Thursday, February 25, 2010

Keeping the Pressure on for Change

By K.A. Owens

It would be easy to throw up our hands in frustration at the failure of the Kentucky legislature to settle our tax and budget issues. Easy, but wrong.

Change is so desperately needed around tax and budget issues that it is completely rational for us to put forth a mighty effort to create a revenue stream to make our state function properly. The benefits from all of us working together to make the needed changes are so great that we can’t take the easy route of giving in to frustration. We must keep the pressure on for positive change in Kentucky.

Here’s one reason why. Kentucky bridges are supposed to be inspected every two years. It should go without saying, but bridge inspections are necessary to prevent the kind of travesty that happened in Minnesota in 2007. A recent state auditor’s report, though, said of 40 bridge inspection reports, 19 bridges went longer than two years without the required inspection. Why? Because the Transportation Cabinet hasn’t been able to hire the staff it needs because of budget cuts.

Uninspected bridges are just one way that our elected leaders are failing us. Our schools have had the same textbooks for four years, and our class sizes continue to swell. Public mental health services haven’t had a funding increase in 14 years. Imagine trying to run a business with the same income you had in 1996. It doesn’t work. For the first time in its history, Bridgehaven Mental Health Services is forced to turn away patients who don’t have the ability to pay for treatment. And we wonder what to do about our growing population of homeless people -- making sure that our mentally ill have access to treatment would be a good place to start. And like the bridges, about 20 percent of the surface mines that were due for inspection last year were not inspected, again, because legislators decided not to fund this public safety program.

We now face a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall that promises to make matters even worse. Legislators made the conscious choice to get us into this mess. They were told in 2001—in a report that they commissioned for themselves—that Kentucky had a gaping structural deficit. They were told that at the end of the decade, they’d have a $1 billion shortfall. Throw the global recession into the mix, and the forecast was startlingly accurate.

We do have options to avoid disaster. Kentucky is considering a set of tax reforms that can move us forward by modernizing our tax structure to make it fairer so we can raise the public dollars that we need. Economists’ confidence in moderate tax increases on those currently not paying their share to stave off program cuts has been well documented. Middle class families would pay about the same taxes, but they’d start to see the results of more adequately funded state government such as reasonable tuition, class sizes that don’t swell every year, after-school programs that help little ones overcome their challenges and a local Meals on Wheels program with no waiting list.

Now is not the time to throw up our hands. Now is the time to keep the pressure on for positive change in Kentucky. It’s not always easy to reduce a vision for a better Kentucky to specific pieces of legislation, but we are now starting to see a set of solutions that takes steps in that direction—steps that might allow Kentuckians to realize, once again, the value of state government.
Owens is chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/10