Kansans, we’ve got problems. And it’s not just that the budget is tough. We’ve known that for a long time.
Our biggest problems are the failure of many Kansans, including many of those elected officials charged with representing us, to recognize precisely how bad it is, and what that means about the options that are and are not really viable at this point; and a lack of political will and strategic vision to make the hard choices that must be made.
This certainly isn’t unique to this year or to our state. Moral courage, is, in general, in short supply throughout public life–NOT just among members of the state legislature. We’d all like to get as much as we can with as little pain as possible and, writ large, that can lead to some pretty appalling public policy decisions.
But, still, as I head to Topeka this week to work with a few dozen bright, aspiring student journalists as they challenge our elected officials to think of the future, I’m hopeful.
Because history shows that sometimes the most amazing things happen when our backs are against the wall, when everyone knows that the only avenues left are pretty bad, and when there’s a collective sense that we’re in this together, as much as we wish that we were somewhere (anywhere!) else.
Here’s how bad it is. At a legislative forum I attended two weeks ago (so, yes, this is tardy–ear infections in young children are evil!), I had this exchange with a senior senator closely involved in budget negotiations:
And all of this brings us back to this question of vision and will and courage.
Because we desperately need a restoration of our tax base. No one wants a tax increase. I know.
But I don’t see another way out, that doesn’t include the decimation of the public infrastructure that, really, makes us a civilized society. Taxes are the price we pay for that, and we forgot that all too easily, and too often, in the boom years of the late 1990s…it’s time to rebuild.
And you know what? My hopefulness is warranted, I really think. In the last two weeks, I’ve had conversations with 7 members of the legislature, from both political parties, who have admitted that many of the past tax cuts were mistakes, called for a revision of exemptions, and offered some specific ideas for possible tax increases. Several have even referenced that this session feels a bit different, because of the desperation, and that, by April, we could start to see a deal emerge.
But, as that senior senator pointed out, those of us whose work depends on a strong tax base need to get working. Not one of the nonprofit legislative agendas I’ve seen has included a call for increased revenues, even though that’s undoubtedly the most important policy position the legislature could take this session.
We need to talk with our grassroots base about the need for more revenues, and the need for tax justice. We have to build pressure to undo the excesses of the past decade. And we have to be in the process, stressing that all tax increases are NOT created equal, and articulating a vision of what tax fairness looks like.
Things will get better (first, they’ll get worse, because we won’t have that stimulus money in FY2012!). But they won’t get as much better as they should if we don’t take advantage of this political opportunity to get the impossible done.
Ad astra per aspera, right?