I do reality-based policy analysis as director of the Pennsylvanian Budget and Policy Center. We take a detailed look at the numbers, from several points of view, before we make or endorse tax or spending proposals. We have our moral touchstones — we seek a political community with broadly shared prosperity — but we try very hard not to let our goals determine our analysis. And that’s because we really believe in our moral stance and we know that public policy must be carefully and thoroughly vetted if it is going to be effective in attaining its goals. We don’t seek to pass legislation that sounds good but doesn’t actually help working people and the middle class secure the opportunity to achieve a better quality of life.
Still, I would be the first to admit that it is not analysis, but politics that rules the world. Our analysis can help shape political life, but sometimes political leaders are more attuned to fads and fashion than serious thought. And that reality knows no political party or ideology.
We may be beginning to see the end of one of those fads — the Republican belief that cutting taxes, especially on the rich and corporations is the alpha and omega of good public policy.
Last month, to maintain vital public services, Republicans in Kansas joined Democrats to raise taxes to close a budget deficit caused by massive, irresponsible tax cuts put forward by Republican Governor Sam Brownback.
A few weeks ago, also as a way to preserve public services that contribute to everyone in the state, Republicans in Illinois joined Democrats to raise taxes to close a deep deficit caused by tax cuts and irresponsible budgeting.
Other states around the country, including New Jersey, Indiana, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia, are increasing their gas taxes in order to build and improve their roads and bridges.
Colorado is about to increase its excise tax on recreational marijuana from 10 percent to 15 percent in part to invest in rural schools.
And right here in Pennsylvania, the state Senate came to a bipartisan agreement on a revenue package that includes over $500 million in new, recurring revenue — including a long-debated but never-enacted severance tax on natural gas drillers. It isn’t perfect, but it’s at least an acknowledgement of our budgetary reality.
Some of these efforts are led by Democrats, but many of them — like in Pennsylvania — are bipartisan. And that gives me hope. The right-wing tax-and-budget-cutting fad may be running out of steam. As all fads do, it has run up against the empirical evidence — evidence we put forth years ago — that prosperity is created not just by the private sector, but by the public sector providing the educated and trained workforce, the infrastructure, and the basic research that powers our economy. That evidence shows that states that cut taxes for business and cut spending on education and human services wind up with slower growing economies and deeper budget deficits. Those that responsibly raise taxes to increase public investments grow faster and see their deficits disappear.
They have also run up against the reality that America remains a country of decent people who understand that some of us have suffered from bad luck — deep poverty, a disability, serious illness, or mental illness, an accident, or outliving our resources — and need the help of others to avoid terrible distress, as well as to take advantage of the talents and abilities God has given us.
And not only do those of us graced by good fortune have a moral obligation to help those who have not been so lucky, but we can only help them reach their full potential, and utilize their own talents and abilities, if we give them a helping hand. We can’t meet that moral responsibility if government does not have sufficient resources — meaning tax revenues.
I don’t think we in Pennsylvania are going to completely escape from the right-wing fantasy world this year, but we’re clearly taking steps in the right direction.
The fever is gradually breaking around the country. It will break here in our commonwealth, too.
Marc Stier is the Director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
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