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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chickens roosting -- or Chicken Little?

The Globe offers some concrete examples of what's in store for cities and towns in Massachusetts as the economy shrinks, budgets tighten and hard-pressed residents say no to new taxes.

But to critics -- from Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation to Slate media critic Jack Shafer -- the cries ring hollow, Chicken Little scare tactics aided and abetted by a gullible media that are in the pockets of officials who can't or won't make hard choices.

So which is it?

There's no point in re-opening the debate about Proposition 2 1/2 (at least not here). The voters made their choice more than two decades ago and the Legislature has seen fit to live with the law -- which caps local property taxes at 2.5 percent of assessed valuation with increases limited to 2.5 percent annually unless voters override the cap.

The limits worked pretty well for much of that time -- thanks to soaring home values and new construction. But in recessions, the pinch is very tight and this one will be no exception.

Unlike the federal government, which can print money to pay for reckless spending like the war in Iraq, state and municipalities have to balance their budgets. At the community level, that means teachers, cops and firefighters, snow removal and other public safety services.

One of the few really innovative blogs at the Globe is Override Central, which chronicles these financial struggles.

At the state level, the problem is multiplied 351 times in terms of local aid, education, health and welfare costs. This represents the heart and soul of state spending, not, as Shafer suggests, quality of life costs -- campgrounds are closing in Michigan, a New Jersey city ended Independence Day fireworks or states ending weekend hours to renew drivers' licenses and registration.

Untold ... is how the state and local governments have increased their spending every quarter for the last four years, as the ... chart, drawn from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Affairs data, shows. The combined state and local number gives a better picture of government spending than the state-government figure alone. The states and localities routinely expanded entitlements, invented new programs, and spread more cash on their mainstays as growing tax revenue flowed in.

Now, as the stumbling economy forces individuals and families to rein in their spending, it's only sensible that the state and local governments should have to tighten their belts. It's called living within your means. But news stories rarely reflect this sentiment.

Untold in Shafer's account, of course, is how cities and states expanded these services during good times if not at the requests of its citizens, certainly with their happy acquiescence.

Shafer and critics like Anderson also lament that governments aren't like businesses that tighten their belts in hard times. Precisely the point. Government is not supposed to be run like a business. And the federal government certainly isn't pulling in that belt, bailing out Bear Stearns and spending billions a day in Iraq while oblivious to the desires of its "shareholders.")

So we once again faces the reality -- either vote to raise your property taxes or watch things happen that will further depress your already falling property value (and let's note that communities are already living on a margin represented by the fact that assessments haven't shrunk in proportion to sale prices).

While Shafer believes we are living in a liberal-concocted, media-driven pseudo Chicken Little crisis, the opposite is true. These are the chickens coming home to roost after decades of no-tax and spend promises of "conservative" governments represented by Ronald Reagan and Bushes 41 and 43.

If Shafer, Anderson, et. al. don't believe there is real pain caused by cutting real services (long after the fluff disappears), perhaps they should take a look at the case of Robert L. Taylor, a man who died in December after his apartment building burst into flames just yards from Gloucester fire department headquarters. Why? The department was shorthanded because voters had turned down a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

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