Compromise for the Common
This is an article written
early in the new fiscal year for many states. However, whether
a state happens to be giant California or relatively small
Connecticut, a northern rust belt state like Michigan, Ohio or
Pennsylvania or a western state such as Arizona, there are two
increasingly common themes a huge and growing gap between
revenues and expenses and an apparent inability to resolve the
problems by other than short-term, or perhaps, shortsighted
A recent PBS report about
state financial problems featured an interview with Susan
Urahn of the Pew Center for the States. Her recitation of
tremendous financial problems was scary to say the least.
State governments had a gap in FY09 of an estimated $160
billion. The new fiscal year is barely two weeks old and
projections already reflect at a gap of at least $100 billion.
Forty-eight states have serious budget problems leaving
Montana and North Dakota residents to bask, at least this
year, in the glory of being able to qualify for a home loan or
new car financing. The HR doctor notes however, that these two
lucky states each have populations less than that of the
single county in which the HR Doctor resides.
There is widespread unrest,
outcry and fear about the program cuts being made as the
favored deficit-reduction strategy. The greatest likelihood of
cuts is in services for the most vulnerable groups in the
population. They include those caught in the social services
safety nets operated by state governments.
The slash-and-burn cut areas
also include public education, parks and recreation,
corrections and other General Fund operations. California is
now issuing IOUs complete with an autographed picture of the
governor. There are also furloughs, layoffs, wage cuts and
program cuts in the offing.
While 40 percent of the gaps
in state budgets are being closed temporarily by federal
stimulus money, that still leaves 60 percent. Sadly these
budget gaps are structural and are not going to be closed only
If not cuts alone, then
what? The clear alternative to budget cuts is greater revenue.
This means raising state taxes. More than half the states have
already implemented some kind of tax increases. There are also
fee increases. Nonetheless, the current recitation of budget
traumas facing the states is particularly serious and sad for
One is that the impacts
trickle down and pick up speed like an avalanche hurting local
government as well as state government. Cutting a social
service underpinning has no helpful impact whatsoever on the
fact that local government paramedics and police officers then
see more calls involving services to persons who are less able
to care for themselves. State government cuts hurt these
vulnerable populations. They also hurt local governments.
The second troubling area is
that none of these dilemmas cropped up overnight. Governments
have not even finished dealing with the effects of economic
problems in FY09, such as the housing crisis, the general
economic downturn, the cost of conducting two wars, failing
infrastructure and a great deal more.
There is no prediction
whatsoever that there will be an economic turnaround in the
fortunes of state and local governments in the near future. In
fact, the federal government itself is not yet able or willing
to face issues of long-term Social Security funding and is
trying to solve the mortgage crisis and other huge problems by
mortgaging our descendents resources for generations to come.
All of this spells a series of danger and warning signs
staring us in the face. These are difficult issues and there
is neither a simple nor a single solution.
There is, however, an even
greater danger than all of the ones mentioned already. It is
the opposite of the very characteristic that has led to
Americas extraordinary long-term success. The dark matter
side of this characteristic will give rise to failures and
public policy tragedies when we forget about its
It was well recognized 240
years ago by the Founding Fathers. It is again time for a
rebirth of this prime national directive. It is time to go
home again, in this authors opinion, to that fundamental
principal of our success as a nation the overriding urgency
of compromise for the common good.
Underlying the financial
chaos appearing in a legislature near you, is our apparent inability to
appreciate the basic and compelling urgency of compromise for
the common good. In a world of partisan rancor, of litmus
tests of loyalty to a party or to a philosophy, of my way or
the highway words and actions, and of media mavens eagerly
waiting to pounce on those who appear to head towards the
middle, a systemic failure is in the offing unless we act.
Several governors, including
those of California and North Carolina, tell us that they will
veto any bill that has a tax increase in it. What they appear
not to appreciate is that they will really be vetoing a core
value in our nations creation.
If there is to be a litmus
test in government, it needs to be the test of compromise for
the common good. It should not be a test that says there will
be no tax increases no matter what the net effect is, no
matter how deep vital programs are cut, and no matter how
temporary the Band-Aid is that is being applied to a long
The HR Doctor served in
California local government for many years, including years as
a county chief administrative officer following the passage of
the premier anti-tax measure, Proposition 13. I know what it
is like to witness the development of an inability for people
to see a common purpose and a common value. That was more than
20 year ago. That pandemic of unwillingness to compromise has
only spread since then. It is more dangerous to our national
health than any H1N1 virus outbreak, and it stands to harm
many more people.
It is time to launch a
nationwide rebirth program to bring back the Revolutionary
War-era concept of Committee of Correspondence or other
private and public dialogues, perhaps patterned after town
meetings such as the Iowa caucuses.
An extraordinary former
local elected official in Florida, John Hart, has suggested
the creation of a Dialogues for Democracy program. Imagine
millions of people meeting in small groups to discuss and
debate how to restore primacy for the concept of the common
good. Imagine this effort propelled
into the era of Internet instant sharing. How great it would
be for the media to be fully supportive of these concepts
instead of watching for the occasional sound bite in a
There are frustrated calls
in California for a new Constitutional Convention to try and
mend a fundamentally broken, dysfunctional system. The HR
Doctor submits that the decay of my formerly amazing
California government, or for that matter Michigans,
Floridas or any other states, except apparently and
temporarily, Montanas and North Dakotas, also requires a
similar aggressive rethinking and introspection.
Local governments and state
governments will not be able to rely on federal bailouts and
stimuli for anything other than a temporary, inadequate fix,
not unlike the fix of a drug addict. The time may well come
when the federal government will have to rely on bailouts from
its citizens even more than ever before. Im thinking of
organizing a bake sale to support increasing budgets for the
IRS. Wont you join me with a donation?
It is time for a rebirth of
optimism. It can only happen with the same kind of commitment
to individual engagement, a reduction in hype and
sensationalism, and a return to thoughtful, constructive, and
yes polite debate.