State must look at both sides of the ledger
The most important thing about the Nov. 2 elections is that they’re over. The close of campaign season means the politicking should stop and the real work of governing begin. We voters might think our job is done, but in fact it is only beginning.It’s time to remind ourselves why we voted, why we have a nation, a state, a county, city or town. We come together as a people to provide for ourselves the things we need that individuals and families can’t provide on their own. We decide to build together the foundations of a strong economy – roads and bridges, schools and colleges, hospitals and clinics, police and fire departments, laws and courts. The generations before us built the foundations of our state. We support them, and they support us.Our state budget is the agreement we reach about what is most important to our state and how we pay for it. The next budget gap is likely to be huge. Exactly how huge matters less than what we’re going to do about it.Hard times mean revenues fall as needs rise. Yet even in good times, our state budget has a built-in gap, because the revenue system, by design, doesn’t raise enough to keep up with rising costs.Of course it’s easy to say, “Cut spending.” Who doesn’t agree that we should only spend what’s necessary, and no more? Who doesn’t advocate efficiency? But needs don’t go away when you don’t meet them – they usually just end up costing more.Take the example of mental illness. Treatment costs money, true. Closing hospital beds saves money, true. But we are paying far more than that, right now, to house sick people in jail. The Department of Corrections is one of the biggest cost drivers in the budget. We are spending the cost of treatment, several times over, to not provide the treatment.Our budget is full of such examples. We need smart spending adjustments, not cuts that cost more than they save.Just as important, we need to acknowledge that cutting or adjusting spending alone is unlikely to bridge the budget gap we face, not if we’re really responsible about keeping the foundations of our economy strong.We need to give our outdated revenue structure the same kind of attention we give the spending side of the ledger. There are efficient and inefficient ways to raise money, just as there are to spend it.In our current revenue system, people who make an average of $14,000 a year pay an average tax rate of 8.3 percent. Those who make an average of $52,000 a year pay an average rate of 6.9 percent. People who make an average of $1.65 million a year pay an average tax rate of 2 percent. Our current fund-raising strategy in New Hampshire asks those with the least to spare to pay the biggest share. It is our job as voters to hold our elected officials accountable for tax reform that will raise enough to fund our state’s needs, with everybody paying their share.Hard times mean hard choices: cut spending, raise revenues, or both. The one thing we cannot afford is to allow our state to wait until midnight, June 30, 2011 – when the next budget must be balanced – to make its most important decisions. It’s up to all of us make sure that everyone we elected to represent us makes the smart, responsible decisions we need for the enduring best interests of our state.Cathy Silber is executive director of the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition.