President Obama kicked things off last February when he announced the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission. “Everything’s on the table,” he declared. “That’s how this thing’s going to work.
The fall campaign and election brought a surge of refrains — from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy of Connecticut and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to name a few.
Just last month, House Speaker John Boehner greeted Obama’s budget proposal with this promise: “Everything’s on the table, and we will put forward a budget that deals with the big challenges that face our country.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks last week offered a pep talk for state leaders facing fiscal train wrecks: “They are not only balancing budgets, they are setting precedent for a process that will last decades. By their example, they have to create habits that diverse majorities can respect and embrace. The process has to be balanced. It has to make everybody hurt.”
It’s easy to understand the trend. Who doesn’t want to come out for considering all options in a crisis? And when actions that lawmakers are about to take will hurt a lot of innocent people, who doesn’t want to appear willing to share the pain?
But what do these catchphrases really mean? At Alabama’s legislative budget hearings last month, state finance director David Perry’s mostly predictable presentation contained one surprising segment: a sampling of actions other states in similar predicaments have taken, including raising taxes. Was he signaling Gov. Robert Bentley’s willingness to put everything on the table? Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, won re-election last year despite her support for a temporary sales-tax increase to stave off education budget cuts.
The trick with pain-sharing is that it’s often more symbolic than real. The Utah Senate recently voted to double the state sales tax on food while lowering it on other purchases. Everybody eats, right? But it doesn’t take a policy nerd to see who feels the pain of grocery taxes. Bentley made a gesture at the share-the-pain approach by proposing that legislators repeal the 61 percent pay hike they gave themselves four years ago. Such a step, while appealing to taxpayers, would be worth far more in boosting legislative PR than in balancing state budgets.
It’s time to demand that leaders stand by their slogans. If they’re really putting everything on the table, they have to include revenue measures, too. We hear a lot these days about how the government is like a family in reduced circumstances that has to live within its means. When paychecks shrink or stop, do families simply tighten their belts and accept a new normal? Or do they look for other ways to bring in income? Likewise, if our leaders believe everyone should share the pain, they have to acknowledge that public-service cuts hit ordinary folks hardest, while letting the highest earners off scot-free. How can high-income people share the pain? By losing their tax breaks.
Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a Democrat, offers a bold model: His proposed budget would reduce state spending by $950 million, including up to 10 percent cuts in all but two state agencies and a 6 percent reduction in state employees. But it also includes adding a new top income-tax bracket, an income surtax, a new property tax on homes valued above $1 million and tax increases for health-care providers and corporations with foreign operations.
This balanced approach makes good on the promises to put everything on the table and ask everyone to share the pain. It responds to the present crisis while strengthening state finances for the long-term. After the recession of 2003, Alabama lawmakers used a similar approach on a smaller scale, blending tax increases with careful cuts. The stakes this time are higher.
In his State of the State speech last Tuesday, Bentley made 10 references to sacrifice and six to tough choices. The next few weeks will tell us who’s really being asked to sacrifice and how tough the choices will be.
Jim Carnes is communications director for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project.