what should happen.

I hear the "no new taxes!" screams already, but consider that even though federal taxes are at their lowest level since the Korean War, and even though national income inequality is at its greatest level since the 1920s, millionaires just got two more years of protection from a mild increase in their marginal tax rates because Republican leaders threatened to let everyone's taxes go up if they didn't. Consider that in Alabama, the effective overall tax rates for millionaires are, perversely, actually far lower than those for the poor and middle class. And consider that even though defenders of low taxes for the rich say those tax cuts will create jobs, we're still rather short on new jobs a decade after the first of the Bush tax cuts took effect.

The least Alabama could do is ask the well-to-do to pay at the same overall rate as the rest of us. Education and health care cuts would be smaller. Fewer public workers would lose their jobs. Most folks might even be able to get a tax cut in the process. Our legislators could make it happen this year if they wanted, but it probably won't happen any time soon.

Tough times will be unavoidable. Making them even tougher will be a choice.



Where theirs a budget theirs a way.

3:12 PM  

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