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July 13, 2009
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Compromise for the Common Good

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 Band-Aids.

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 with cuts.

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 several reasons.

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 America’s 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 importance.

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 author’s 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 nation’s 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 chronic illness.

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 debate.

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 Michigan’s, Florida’s or any other state’s, except apparently and temporarily, Montana’s and North Dakota’s, 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. I’m thinking of organizing a bake sale to support increasing budgets for the IRS. Won’t 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.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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