Friday, December 21, 2012
Turning away from the “cliff,” looking to the horizon

There has been much talk that we are speeding toward a federal fiscal cliff, our nation’s budget driven by Thelma and Louise, our politics inspired by James Dean’s famous cinematic game of automobile chicken.

Meanwhile, at the state level, we are required to balance our budget every year, which means that when revenues don’t meet projections, painful cuts must be made – we cannot run a deficit. That’s exactly what happened two weeks ago, when Governor Patrick pared roughly $250 million out of the budget approved just a few months back, with fears for another $250-million cut if tax shortfalls continue. Everything from special education to hospital reimbursements to local aid is on the chopping block.

For me, both our state and federal “cliffs,” real or contrived, rise from the same fundamental ground: The disconnect between how we raise taxes and where prosperity in our communities has concentrated over the past 30 years. A vision for the future, goals that unite us for a greater common good, will allow us all to agree that funding government is necessary, vital -- and needs to be done fairly.

On the federal side, President Obama was clear during the campaign, and is holding to his position as the conflict continues. He believes that those earning more than $250,000 a year should pay a little more, that middle class families should not see any hikes, and that across-the-board cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits should not be part of our solution for balancing the budget.

Here’s hoping that those basic principles win out in the negotiations, as they did at the ballot box.

At the state level, I wish I could say that Massachusetts has defied national trends as far as a top-heavy economy goes, but the facts say otherwise: Of all states, Massachusetts has one of the largest income disparities between the wealthiest few and the many we count as friends, neighbors, colleagues, and co-workers.

Yet to date there has not been a willingness at the State House to reform our tax code to acknowledge this truth. And so we reach our own mini-version of a fiscal cliff. The conversation and decisions become all about how to cut, who to hurt, and where to renege on past promises, rather than looking at who has benefited most, how they should support our important priorities, and what contributions and sacrifices all of us should make in realizing a vision that will benefit us all.

The state doesn’t have many of the tools available to the federal government when it comes to revenue. Our state constitution prohibits us from creating a graduated income tax, for example – I believe we should change that, and voted in favor of holding a constitutional convention to do so. And most of us understand that the main source of revenue for our towns, property taxes, is far from the fairest way to support our communities because it does not make the best, direct connection between the capacity to pay and taxes owed.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Smart strategies to invest in our communities exist. False choices and dire dramas at the edge of a precipice can be avoided. Austerity is important, and clearly a goal, but it is not a vision for our future. It does not ensure fairness or progress. And it doesn’t inspire us to do more together, to rise to a higher place.

So as we peer over this so-called “cliff,” my hope for the next State House session is that we can take a big step back, turn around, and look to the horizon: Build consensus on a vision that includes putting people to work rebuilding our infrastructure, funding public education, improving public transportation, and supporting people in need.

Once we do that, we can ask everyone to contribute to those goals by raising revenue honestly, without holding working people, poor people, or the elderly as hostages at the edge of a “cliff” of our own making. We just need to acknowledge how much the economic structure of our country has changed, and adjust our tax policies to reflect that.