Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Word on Taxing, Spending, and Pretending

Well, it’s tax weekend – I say “tax weekend” instead of “tax day” because federal returns are not due until April 18th this year. I hope you are already done coping with this annual painful ritual.

For me, this is the ideal moment of the year to contemplate the degree of wisdom with which your monies are being spent at all three levels of government.

In a perfect society, citizens can and should be having those contemplations all year round. But I’m not sure that’s realistic. Taxpayers spend their time working, raising their families, and attending to other real world business. They trust their elected officials to make those decisions for them.

For most Americans, the ideal time to stop spending money is when you don’t have it anymore. Still, watching the budget crisis unfolding in Washington, I am not confident that elected officials are ever going to live by the same rules.

One thing that always irks me is the fact that I always wind up paying the feds more money than what I sent to state/local governments combined. To me, the government in Washington is a remote, distant, byzantine force – a black hole which gobbles up money and yields no commensurate result.  

The federal government is an amalgam of programs and agencies enacted over the past eight decades by presidents and congresses of both parties. Many of these programs might have seemed like wisdom when they were enacted. Now they are part of a growing bureaucratic beast whose exact necessity and function I fail to understand.

During tough budgetary times, federal representatives should use this opportunity to turn the flashlight onto spending, eliminating agencies and programs that can be sacrificed while finally taking a meaningful stab at entitlement reform.

But budget politics in Washington is more about chess meets chicken gamesmanship than solutions.

Sure, I believe that some on the GOP side, especially those associated with the Tea Party movement, would like to see federal spending reevaluated and lasting fiscal responsibility restored.

But the President and the Speaker each wants to win the headline war. At the end of this latest budgetary showdown, I believe that the federal government will look pretty much the same as it does now.

Why? I worked on Capitol Hill in 1995, when another group of gung-ho GOP freshmen thought they were going to effect sweeping change. To some extent, they did through the "Contract With America." But when it came to transforming the way Washington does business at a fundamental level, they failed. I expect the new crop of reformist freshmen will have similar experiences.

For the members of Maryland’s ruling Democratic monopoly, the idea of government spending less when it has less to spend is a similarly novel concept.

Each budget cycle begins with the operating assumption that every program is an equal priority deserving new funding, and that none should ever be sacrificed.  That’s why each new session of the Maryland General Assembly during tough budgetary times begins with doomsday rhetoric about budget cuts affecting healthcare programs, education, and other critical areas, and each ends with higher taxes and enactment of a budget larger than the one passed the previous year.

I have read the works of other political columnists and bloggers who complained about the outcome of the 2011 legislative session. I suppose I agree with them, but I find it hard to get worked up over such a predictable outcome.

The Democratic establishment which has ruled this state solidly for much of the past century is still in charge. As long as they keep winning elections, and the state GOP fails to educate voters as to why it is desirable to pare back the size and function of Maryland's 80,000-employee government, you cannot begrudge the Democrats for doing what they have always done.

As for local government, this notion of government adapting to meet challenging times is there, provided you look in the right place.  

In Anne Arundel County, John Leopold is raising property taxes.  In recent memory, another prominent Republican – Governor Bob Ehrlich – increased property taxes. This irritated Ehrlich supporters and allowed state Democrats, specifically then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, to gleefully paint the GOP governor as a tax-and-spender. Ehrlich later rolled back the increase, but the damage was done.

But in Baltimore County, Kevin Kamenetz – an establishment Democrat if ever there was one – is getting it right. His recently unveiled $2.6 billion budget contains no new taxes, eliminates 41 jobs in addition to the 140 announced in December, and grows spending by less than one percent.

While I have occasionally been critical of Kamenetz on this blog, even doing some work for his opponent Ken Holt during the last election, I am impressed by his sanguine approach to budgeting. It’s refreshing to see a government resolve to live within its means without excuses or the usual guilt-inspiring alarmist rhetoric.  Let’s hope Kamenetz’s fiscal responsibility continues, and is emulated by others across Maryland.

It’s been a long time since a conversation over the proper role of government dominated the national discourse. There is no better time for holding such a conversation than when a government’s coffers are running low. 

Let’s hope the next GOP leader – both nationally and in Maryland – embraces this educator role. Right now, people are being asked to sacrifice more for bureaucracies whose scope and purpose they don’t necessarily understand, and which seemingly have little impact on their own daily lives.

It’s time to broaden that understanding.  People deserve to know where exactly their tax dollars are going. Then can they decide whether they are being asked to sacrifice too much.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that you mention your frustration at owing the federal government more than state or local governments combined.

    Being something of a "youngin'" I can't remember a time when this was ever not the case. I have just sort of accepted that the federal government has always and will always demand more money from me.

    And not just some more. Lots more. So much more that I almost look at state and local taxes as an insignificant portion of my tax burden.

    I had never really given the issue much thought, as I know it is the federal government that pays for such things as national defense and other big-ticket items.

    But the more I actually do think about, the more the line becomes blurred. For example -- wasn't it the federal government that constructed our highways? But now it is the state's responsibility to maintain and expand them? And what about education?

    It is an interesting point to ponder. Who actually pays for what? And have the most suitable parties really been chosen to pick up each individual check?