Op-Ed

Where’s the moral leadership in Kentucky’s fiscal crisis?

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin promised a tax system overhaul during a joint session of the Kentucky legislature during the State of the Commonwealth address in February.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin promised a tax system overhaul during a joint session of the Kentucky legislature during the State of the Commonwealth address in February. Associated Press

Just last February, in his State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Matt Bevin made bold declarations to fix our tax system.

He asserted Kentucky will be fiscally insolvent if tax reform isn’t tackled simultaneously to shoring up the public employee and teacher pensions. He decried a tax system that exempts more income from taxes than we take in. He emphasized we have no choice but to fix our revenue laws stating, “Sacred cows … are going to be turned into hamburger.”

He pledged to personally take the heat because, “This is not going to be a tax neutral tax plan. It’s not. We can’t afford for it to be. That’s a straight up fact.”

But, sadly, bold leadership was quickly replaced in Frankfort with the worn-out trope that there is “no appetite” for any tax reform. Modernizing an inadequate, unjust and outdated revenue system is no longer Step One toward fixing the failing pension system, inadequate public school funding, overwhelmed social services for children, the elderly and disabled, overloaded court dockets, crumbling state parks, a shortage of state police, overstretched environmental inspectors, ballooning tuition costs at state colleges and universities and on and on.

We have limped along for over a decade with structurally imbalanced budgets that push us ever closer to a fiscal cliff. Now we hang over the cliff, clinging to a weak branch.

The prevailing notion at the capitol is tax reform is just too difficult, especially now when 2018 is a legislative election year. Instead, public employees, including every teacher in the commonwealth, are cast as greedy and conniving, milking taxpayers to pay for lucrative pensions in their old age.

By making them the enemy, legislators can justify slashing pensions in lieu of cleaning up tax breaks to provide enough revenue to justly compensate dedicated public servants for their years of work for all of us.

But the consequences of this narrative don’t stop at hurting pensioners. The governor wants state agencies, with some exceptions, to surgically remove 17 percent of their budgets. News, governor: there is no fat to remove. On the heels of 18 rounds of budget cuts since the Recession, some say these additional cuts will close down whole government departments.

Our revenue crisis is of our own making — Democrats and Republicans. Those of us who care about our, pubic services, schools, safety, air, land, health and future refuse to accept last February’s talk of tax reform as a lost cause.

Kentuckians are eager to support fiscal responsibility and smart investments in our state by cleaning up tax breaks. Tax reform legislation doing just that was filed by six dedicated House members in July in response to Governor Bevin’s request for ideas to address our fiscal crisis. Our bill broadens the tax base, lowers taxes for the working poor and reduces tax breaks for the wealthy and special interests. The bill offers an opportunity to continue the conversation.

So far, no response from the governor.

We press onward. The common arguments designed to maintain the destructive status quo (no appetite for tax reform) may be immediately popular, but they are only an inch deep. Dig a little and you realize politicians don’t give their constituents enough credit.

Republican poster Frank Luntz’s research shows if you take time to discuss a serious issue like our nation’s collapsing infrastructure, more than 80 percent of people respond they’d pay more taxes to address fix it. It is perilous to assume people are intractably stuck in their positions. Common ground can be found if we take time to cooperatively look at our shared problems and make good faith efforts to solve them.

Now is the moment in Kentucky history when determined citizens demand a better Kentucky. We need a flood of calls, emails, letters and public demonstrations and testimony to let state leaders know we want to get off the fiscal cliff and back on that path to a brighter future.

Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, represents the 35th House District.

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