Commonwealth Journal

Columns

November 15, 2013

Better watch what gets squeezed

Frankfort, Ky. — Everyone in Frankfort’s echo chamber is focused on problems with the Affordable Health Care Act or next year’s Senate race. But in just eight weeks, lawmakers convene to craft a new, two-year budget.

It’s their most important job and certainly their toughest.

Public schools and universities are crying for more funding. Both have suffered through years of funding cuts and say it’s past time to reverse those cuts and invest in the one area every lawmaker claims is his top priority.

But it’s not. They won’t say so but their top priority — for some, their only priority — is to get themselves and their party re-elected. Then maybe they can look at what they need to do for the people who send them here and pay the bills.

They know the state budget is seriously underfunded. But they have no appetite for new taxes or closing wasteful tax loopholes. Some will argue expanded gambling is the solution; others will say we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.

A very few will speak the truth: a decade of budget cuts are having a significant negative impact on real lives and our tax structure is inequitable, inadequate and outdated. Their colleagues will agree but say now is not the time. Some will say it’s time to “prioritize,” by which they really mean across-the-board cuts and no new taxes.

We’ve cut $1.6 billion out of the budget while demanding schools and universities do more with less. We can’t afford new taxes but we complain about no money for textbooks and rising tuition rates. The administration says we can’t afford child care assistance for poor working mothers, many of whom will now have to go on welfare and stop paying income taxes, costing the state twice. We don’t have money for kinship care which allows abused or neglected children removed from their homes to be placed with relatives. Those children will go into foster care instead which costs the state far more money. We don’t have money for a Department of Public Advocacy social worker program despite clear evidence it actually saves the state money.

Meanwhile we leave on the table more money than our budget gap in sales tax exemptions alone. (We can’t solve the problem entirely by eliminating all of those because the biggest one is for food and medicine.)

Some say there are savings enough in the present budget to pay for what is needed in education. They might be right. But try finding a majority of 138 who agree on the same ones. And some who say we simply don’t have money to take care of our children always seem to find plenty for corporate welfare. They call that “an investment in our people” but, in the end, who really profits from the dividends?

In 2003 the state faced a 5 percent budget shortfall. Then Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rebecca Jackson, said to me: “Ronnie, you know both of us can find 5 percent savings in that budget in 15 minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I agreed, “but we’ll never find 138 people who agree on the same 5 percent.”

As George Harrison sang, “It all comes down to what you value.” In Frankfort they value re-election more than the education and welfare of your children.

They’ll say that’s not true. They’ll say we have no choice and must tighten our belts. But it will be your and your children’s belts that will get squeezed still more tightly.

So listen to what they say. But watch what they do. Then remember both next time they ask for your vote.

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