Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is This the Plan to Save the Day?

By Dana Beasley Brown

As a mother, I’m fed up with the questionable choices made by the leaders who are entrusted to serve and protect their citizens. As a resident of Kentucky, I need to know that our leadership is willing to invest in the life that my son will have here. I need to know that when he’s old enough to go to school, he’ll have every opportunity to learn and succeed as well as his friends in Maryland and his cousins in California.

And I need to know that the air he breathes and the water he drinks is just as safe here as it is anyplace else and that he will experience a community in which people are treated fairly and justly.

Three little pieces of news led me to believe that perhaps a change had come to the Commonwealth and that we were on our way to a Kentucky I could be proud of. First, our elected officials started echoing Rep. Jim Wayne’s call for a comprehensive tax overhaul. Second, some House Republicans proposed a plan to expand the sales tax to a few of our untaxed services. Third, after years of watching our children’s class sizes swell, our teachers' pay fail to keep up, our justice system and health services leave more and more people behind, and our colleges become unaffordable, even Senate President David Williams admitted that we need new revenue.

These three little pieces have allowed me to think that a positive change would come to our state. Like many Kentuckians, I was hopeful about the likelihood of real reforms.

Unfortunately, however, the closed doors that hid away the negotiations among House, Senate, and executive leadership also prevented them from hearing the call for change coming from across the state. So instead, we get a plan to raise the cigarette tax by 30 cents, a retail sales tax on alcohol, and deep budget cuts.

That’s the plan that’s supposed to save the day?

The legislature has a short memory. As easy as it is to blame the severity of Kentucky’s budget needs on the economic crisis, it isn’t accurate to do so. We had known about the revenue shortfall last year, but the legislature didn’t do anything about it except to make another round of budget cuts, some deeper than the three rounds of cuts before that.

And although Gov. Beshear acted surprised to learn of that shortfall, the legislators knew better. The legislature-commissioned Fox Report confirmed back in 2001 that Kentucky’s tax system was out of date and could not sustain a basic level of services. Years of bad choices have left us with chronically underfunded programs, unaffordable higher education, abandoned school programs, and unenforced environmental laws.

The legislature, once again, has made a big mistake. We now have a tax structure that asks the lowest income-earners to contribute about 10 percent of their income to state and local taxes, and asks the wealthiest to contribute not even 6 percent.

It's the low- and middle-income earners -- not our state's wealthiest, with incomes above $300,000--who are being hurt the most by our economic recession. Balancing our budget on their backs has never been fair, and now it seems especially unwise. Why aren't we moving toward solutions that make our tax structure more balanced and, therefore, more sound?

Instead of adding some patchwork taxes that, in their weakness, will do very little for the public good, our elected officials could have moved us closer to a tax structure that reflects our values of fairness and cooperation.

Where’s the real revenue reform that the Commonwealth so badly needs? Our taxes fit into the old trend. They are relics of a time when people bought into the falsity of small government connoting efficient government. Continuing to move in this direction will dig us deeper into the situation we are in right now, suffering from unemployment, extractive industries, and facilitating policies that don’t work.

We all want our state to be efficient. But we won’t make it efficient by continuing the practices that make it ineffective. Our state government can only be efficient if it is able to do the work that we have charged it to do—help us protect and educate ourselves so that we can all realize our potential to succeed. Efficiency takes some investment. Our leaders can choose to support these investments, or they can choose--as they have--to only do what makes our budget legal.

I want our leaders to make better choices. I want them to invest in a better Kentucky.
Beasley Brown lives in Bowling Green with her husband and 1-year old son. She is member of the Economic Justice Committee of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/09

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