Herald-Leader Editorial

Facing the reality of state finances; public may not, but it's legislature's job

February 7, 2013 

There's a term for a condition in which people want to choose two mutually exclusive options. It's called public attitudes toward government taxing and spending.

No one wants to pay taxes, certainly not more of them; and everyone wants to maintain the level of government service they currently enjoy.

This fantastical reality was illustrated once again by The Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll, reported on in Sunday's (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

"Is it time, or not time for the Kentucky General Assembly to increase taxes to restore some government services," the pollsters asked. Some 69 percent of respondents said it's not time.

When asked what services should be cut first if this low-tax policy requires trimming the budget, the most popular reply, chosen by a full 30 percent, was "other."

Virtually no one wanted to cut education at any level, state police, courts or coal mine safety.

So, to recap, everyone's first priority for something to be cut is something else, something that doesn't affect them or someone they care about, something vaguely unknown.

This is why the governor and members of the General Assembly must do that most uncomfortable of jobs: leading where voters don't want to follow. To solve our budget problems they must cut programs people really want or raise taxes people really don't want or both.

It's a tough thing for people who rely on popularity for their jobs.

Gov. Steve Beshear has shown some leadership, appointing a commission under Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson to study tax reform. That report is now on the table, recommending a series of changes and increases that would raise an estimated $650 million more a year, adding about 7 percent to the state's $9 billion General Fund.

The General Assembly has responded with very little enthusiasm, particularly to the idea of raising any taxes. But it has to be done.

The news last week that Kentucky will stop helping families caring for abused or neglected children and will cut child-care assistance for thousands of low-income families is an indication of how bare-bones our budget already is.

Add to that the obligation to pay billions the state owes to public pension funds and other obligations and you see this isn't going away.

Legislators would do well to listen to Betty Thornsberry, one of the respondents to the Courier poll who agreed to a follow up interview.

A 50-year-old, self-employed, single mother living in Hardin County, Thornsberry cut to the chase with reporter Tom Loftus, saying: "It's probably a bitter pill to swallow but I don't foresee any other way."

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