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Our Views: No new taxes ... ever?

Anti-tax stance in Hall, DC can be too rigid when real public needs are at risk

POSTED: July 17, 2011 1:00 a.m.

"Read my lips ... no new taxes!"

George H.W. Bush uttered that phrase at the Republican convention that nominated him for president in 1988, and it became his battle cry in that fall's election.

But two years later as president, Bush faced the harsh reality of a rising budget deficit that required him to vacate pledge and agree to raise taxes. For that transgression, many conservatives all but abandoned him, and he lost his bid for re-election.

Since then, few candidates for president have been willing to make such a vow unless they were willing to keep it. And with the tea party ideals gaining influence in the GOP, the notion of raising taxes for any reason will not pass the lips of any candidates next year.

Are they right? Are we taxed too much? Or are some tax hikes needed to keep governments solvent? It depends on how you view the role of government.

We now see the same kind of showdown taking place in Washington that we saw in Hall County during this summer's budget battle.

Here in Hall, the first 2012 budget proposal would have led to austere cuts, cutting jobs, libraries and parks, to plug an $11.5 million gap. Chairman Tom Oliver countered with a plan that would have raised taxes 1.41 mills to ease some of the pain. The other commissioners resisted.

As a result, the final budget included no tax increases but cut 79 jobs and trimmed spending for parks, libraries, and programs such as Meals on Wheels and Red Rabbit buses. Included is a privatization plan for recreation services that still has to be worked out.

Oliver felt a small tax increase would have preserved Hall's "quality of life" to continue to lure businesses and new jobs to the area. Others opined that county leaders had squandered too much of their tax dollars and were not inclined to give them more.

Yet what was lost may have been more than what was gained. Some public needs simply can't be privatized or put on a user-fee basis, such as road repairs and emergency services. Nor is it a good idea for governments to forge ahead without contingency funds set aside for unseen emergencies.

Where does this notion lead? Parks surrounded by fences, with a ticket booth out front manned by paid employees? And would we no pay a few pennies each a day to see that lonely seniors and shut-ins can receive a meal and a bit of companionship from volunteers?

Other Georgia counties have bitten the bullet and raised millage rates to balance their ledgers. Hall commissioners' unwillingness to do so may be more costly in the long run. Time will tell.

Different in scope is the fight we see in the nation's capital. President Barack Obama and the Democrats want to slice into the massive and growing federal deficit with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Yet most Republicans refuse to countenance any tax hikes, and refuse to agree on raising the nation's debt ceiling until spending cuts are made to offset it.

Who is right? Is our budget deficit a spending problem or a revenue problem?

The federal government's wastefulness is indeed legendary. For decades, Congress spent money like a teenager wielding a credit card at the mall, running up huge bills for feel-good social programs that accomplished little. That orgy of excess led Bush to make his ill-fated promise, and brought the GOP to majorities in the '80s and '90s.

But the biggest culprit in our federal debt is not discretionary spending that Congress controls. Some some 40 percent of the federal budget goes to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. And as more baby boomers retire and fewer workers pay into the system, that gap will grow. Yet neither party seems willing to touch this "third rail" and risk alienating seniors who vote in huge numbers.

If taxes should go up, then whose? Obama and his party want to "tax the rich," make those who earn more pay more. Republicans counter that doing so will eliminate jobs, since "the rich" include those who control businesses and do the hiring. Yet the middle class still is straining under the weight of a recession and can't be asked to pay more.

As always, there is middle ground. A small tax increase in Hall County could have saved jobs held by local taxpayers and some key services. And a carefully targeted hike at the federal level, one that doesn't hurt job creation or the middle class nor give Congress bags of money to blow, could put a dent in our deficit.

Americans endured tax hikes during World War II, knowing they were needed to fight the enemies of freedom. Yet our taxes did not go up in the last decade as we fought an expensive war against Islamic terrorism in two Middle East nations.

Will we never again be unwilling to sacrifice another dollar from our own pockets even when we know it is needed for a greater cause?

Even most conservatives agree that a certain level of government services are to be expected. Only extremists believe in big government or no government. Somewhere in between lies smart government, public services we need but not money wasted that we can better spend ourselves. That ideal should consider tax increases a last resort, but still an option when other means are exhausted.

Like Bush in 1988, any candidate for office can blindly follow the party line and promise to "never" raise taxes, with no idea what hardships or challenges lie ahead. It's an irresponsible stance that Bush regretted, and is not true leadership.

At some point, our leaders need to "read our lips" and know that hard-line ideology and catch phrases don't lead to the smart, responsive governments we deserve.



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