Culver endorses big spending cuts, no tax increases

Details about Governor Chet Culver’s proposed 2010 budget will come on Wednesday morning, but today the governor’s office announced plans to impose 6.5 percent spending reductions on 205 state programs in next year’s budget. According to the Des Moines Register,

“We’re not going to tax our way out of a tight budget,” [Culver] said. […]

Culver will continue to ask lawmakers not to raise taxes. His budget will propose no tax increases, according to a copy of the governor’s remarks provided before a speech at the Iowa Business Council’s annual meeting.

Culver would like to protect certain areas from the full effect of the 6.5 percent cut: public safety, workforce development, human services, disaster relief, the teacher quality program, and early childhood education.

He will recommend that $200 million from the state’s cash reserves be used during the next budget year.

Via e-mail I received this joint statement from Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, Senate President Jack Kibbie, House Speaker Pat Murphy, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy:

“In these tough economic times, we appreciate Governor Culver and Lt. Governor Judge taking another step to ensure a balanced state budget by releasing this proposal.

“Because of the deepening national recession, this year will be very tough for many Iowans.  While Iowans had little to do with the mismanagement, greed, and financial carelessness that is causing the worst national economic situation since the Great Depression, we will be sharing in the pain.

“In the coming weeks and months, we are committed to:

·        Listening to our constituents

·        Working with the Governor, Lt. Governor and Republican legislators, and

·        Passing a fiscally responsible state budget that attempts to protect the progress we’re making on creating good-paying jobs, improving student achievement and teacher quality, and ensuring affordable health care.”

As you can see, the Democratic statehouse leaders did not unconditionally endorse the governor’s proposal or the principle of relying solely on spending cuts and tapping reserve funds to balance the budget. Some statehouse leaders have advocated raising the gas tax to help pay for road works.

As I have written before, I think it would be a big mistake to rule out any tax increases for next year.

As a political sound bite, it’s appealing for a governor to say, “I balanced the budget without raising a single tax.” But seriously, does Culver believe that Iowa has no obsolete tax loopholes that cost the state far more than they benefit the economy? The Iowa Policy Project has identified “wasteful, secret subsidies to big companies through the tax code.” (pdf file) How about asking those companies to share in the sacrifices that need to be made in the coming year?

Borrowing money to pay for certain infrastructure projects is reasonable, but a modest gas tax increase could reduce Iowa’s debt burden in future years without much pain. There may be other tax increases that make sense, if the funds raised could be linked to specific spending priorities that create jobs.

Politically, it’s risky for any governor to raise taxes, but Culver should balance those considerations against the risk that large spending cuts could prolong the recession:

Almost every single economist agrees, the last thing we want to do in a recession is slash government spending. We want, in fact, to increase that spending so that it is a counter-cyclical force to a deteriorating economy. So the question, then, is how to most safely generate the revenue to maintain or increase that spending. By  “most safely” I mean how to raise the revenue in a way that will minimize any negative economic impact. And the answer comes from Joseph Stiglitz:

 

“[T]ax increases on higher-income families are the least damaging mechanism for closing state fiscal deficits in the short run. Reductions in government spending on goods and services, or reductions in transfer payments to lower-income families, are likely to be more damaging to the economy in the short run than tax increases focused on higher-income families.”

So, first and foremost, you don’t want dramatic spending cuts (beyond the usual rooting out of waste/fraud) and you don’t want to raise taxes on middle- and lower-income citizens who both need the money for necessities, and are the demographics that will most quickly spend money in a stimulative way. That leaves taxes on the super-rich, and Stiglitz – unlike anti-tax ideologues – has actual data to make his case.

For more information, see Budget Cuts or Tax Increases at the State Level:

Which is Preferable During an Economic Downturn?

I’m sure the Iowa Business Council will applaud Culver’s promise this evening to balance the budget with no tax hikes of any kind.

But economic considerations as well as basic fairness dictate that taxes should be on the table when the legislature drafts the 2010 budget. We should not let the fear of Republican-funded attack ads scare us away from sensible steps to increase revenues.

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