There’s too much talk about taxes. Our conversations about government all seem to revolve around whether the tax rate is high or low, or who should pay more or less. We need to talk more about what we want government to do.
Do we want good schools? Education is not cheap. Teachers and administrators are highly trained professionals who should be well paid. Textbooks and science labs must be constantly renewed. If we want schools to create well-informed citizens who are ready to enter the highly technological world of commerce, we need to make constant investments in our schools. As we have talked more about taxes, the American public education system, elementary, secondary, and university, has suffered. Put “cutting teachers” into a web search and you’ll see hundreds of articles about school districts across the country eliminating teachers and increasing class size. Public universities have raised their tuition in response to large cuts in state funding. The promise of an affordable college education for everyone is fading.
Do we want safe roads and bridges? If we don’t want more tragedies like the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, we must invest billions in our aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our public infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimates that $3.6 trillion are needed over the next six years.
In Illinois alone, there are over 4000 bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Do we want a national park system open to all that welcomes us when we want to experience nature? As our population keeps growing and becoming more mobile, more resources will be needed to maintain the public treasures we have set aside forever. The maintenance backlog in our national parks has grown from $8 billion to more than $11 billion over the past five years. Parks are open for shorter periods, visitor centers and campgrounds have been closed, and educational programs have been cut.
Do we want to be competitive in science and business? Although those who only want to talk about taxes pretend it isn’t true, our government’s investments in science are the foundation of our economic success, from cell phones to computers to logistics. Every “self-made man” depended on a host of publicly funded programs to create their success. If we want the US to continue to be a leader in innovation, and thus to provide good jobs for Americans, we need to publicly fund communications and transportation networks, laboratory research, and, most of all, education.
Do we want to help the less fortunate among us? What kinds of outcomes do we wish for tornado and flood victims, abandoned children, the blind, the sick and the poor? It might be amusing to hear the tax-cutters scream for government aid when their districts are hit with devastating storms, except that their constituents, and all the rest of us, are hurt by insufficient funding for federal and state emergency relief services. And what about the poor? Are they to blame for their own plight? Are we better off when we keep a few more dollars in our own pockets while our neighbors go hungry?
These are the questions we should be discussing. Only if we know what we really want as a nation, can we decide how much to spend and where to get the money.
We can’t make good decisions if we simply say “no new taxes”. That’s backwards, deciding on the bottom line before we even know what we want to achieve as a state or nation.
Here in our local District 117, we are having the right conversations, under the banner of “Vision 117”. Citizens and decision-makers have been talking about what kind of schools we want. Funding is an important issue, but not the driving force behind every decision. The community has reached consensus around a plan that is not the cheapest, but rather best represents our collective educational vision.
The tax cutters don’t want to ask these questions and don’t want to hear our answers. When the heads of state agencies told our state legislators what it would mean for their departments if the state income tax rate was cut, the tax cutters dismissed their testimony as invalid. Those people who are screaming about what a disaster it will be if our income tax in Illinois stays at 5%, never talk about the Republican states with higher income tax rates: Idaho (7.8%), Nebraska (6.8%), Kansas (6.45%) Wisconsin (7.75%), and Iowa (8.98%).
We don’t have to make these investments. We could let our schools, our roads, our parks, and our society deteriorate. We could watch the wealthiest Americans wall themselves off in gated compounds with every imaginable service, while our public services disappear. We could believe the tax fanatics who don’t value anything labeled “public”.
Some people only care about how many dollars they can keep in their own pockets. That’s fine for them. But putting our public welfare in their hands would be foolish.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 20, 2014