Raise your hands if you believed state lawmakers three years ago when they swore on their ancestors’ graves that the 67 percent income tax increase would be temporary.
I thought so.
Predictably, state Democratic leadership is crying poor and asking that the increase be made permanent. Spending like drunken sailors will do that to any budget, public or private.
It would be easy to write a column hurling fire and brimstone at politicians. But it wouldn’t be fair to heap all the blame on them for spending us into the poor house.
After all, they’re only following the orders the voters have been giving them for the past 50 years – tax low and spend high. A recent poll regarding the tax hike reveals that Illinois voters in fact want politicians to spend us into the poor house.
A survey of 1,000 voters in late February by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University found that 60.3 percent of people want the tax hike to start expiring Jan. 1 as promised, compared to 26.5 percent who want it permanent. No surprise.
But while respondents don’t want to pay more taxes, they also oppose cuts to education, natural resources and the state’s expansive safety net by margins of between 51 and 82 percent. While the poll found more than half of respondents want to “cut waste and inefficiency,” they opposed touching the budgets of the places that would result in any real cost savings in that regard.
Again, no surprise. As former GOP congressman turned MSNBC host Joe Scarborough put it in his latest book, voters want Lyndon Johnson’s social safety net and Ronald Reagan’s taxes.
The paradox is pervasive, from Washington to Springfield to Woodstock. And it’s bipartisan.
We’ve watched the Republican-dominated McHenry County Board jump at every penny of “federal money” to pay for or expand programs, ignoring warnings from the brave few who point out that “federal” money happens to be taxpayer money, too. We’ve watched board members scream bloody murder about the U.S. House eliminating earmarks, and criticize those who question why a county agency that distributes money to mental health agencies needs 50 employees and a headquarters the size of a small country’s parliament.
Democrats believe in big government, but at least they’re honest about it. Republicans are fellow travelers but won’t admit it – when they say they want smaller government, they want to gore everyone else’s sacred cows but leave theirs intact.
And we, the voters, are enablers.
As SIU pollster John Jackson put it, “One person’s waste and fraud is another group’s essential program.” As the great American statesman Pogo the Possum put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
With a $17.57 trillion and climbing national debt – and a $154.9 billion state debt – it’s time for voters to pick a side in this battle. There are some shades of gray here – not the book, although politics and sadomasochism are often one and the same – but your choices are as follows:
• You can be the liberal who wants to create a womb-to-tomb social welfare state. You have to accept that you’ll be taxed up the kazoo. Not just “the rich,” but you, too. You also have to accept that your upward mobility and that of your children will be practically zero.
• You can be the conservative who really means it when they talk about less government. That means when the powers that be decide to eliminate a program that you like or depend on, you let it go. You don’t call your congressman to pitch a fit.
• Or you can take the middle road – we pay more in taxes while adopting real austerity measures. This means you shut up when that austerity hits home. You don’t gripe at your politicians when they stop bringing home the pork. If your commute home is congested and the kids don’t have taxpayer-funded after-school activities, tough cookies.
The last two choices I laid out means that fiscal conservatives have to come up with a real definition of what constitutes “critical services.” The current definition of “my priorities but not yours” has become unaffordable.
So boys and girls, pick your side and do it quick. A fiscal day of reckoning is coming because we’ve wanted it both ways for far too long.
As I’ve written elsewhere, mathematics, when legitimately applied, has no political bias. And mathematics is just like physics, gravity, stupidity and all the other fundamental forces of the universe – it has a nasty habit of getting its way.
• Kevin P. Craver is senior reporter for the Northwest Herald. He has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 13 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.