Thursday, July 30, 2009

Budget Savings From the Mythical "Other" Only Perpetuate the Partisan Divide

One of the most horrifying aspects of Andy Dillon's as yet unwritten plan to pool state employee heath insurance has been that it reinforces the notion that "someone else" needs to pay the bill for the government services that we all want. These employees are held up and singled out as being the answer to the problem. Just cut their benefits, make them pay more, and we can save the state, right? Even if that isn't really what is being said by Speaker Dillon, that is what the media projects, and that is what the people ultimately hear.

Never mind the details. Never mind that Dillon's plan would "take years" to produce savings. The myth being perpetrated is that if we do this right now, we don't have to make these budget cuts - and nothing could be further from the truth. Still, that is the general impression left on the public when the pundits and the press don't take the time to explain the reality of our current problem. The teachers/state employees are demonized as being greedy, and you have found your scapegoat for when the cuts do ultimately come down. Sad thing is, the legislators know this, for they have been the target of that sentiment themselves. "Just cut legislator pay!" is the frequent refrain, when it has been shown that they really cost us very little in the big picture of state expenditures.

Savings are always found somewhere else though. Those are just a couple of examples of how the "other" should be made to pay, and the concept of fairness or balance is never introduced into the equation. The race to the bottom for the "other" is cheered on from that point, and you have set up a situation where it becomes impossible to work on compromise.

And when people argue to save only certain parts of the budget? It makes the problem that much worse. One of the favorite editorial tricks is to argue for a particular piece of spending, and then leave the heavy lifting of finding the money to someone else. The GR Press is famous for this. "Don't cut spending on "x", but don't raise taxes either!" is a familiar editorial stance. The Detroit News also plays this game, and they did it again today with tourism promotion. It has been suggested that taxes on car rentals and such be raised - an immediate answer to the problem - but the News opts to point once again to the vague government "reform" that will, of course, take decades to produce.

Meanwhile, advertising is an essential part of doing business, and that includes Michigan tourism. The Senate's plan could provide longer-term funding for it, but lawmakers should look for an alternative to the House-proposed rental vehicle tax as a more immediate money source. The long-overdue government restructuring and reordering of spending priorities would help determine where and how much money is available.

In other words, it's a non-answer to the problem. They do this all the time. They demand that spending continue without a way to pay for it.

This sort of non-solution comes from every corner. Even the wonderful Phil Power indulges in it today, making the very compelling case that we need early childhood education and that funding should be protected. He's right, just as the News is right about tourism, but even he takes the easy way out at the end of his plea.

The governor is negotiating with legislative leaders from both parties to find ways to plug the budget deficit. I suspect that in the rush to address this major financial crisis, they decided to cut early childhood programs without a full understanding of their astonishingly favorable cost-benefit results and the degree of public support. That's not surprising, given how complicated all this is.

But there is still time to do the right thing, which in this case is also economically sensible and politically smart thing. Find the savings elsewhere, and restore the funding to early childhood programs.

"Find the savings elsewhere", as if it were that easy. "Elsewhere" usually comes out of someone else's very important expenditure, and the myth of the "other" is reinforced again.

Jakc Lessenberry does it today as well. We all love HAL, we all love the arts and history, we all agree that it is important to save those things. But Jack simply ignores the $2.71 billion dollar hole we are looking at as he takes the very low road of comparing apples to oranges as he reaches for the days Engler. We had the money back then, and that time could have just as easily have been characterized as "The Clinton Years", but that wouldn't serve Lessenberry's anti-Granholm bias. And then he simply punts at the end, just as the others before him.

"Where there is no vision, the people perish," the proverb says. Choosing to disregard our priceless past is about the best proof of that we can imagine. The Michigan Legislature should unite in a rare display of bipartisanship and reverse this poorly conceived idea.

Yes, they should. The Legisalture should also save tourism promotion and early childhood education. And, just as soon as the pundits stop making demands while they take a pass on the solutions, and start offering up tangible and immediate and fair ideas to our revenue problems, maybe the lawmakers will. Doubtful, but worth a shot, isn’t it?

As of now, the complaints about specific spending cuts are simply advancing the notion that the answer always lies in the "other". It's no wonder the lawmakers and the public behave the way they do, and the race to the bottom will continue as we tear each other up over the dwindling pool of revenue.