By: Daylin Leach
In my 7 years in the Pennsylvania legislature, I think I’ve learned a few basic truisms, one of which is: If you want to make a constituent mad, raise their taxes, but if you want to make a constituent furious, cut their services.
If constituents notice an extra $5 a week coming out of their paychecks, I may receive an angry e-mail. But if the pothole on their street is not fixed or they receive a letter telling them their mother-in-law can no longer stay in the county nursing home and must instead come live with them, I am likely to receive a very insistent personal visit.
This adage is particularly germane to the current budget impasse. We have a $3.3 billion budget deficit and unlike the federal government, we can’t print or borrow money. We have to actually balance the budget, and the only two ways to do that are to cut expenditures and/or increase revenues. The governor has proposed some deep and painful cuts, but has also suggested increasing taxes as part of the mix. The Republicans who control the Senate have taken an absolutist position that they will not support any increased taxes, for any purpose. Their unwillingness to compromise is the reason we continue to be deadlocked.
In floor debate, and during press conferences, my Republican colleagues continue to cite polls to support their assertion that “the people of Pennsylvania don’t want to pay any more taxes.” The problem with that statement is that it is both technically true and extremely misleading because it is an inaccurate reflection of where the people actually stand.
Certainly, if you ask people, “Do you want to pay more taxes?” the majority will say no. But that question doesn’t tie lower taxes to the loss of services which will surely follow. It presumes a consequence-free world where we don’t actually have to pay for the services we want. Of course, if you ask the opposite question, “Do you want government services improved?” the result will be lopsidedly affirmative. Asking either question in a vacuum will fail to give you a true picture of how people feel.
Even generically linking lower taxes to service cuts will paint a misleading picture. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, by a margin of 55% to 35%, people said they oppose raising taxes even if it means a cut in state services. But this is an unrevealing question because when you ask if people want services cut without identifying those services, they tend to imagine someone else’s services. Everyone has, in their mind, a group of services they don’t think are worthy; but those are rarely the services they, or people they care about, receive.
It is only by linking taxes to a specific service that you can learn where the public really stands. And when that is done, it becomes clear that people want government services and are willing to pay for them. That same Quinnipiac Poll found that by a margin of 53% to 43%, Pennsylvanians would be willing to pay higher taxes to “avoid cuts in state spending on such things as health care and public schools.”
Of course, if the Republican budget proposals pass, there will be dramatic cuts in both of those categories, and this is clearly not what Pennsylvanians want. Quinnipiac did not ask if people would pay higher taxes to preserve public safety, or ensure a clean environment, or invest in infrastructure, or job creation, but other pollsters in other states have. People who overwhelmingly oppose higher taxes initially become very supportive of them when faced with the real-life consequences of the cuts they face.
Further proof that people want, in the words of Mario Cuomo, “only the government we need, but all the government we need” can be found in the various referenda placed on ballots around the state. In my own county and municipality, people recently voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves more to pay for open-space preservation. Again, many of these people would tell a pollster that they oppose tax increases for unspecified purposes.
I think that while the Republican position on the budget is certainly sincere, it is also wrong. Failing to raise the revenues to invest in basic services will hurt real people and do great damage to Pennsylvania’s future. And while we can have legitimate philosophical differences, the one thing I do not believe the Republicans can fairly claim is that theirs is a future the people of Pennsylvania want.