Facing yawning deficits, many years of tough sacrifice and reckoning lie ahead of us, writes Neal Peirce. But to use that as an excuse to eviscerate government functions left and right, or push down taxes just when government needs them to remain solvent, represents a strange kind of patriotism.
Where will anti-government sentiment — call it “libertarian,” “tax revolt” or “tea party” — take America’s cities and towns?
For a top example, Governing magazine’s current edition features the draconian measures under way in Colorado Springs, Colo. Responding to anti-tax sentiment that was thriving well before the current recession, the city laid off more than 550 city workers, let street medians go to weeds, closed all its swimming pools and turned off a third of its streetlights.
Beyond all that, Colorado Springs has cut bus service by 100,000 hours, with zero evening or weekend trips — a move that literally strands transit-dependent residents.
Colorado Springs is clearly an extreme. Known for its right-wing politics, it was an early adopter of tax-limitation legislation and has amazingly low property taxes — about $55 per person per year. It relies heavily on sales taxes, also down in the recession. Last November, citizens refused in a referendum to raise property levies to meet rising needs.
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So is all of this bad? If people don’t want to pay higher taxes, why not cut services? On a quick inspection, Governing correspondent Zach Patton reports, the town doesn’t look that seedy. And he quotes City Council member Sean Paige, a self-described libertarian: “There’s a crybaby contention in town that says we need to raise taxes.”
Council colleague Jan Martin offers a contrarian view: “Right now, in this crisis, we’ve sort of lost the sense of the common good. There’s a real sense of, ‘I’ll take care of mine. You take care of yours.’ ” Down the road, she suggests, Colorado Springs may be “creating a city of haves and have-nots.”
That’s precisely the problem, suggests James Brooks, program director for community development at the National League of Cities: The idea of cities offering nothing more than “vending-machine government,” he notes, “doesn’t work if you care about social equity. When everything’s based on a specific fee for service, where’s the public good? Absent government, there is no commitment to civil society, no mutuality of interests and no shared responsibility.” Clearly, there’s common interest in holding down excessive costs in government services, pursuing the often elusive trail of “crime, waste and abuse.” And when so many people lack jobs at all, it’s surely a time to hold government salaries in check.
But isn’t there a strong shared public interest, as Brooks suggests, when “an ambulance arrives five minutes after dialing 911, water flows from kitchen sinks, library books are available, and the homeless are not abandoned to the elements in the dead of winter?”
Today one in seven American families lives in poverty, more in need of a hand from government than ever. Call them dispensable? Remember, many of them perform among the most physically demanding jobs society has, or send their sons and daughters to join the military and oftentimes risk their lives for the rest of us.
And to all the tea party types who pontificate about a need to return to the letter of the original U.S. Constitution, please note that its Preamble refers to the “people of the United States” including a specifically named purpose to “promote the general welfare.”
This is not to say that the federal government and many states haven’t been profligate, wasteful, inattentive to fiscal responsibilities. Facing yawning deficits, many years of tough sacrifice and reckoning lie ahead of us. But to use that as an excuse to eviscerate government functions left and right, or push down taxes just when government needs them to remain solvent, represents a strange kind of patriotism.
What’s more, smart government investment builds wealth, collectively and for families. President Lincoln, even in the midst of a brutally destructive Civil War, thought it important to charter a transcontinental railway, to sign the Homestead Act that made millions of Americans property owners for the first time, and to establish land-grant colleges to train farmers and workers.
President Franklin Roosevelt, faced by a deep economic depression that brought America’s entire free-enterprise system into question, supported historic public works — some that remain landmarks in American cities. President Dwight Eisenhower introduced the program for the interstate highways that became America’s primary ribbons of commerce.
Investment counts for cities and metro regions too. My recent column on Chicago Mayor Richard Daley recalled how his “livability” agenda of park and roadway greenery set the stage for drawing fresh talent, giving his city a new economic lease on life. In Chattanooga, Tenn., a 30-year livability campaign, focused on making its riverside a magnet for people, has yielded major corporate decisions by such firms as Alstom and Volkswagen.
Citizen voluntarism, in cleaning up neighborhoods and helping the disadvantaged, is a huge asset. But it is not a substitute for able, professional, investment-oriented government. If tea party-ism, national or local, forces us to forget our shared fortunes, we’ll face not just a threadbare but tremendously dangerous future.
Neal Peirce’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org