In good times, our elected leaders can walk the high wire between spending and taxes, spreading money around like gobs of peanut butter on a slice of toast. Bringing home the bacon has always been a sure ticket to re-election.
But when the economy goes sour and money is short, all kinds of special interests descend on politicians hollering, “Cut somebody else, not me!”
Who are those special interests? We all have them, whether it’s a church group lobbying for nonprofit tax exemptions, an environmental organization seeking more public funds to clean up Puget Sound, a union buttonholing politicians for collective bargaining rights or a business group asking officials to hold down taxes so employers can create jobs.
In Olympia, Gov. Chris Gregoire and Democrat lawmakers are $2.6 billion short of the money they need to pay for the programs they authorized last spring in the 2009-11 state budget. They need to cut spending, but special interests are massed inside the state capitol fighting for their sacred cows.
Some are urging that, rather than cut programs, lawmakers should raise taxes.
But lawmakers are justifiably squeamish about raising taxes. They hiked taxes back in 1993, and the following year, angry voters tossed so many Democrats out of office that Republicans took control of the House and came within one vote of capturing the Senate. The reverse happened in the 1980s when Republicans temporarily extended the sales tax to food in order to balance the budget. Even President George H.W. Bush was evicted from the White House for violating his 1988 campaign pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes!”
So lawmakers across the country are in a bind. Voters want government to spend less and not raise their taxes, but if politicians don’t bring home the bacon, they could be cast out next November.
People say they want smaller government, but they are quick to scream bloody murder if their program is targeted.
That attitude isn’t Democrat or Republican; it’s the nature of politics. For example, last year some lawmakers balked at the prospect of closing driver licensing offices in their districts even though more and more people are renewing licenses online. It was their sacred cow.
It’s like Louisiana’s late U.S. Senator Russell B. Long used to say, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that man behind the tree.” Well, that won’t work today; there are not enough trees to hide behind.
So what should the governor and lawmakers do?
First, it was clear from the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts that people want those they elect from both parties to focus on jobs. People want efficient government and they want to be heard. They don’t care who gets the credit, they want Republicans and Democrats to work together to find solutions.
Second, people want Congress to stop using their tax money for backroom deals. When Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson secured $100 million in federal money for his state in exchange for his vote on health care reform, it was the tipping point for the American people.
Third, people need to wean themselves from government funding. Realize that there is not enough tax money for the government to provide every conceivable service or program. We have to start doing things for ourselves and helping our neighbors in need.
It is possible. People are willing to step up when their backs are to the wall.
Gov. Gregoire was right to call for innovation. Government needs to find new and better ways of delivering the services people require and maybe government itself should contract some of those services to the private sector.
If our economy is to recover, voters, the private sector and government leaders must give up their sacred cows and do things differently, better and at lower costs.
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.