The Right Debate

By GEORGE LIGHTBOURN | March 10, 2011

There could not have been a sharper contrast between the tension in Madison and the calm in Washington, D.C.  Last Tuesday evening, Governor Walker presented his two-year get plan.  With drums thumping in the Capitol rotunda, he presented a transformational vision, one aimed at changing the face of Wisconsin for generations.  “The facts are clear,” he said.  “Wisconsin is broke and it’s time to start paying our bills today – so our kids are not stuck with even bigger bills tomorrow.”  

In stark contrast, the very next day in Washington it was announced that the House and Senate had passed a joint resolution keeping the federal government operating for two more weeks.  America shrugged.  By now, the American public is desensitized to the policies and politics that encase the federal budget.  

There it was - two budgets, one for generations and one for two weeks.  One that is bold and fiscally responsible and one that was borne of political savvy and little else.  One that sparked protests and one that was met with indifference.

The talking heads in the media fixate on what budgets reveal about the politicians who present them.  Yet probably more important is what the two budgets reveal about us.  Let’s do a little self analysis beginning by examining the most recent WPRI poll.  There we learned that, when given a choice between lower taxes (accompanied by fewer services) and higher taxes (accompanied by a higher service level) the public would rather pay lower taxes.  To the surprise of no one who followed the election returns of last November, the public supports lower taxes and budget cuts.  

The public – us – wants tough, honest budgets, don’t we?  Not so fast.  When we presented a series of cuts to the state budget, the public supported only higher pension contributions from public employees. Other ideas such as laying off state workers or lowering aids to local governments or curtailing health insurance to low income single adults all were dismissed by the public.  It seems that, while the public likes the idea of budget cuts, the particulars make them queasy.

So what do they support?  Well ½ of the public says they can live with a 1% bump in the sales tax – always the most popular tax with the public – and 72% say they support increasing taxes on those making over $150,000.  Of course, we would likely get 72% support had we asked people whether they could support a tax increase if it would only fall on someone else.

The reality is that the public – we - want the easy way out.  The struggles and accomplishments of the greatest generation might be fodder for history books, but they do not seem to be a prescription for contemporary living.  Our expectations are unreasonable and we avoid challenges and sacrifice at every turn.  So yes, we do not want our children and grandchildren paying the price for our extravagance, but if we have to ….

This is the struggle confronting our leaders today; should they patch together another quick-fix budget that few beyond the walls of think tanks will understand, or should they present us with a painful dose of reality?  Year after year citizens have watched as the federal government has taken the softer, more soothing approach.  Of course, we know it is not sustainable and the federal budget will one day crash and burn, but for now, the sun comes up every day and life goes on.  For most Americans, it is unclear how a dishonest federal budget affects our lives.  

Now we have a new cadre of governors with Wisconsin’s own governor leading the way, presenting honest, painful budgets.  Unlike the federal budget, they are budgets that affect many of us directly.  They are budgets that cause thousands to take to the streets of Madison and Albany Sacramento and beyond.  They are budgets that are long overdue.

It is the right debate for America, one that we have avoided too long.  Fundamentally, it is the most difficult of all debates because it is a debate over our own values.  Much is riding on the outcome of this debate.  My children and my children’s children are hoping we choose correctly.