Tag Archives: fiscal budget

If Taxes are the Solution, What’s the Problem?

by Cameron Smith

Alabama’s legislative leadership and Governor are under immense pressure in Montgomery to increase taxes to prevent cuts in state government funding. But is the real problem a lack of revenue?

The cuts themselves seem to be the most obvious source of consternation. So far, some Alabama agencies are engaging in spending reductions through attrition, not filling vacancies as current staff departs while others delay upgrades or capital purchases. In other words, state agencies seem to be doing what they can to prevent laying off employees. But, at some point, fewer employees tasked with administering the same government programs in the same manner may inevitably lead to reduction in state services or the elimination of state programs.

In many respects, these reductions create heartburn because the programs that may be eliminated are “good” programs. For example, Alabama’s Department of Human Resources will close an adult day-care program that enrolls about 380 people. The closure of the program will save taxpayers over two million dollars annually.

However, for the 380 people enrolled in the day-care program and their families, the elimination of the program means the removal of a substantial benefit. In a very real and meaningful sense, a good program is being terminated. But even if a thousand people are negatively impacted by the elimination of the program, how does their interest stack against the other 4.8 million Alabamians who would rather see those resources go in a different direction or remain in the pockets of taxpayers?

The immediate response that the adult day-care program and others like it should be preserved by increasing taxes makes two baseline assumptions worth challenging. First, it assumes that state government is as efficient at administering its programs and services as it could be. That is one bold assumption. Alabama has no statewide fleet management policy, antiquated payroll and time- keeping practices, and inadequate state-owned land and space management. And those are just a few issues on the internal administrative side of the equation before ever discussing efficiencies in delivering the actual services to the public.

The second assumption is that the majority of Alabamians actually want or need all of the programs and services the state currently provides. One common sentiment from those awestruck that Alabamians would want to reduce their own government is that most Alabamians are incapable of actually understanding what the “limited government” they are asking for actually requires.

But what if the people do understand? What if the people of Alabama actually intend to reduce the size and budgets of their government? Many Alabamians know that some services and programs currently provided by the government may need to be eliminated, but the tradeoff would be retaining lower taxes and prioritized government spending and services.

Maybe the pressure in Montgomery is coming directly from those with a direct financial interest in maintaining the current size and form of government. Most state employees, lobbyists, unions, and even the various agencies themselves stand to feel significant pain if government is reduced. While there are some easy cutbacks, such as eliminating unnecessary entities like the Interior Design Board, leaner government will eventually mean tougher choices.

Reducing the size of government will not, itself, lower the number of the poor and needy currently served by the state. Alabamians must be willing to open their hands and hearts to the poor and downtrodden in their midst in a reliable fashion if they want to cut programs serving those communities.

If Alabamians plan on reducing the size and budget of their government, revenue reductions provide the pressure necessary to force their legislators to prioritize. On the other hand, if they want higher taxes to pay for state programs and services, they had a funny way of showing it at the ballot box in 2010.

Cameron Smith is General Counsel and Policy Director for the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

Obama’s Budget: Ignoring the 500-Pound Entitlement in the Room

By Cameron Smith

When President Obama released his budget for fiscal year 2013, the political reactions were swift … and predictable. Republicans immediately branded the budget “Debt on Arrival,” Nancy Pelosi called the President’s budget “a fiscally responsible plan,” and Harry Reid dodged the budget entirely, opting instead to talk about the need for transportation spending.

While the President is touting more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction, Republicans see as little as a $300 billion difference between Obama’s proposals and the consequences for the national debt if Congress does nothing but continue current policies. Regardless of how much deficit reduction actually takes place, the President’s “best case” scenario calls for $6.7 trillion in additional debt over the next decade.

Jack Lew, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, set the tone for the President’s budget by suggesting that “[t]here’s pretty broad agreement that the time for austerity is not today.” That sounds better than telling America that President Obama has proposed the largest budget in American history at a time of record national debt.

To make matters worse, the President is relying on an overly optimistic economic output to limit his requested deficit to “just” $901 billion for fiscal year 2013. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects real gross domestic product (GDP), an inflation-adjusted measure of America’s economic output, to increase year to year by just one percent for fiscal year 2013. President Obama’s budget assumes three times that amount of growth.

Why do the President’s projections about the performance of the American economy matter? Estimates of income taxes and social insurance taxes hinge entirely on how the economy actually performs. When GDP growth is lower than projected, tax receipts are often proportionally lower, increasing the amount of the deficit.

The cavalcade of press releases, news conferences, and political punditry serve only to mask the harsh reality buried in the pages of the President’s budget. First of all, entitlements are at the heart of America’s budgetary problems. Period. Politicians address earmarks, tax increases, foreign aid, welfare programs and a host of other topics before the heaviest line item on the budget-entitlements-is ever mentioned.

In truth, the vast majority of Republican and Democrats in Washington would sooner play egg toss with a hand grenade than talk seriously about entitlement reform. And there is apparently little political advantage in doing so.

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2011, Americans have a split personality when confronted with the realities regarding entitlements. Sixty percent of respondents said maintaining current benefits under Social Security was more important than reducing the federal budget deficit. However 52 percent said Social Security needed major changes or to be completely rebuilt.

The President’s budget clearly demonstrates the impact of mandatory programs on America’s spending.

President Obama’s budget calls for $2.3 trillion in mandatory spending, which includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Add to that $851 billion in security spending which includes programs such as Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs, and $248 billion in interest payments and those items account for 117 percent of the revenues coming in to pay for all of the federal government. Even if the President raises taxes exactly as he wants, mandatory and security spending alone will automatically cause America to deficit spend.

Maintaining the status quo for mandatory spending not only has serious consequences for America’s budgets, but also leaves the programs themselves in jeopardy. The Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees Report for 2011 states clearly that, after 2036, “tax income would be sufficient to pay only about three-quarters of scheduled benefits through 2085.” The same report also notes that general fund revenues rather than Medicare payroll taxes “accounted for more than 45 percent of Medicare’s outlays” in fiscal year 2010.

The President’s budget continues the unfortunate trend of Presidential budgets that read more like a child’s Christmas list than a good faith effort for America to live within its means. Unfortunately, neither end of the political spectrum has shown leadership in dealing with America’s budgetary challenges. The President has clearly developed a budget aimed at improving his prospects with his political base, and Republicans, concerned with the reaction of senior citizens, remain conspicuously silent on ways to deal with entitlements, the most glaring economic burdens in the budget.

In this election year, political courage is in short supply on both sides of the aisle when it comes to fiscal responsibility.

Cameron Smith is General Counsel and Policy Director for the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.