Here’s the deal – whether it’s local government, county, state, or national, we elect the various officials to represent us in the decisions of government. Because we long ago, except in small towns and for very local issues, outgrew the town-meeting style of government, we have to send people off to deliberate, legislate, and administrate our wants, needs, and tolerances of the body politic. We vote for conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, even on rare occasions an Independent, Libertarian, or in the case of certain ultra-liberal communities, a Socialist. But the common thread is that we’re sending these people off to do something. And mostly, historically, this has worked well enough to create a pretty remarkable society.
Until recently, anyway. The past 20 years – the past 10 years, actually – has seen a determined partisanship make itself evident. I see no point in rehashing the episodes that got us here. The point is, we’re now at a place where politics resembles professional wrestling more than anything else. The actions, reactions, and counter-actions are so predictable that our politicians look like actors reading from a poorly-written script. All that’s missing are the masks and absurd tights. Nationally, we’ve seen this with the debate over the war in Iraq and it’s aftermath, in the budget debate, in almost every policy debate. Republicans have watched the deficit pile higher and higher, something that would have been anathema to them at one time, and continue to adhere to the rhetoric of “tax cut, tax cut, tax cut”, while being unwilling to make any substantive spending reductions, yet party discipline and the unwillingness to concede that Democrats may have a point about fiscal responsibility prevent any from taking a stand against the party leadership. Democrats are so opposed to Bush’s Iraq adventure that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge any real accomplishments in the Middle East. The extremists have taken over the respective party dialogue, and those who might be willing to work with the other side are so concerned about retribution from their own side that they remain seated and silent.
We’re seeing a classic case of this at the state level in Mississippi. The state budget is, quite simply, a sinkhole. A $3.7 billion budget with a $900 million deficit. 25% of the budget. And unlike the national government, states can’t run a deficit. Medicaid is the part that’s really wrecking the budget. A $270 million deficit in the current year complicates a similar situation looming in the next fiscal year. The House Of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, wants to enact a tax increase on cigarettes, currently 18 cents a pack, to 50 cents or even $1 per pack. Governor Haley Barbour and the Republican-controlled Senate oppose any tax increase for any reason. They want to take $200 million from the Tobacco Health Care Trust Fund, the result of the lawsuit against Big Tobacco by former Attorney General Mike Moore, to cover the current year’s deficit, and then figure out what to do about next year’s problem. But the House won’t consider taking the Trust Fund money unless the Senate passes the tax increase, and the Senate won’t consider the tax increase at all. So we have this intense gridlock, Medicaid is about to shut down in Mississippi because the agency’s funds are used up, and the rest of the state budget hasn’t received much attention at all, except that education, which makes up about one half of the budget, is essentially off-limits. On this one, Governor Barbour is right – or half-right. There’s no alternative to taking the $200 million from the Trust Fund. The House can go on about protecting the future, Mike Moore can attack the governor – but the reality is that the money has already been spent, and it’s been spent because the Mississippi legislature over the past 3-4 years approved Medicaid expansion apparently believing that sacks of gold would shortly begin falling from the skies. And if the legislature is not willing to cut back significantly on the program, finding new revenue (that’s such a gentile way of saying “tax increase”) is just as unavoidable. But we’re locked in a similar logjam over tax increases.
Here’s the crux of the matter – none of these people are doing what we sent them to do. While we’ve had this stalemate over Medicaid, they’ve passed a bill to make the alligator the state reptile; they’re debating a bill that would enshrine the Ten Commandments in state buildings (if displaying the Ten Commandments has such a powerful impact, why are our churches full of sinners?); they passed a bill to construct a new state Arts Center (hey, Faith Hill showed up to ask for it, how can you turn down Faith?); and bolstered by the complete and utter failure of the beef plan fiasco, which will cost the state $50 million, they’ve authorized $25 million plus loan guarantees to a potential steel mill project. What they’re not doing is passing a state budget. And they’re not passing a budget because Democrats would rather blame Haley Barbour and the Republicans, and because Haley and the Republicans would rather blame Democrats.
The same thing is happening nationally. Each side is engaged in a game of gotcha, carefully introducing bills that have no chance of passage because of line items that the opposing side simply won’t agree to. But it lets each side store up “gotchas” like squirrels store acorns, to be pulled out at the next election. The process of legislating and governing has taken a back seat to the politics of division, the needs and desires of the people be damned. And unless and until the voters make some incumbents pay the price for this irresponsibility, it will continue. I don’t want to see the social security system become a lab experiment for Republican ideas of retirement plan privatization. I don’t want to see oil drilling in ANWR. At the state level, I don’t want to see broad cutbacks in state programs. But I do want to see problems being dealt with. If government is costing more than revenues, then the solution is simple: either raise taxes or cut services. Stop the brinksmanship, stop the showboating, stop the partisanship, and do something. And if you’re not willing or able to make the hard choices, then step down and let someone else give it a try.