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Our Views: Wish lists arent free
Without a magic money source, how can leaders spend more without raising taxes?
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. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

Wanted: Magic money tree. Must produce massive quantities of legal tender to help pay for state’s most pressing needs and fulfill all campaign promises. Please deliver to state Capitol by January 2015.

If only such a thing existed. There’s nothing candidates would rather have in an election year than a pile of freshly minted Monopoly money to make all their promises, and voters’ dreams, come true.

This is nothing new in politics, of course. But in recent years as the economy has emerged from a long recession, the lack of revenue has tied the hands of elected officials and made them an easy target for those who want their jobs.

Take Georgia’s governor’s race. Incumbent Nathan Deal entered office in 2010 with businesses and financial institutions failing right and left, foreclosures mounting and jobs melting away. The result was a reduction in tax revenue that forced governments at all levels to trim services and personnel and whack their budgets to the bone.

In Georgia’s case, such austere choices are not optional. Unlike the drunken sailors in Congress, state legislators must balance the budget by constitutional law, meaning they can’t spend one red cent more than they take in or run up a debt to be paid by generations unborn.

No one wanted to slice into education funds, but there was no option once other needs were pared down. Teachers were furloughed, the school year shortened and class sizes increased to offset the loss of tax revenue. Like families who tighten their belts in lean times, the state made tough choices but came through it, and Deal and legislature were able to restore funding this year as the economy has rebounded.

Yet this history seems lost on Deal’s Democratic challenger, Jason Carter, who continues to slam the incumbent for the previous years of cuts. It’s worth noting that Carter voted for those three budgets while in the state Senate yet voted against this year’s plan that restored funding, cast after he announced his candidacy.

Could that have been motivated by politics? Nah, surely not.

Carter’s plan is to separate education funding from the general fund. This school “trust fund,” as he calls it, would be voted on separately from the rest of the state’s needs, breaking the budget into two parts: Education and everything else.

Those from across the political spectrum agree providing public schools is one of the key duties of government. But other things matter, too: Policing our streets, putting out fires, paving roads and providing health care for the poor. That’s not to say they’re more important, though if your house is burning or being robbed, you might think so. If education is worth a separate budget, you could make the same case for those priorities.

How many different pockets should the state use to shuffle around the same amount of money? And where will all that money come from when times are less flush?

Keep in mind the idea of a “trust fund” hasn’t worked so well at the federal level with Social Security; the money taken from our paychecks is spent right away, not locked away safely in a special vault for our retirement needs.

Carter’s plan to boost state coffers and pay for his initiatives include growing the economy, collecting delinquent taxes and cutting waste. All sound good, but the latter two are old hat notions that have borne little fruit in the past.

Tax scofflaws are said to account for some $2.5 to $4.4 billion in uncollected revenue. If the state could have gathered it easily, it would have. Some of it has been out there for years; those who failed to pay may be broke, have moved out of the state or country, or passed from this earthly coil. In other instances, lawsuits could tie up cases for years. At best, the state might earn a one-time cash infusion that wouldn’t sustain long-term spending increases.

And cutting the fat from government is a promise as prolific from prospective officeholders as kissed babies. Sure, there is wasteful spending, a ton of it, and freeing that money could indeed fund more vital needs. But again, if it were that easy, it would have been done long ago.

The problem is that much of that waste comes from legislators’ pet projects and special-interest pork for the folks back home. The very lawmakers who skim such goodies from the budget are the ones who get to vote on them (like Carter).

Until Georgia appoints a Czar of All Government Spending Decisions with absolute powers to override the legislature — which could be established only by military coup and abolishment of the state constitution — the plan to cut wasteful nonsense would have to be approved by the authors of wasteful nonsense. So good luck with that, Prospective Governor.

Thus, if collecting overdue taxes and eliminating waste can’t cover the tab, how will Carter pay for his ambitious education “trust fund?”

Here is where hypocrisy comes in. Politicians know promising to raise taxes is a sure recipe for defeat. A few have tried that direct approach and paid the price, but were at least honest about it. To spend more money, they have to collect more of it. Short of selling stuff on eBay, holding a yard sale or finding that magic money tree, it can only come from higher taxes.

It’s easy to be a challenger for public office. All you need do is point out the incumbent’s failings — you can’t hold office for any length of time and not have some — and convince voters you can do it better. But once the election is over, reality sets in and the bill comes due for the wish list.

There is no magic. Lower expectations and prioritize spending or start the tax meter running. Anything else is just a list of sketchy promises built on smoke and mirrors.

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