Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has embarked on a drastic plan to slash spending in anticipation of a revenue shortfall of $2 billion during the next two years. His cuts will affect every citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, yet he and state legislators refuse to consider any proposal to raise taxes, no matter how equitably or broadly the burden is spread. A number of state senators were quoted recently as saying that they couldn't consider raising taxes either in a year in which the entire legislature is up for reelection.
How have we reached this point? Beginning in 1981 the federal government embarked upon a course that cut federal income taxes by 25 percent while enacting cuts in so-called discretionary spending. Among the programs hardest hit were those providing direct or indirect assistance to states and municipalities, such as highway funding, block grants and aid to education.
At about that same time, the economy began its longest period of growth since World War II. With rising populations, employment, property values and income, local governments didn't need to raise tax rates to finance services the federal government had ceased to fund or provide. Taxpayers experienced no pain.
Now, though, the economy has cooled, and we have begun to feel the burden the federal government has left us as local taxpayers. Many of us are wondering why Uncle Sam could give us more government services with fewer tax dollars, while our state and counties can't.
The answer is twofold. First, the U.S. government fueled the 1980s economic boom by piling up an unprecedented debt. It could get away with this, because it is not required to match its income to its expenses each year. However, both Virginia and Fairfax County must balance their books every year, paying for goods and services as they go.
Second, the federal government fostered the illusion of more services for less taxes by shifting some of its burdens to state and local governments, which they could handle as long as population and income continued to grow. These days, though, if the state and local governments don't build roads, provide police and fire protection and educate our children, the federal government won't either. If we don't pay taxes to buy these goods and services, we shouldn't be surprised when our commonwealth and county do not provide them or when they are inadequate.
We might take two approaches to dealing with this problem, one psychological, the other tangible. Psychologically, we must realize that we have to accept financial responsibility for what we demand from our governments. In some circles it has become fashionable to suggest that governments make unidentified cuts in spending. One recent letter writer to The Post applauded the defeat of the two Virginia constitutional amendments (which would have authorized pledge bonds without voter approval), arguing in the same sentence that Northern Virginia needs more roads and yet that taxes should not be raised nor bonds issued to pay for them.
We cannot have it both ways. We can't insist that government cut spending, then complain when Fairfax tells the commonwealth it cannot fund further development of the Fairfax County Parkway or when the county board of education faces the loss of $30 million in state revenue. The laws of arithmetic are immutable. Once we accept that, we can begin to approach the second, tangible solution.
President Reagan used to say that we don't have problems because Americans pay too little in taxes, but because government spends too much. That theory neglects the fact that much of what governments (especially local governments) spend they spend on us -- on giving us police and fire protection, roads and schools, a court system, as well as some measure of general welfare that comes from helping the homeless, the hungry and the unemployed. Without those taxes, only the wealthy could buy these expensive services. This is why we have government -- to "promote the general welfare" and "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
Taxpayers thus face two choices, neither pleasant:
We can insist that local governments function on the same revenues they have received in the past and accept larger classrooms, longer commutes, less qualified and compensated teachers, fewer police officers and increasing user fees for services such as special school-supply fees and toll roads.
Or we can decide to pay for those services through higher taxes and more long-term debt for capital expenditures. For this, all of us, not just the wealthy, would receive those services we have come to expect from our governments.
Local politicians who blindly cut spending and refuse to consider raising taxes are making this choice for us. They are so afraid that we will not reelect them that they refuse even to frame the issue in an intelligent and simple way: pay the same or less taxes and get less services; pay more taxes and get the same or more services. Politicians should provide the leadership for which we elected them. That would enhance the level of this debate and allow us to make intelligent choices.
-- Stuart D. Gibson