Thursday, March 31, 2011

Not broke, but broken

My first visit to the State Archives still sticks with me. Decades ago, my parents took a much younger (and even nerdier) version of me to Montgomery for a weekend trip to visit some places they thought I should see. On the agenda were all of the historical sites you'd expect: the State Capitol, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the First White House of the Confederacy. It made for a fun day, but nothing in particular stood out to me at the time.

Then came the State Archives. I hadn't even known it existed, but I was enraptured almost immediately. Here was the entirety of the Alabama experience all in one convenient location, a building where you could track my state's history from its Native American heritage to the dark days of slavery to the riveting journey of the civil rights movement. Here were important documents from two centuries of governance and heartfelt letters from homesick soldiers and quirky paraphernalia from political campaigns that had been nothing more than a few lines in a book until they came to life before my eyes. Here was Alabama, a complicated place with many embarrassing flaws but also many inspiring successes. Here, in short, was who we are.

I fell in love with Alabama for good that day, and it breaks my heart to know that children today may not have a chance at the same experience. Were a child to take a weekend trip to the State Archives today, he wouldn't be in for an afternoon of wide-eyed discovery about his home state. Instead, he likely would be greeted by a "Closed" sign.

Year after year of state budget cuts have forced the State Archives to shut down on weekends, when families are likeliest to have time to visit. (To the staff's enormous credit, they've managed to keep the building open on one Saturday each month.) Less money has forced the agency to stop digital scanning of old documents and pictures and to stop efforts to preserve more old newspapers on microfilm. The department also has had to scale back on new acquisitions and, most disturbing of all, on security for the existing collections. Further cuts could force layoffs of the next generation of people working to preserve our state's history.

As I said last month, budget cuts aren't abstract. They have real consequences for real lives and real services that we as a society have deemed to be valuable. In Alabama, we're looking at court layoffs that could force lengthy trial delays and unfilled teacher vacancies that could force larger class sizes. We're looking at a diminished capacity to fight raging forest fires. We're looking at fewer community support services for the elderly and the intellectually disabled. We're looking at more infrequent restaurant inspections. And those are just a few items from the rattle list of impending bad news.

We're well beyond waste, fraud, and abuse. We're well beyond cutting the fat. We're to the point of cutting deeply into public health and safety, into our children's educational futures, into the very reasons we have a government in the first place, into the preservation of the memories of who we are and where we've been as a people. We're better than this, and we deserve better.

Many conservatives, both in Alabama and nationally, have said loudly and often in recent months that we're broke, that we don't have any more money available, that we just have to slash and burn and hope for the best. It's a mantra that overlooks one very important fact about budgets: They have two sides. There's both a spending side and a revenue side, and to declare one side completely off limits amid a deep downturn is short-sightedness of the highest order.

The fact is that federal taxes are at their lowest level since the Eisenhower administration. The fact is that the rich have a greater share of the nation's wealth than at any point since the run-up to the Great Depression. The fact is that Alabama's tax system pays for artificially low rates for the rich with artificially high rates for the poor and middle class. The fact is that the rich have the money to help limit the size of cuts to schools and public health and other important things that make life better for everyone. And the fact is that it's not impossible to ask the rich to share in the sacrifices the rest of us are making by paying slightly higher taxes. Gov. Robert Bentley made some reassuring noises in that direction this week. It would be nice to hear even more.

That many of our state and national leaders have chosen lately to protect lower taxes for the rich instead of continuing to pay for important services doesn't mean that we're broke. It means we've allowed our system of public priorities to become broken. It means we need to reconsider the bizarre idea that the only people who should be immune from financial pain in tough times are the people who felt the tough times the least in the first place. And it means we need to remember that despite all the turmoil and strife, we as Americans and Alabamians are good people who aren't afraid to do the hard work needed to build a brighter future.

I learned that lesson one weekend decades ago. I hope we allow this generation to learn it, too.



If its not broke do not fix it.

3:11 PM  

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