Editorial Round-Up: Focus on Finances

Newpapers' editorial boards took a look at their states and localities' checkbooks over the last week.
by , | December 1, 2011

"Think long." That's the suggestion offered by the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat in its Nov. 29 editorial,  taken from the name of a bipartisan group working to revamp California's state government.

Its members include former Gov. Gray Davis, two former U.S. Secretaries of State and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, according to the newspaper. The group is developing a long-term plan to fix the state's stagnant economy by first repairing its flawed governmental structures. Those plans include broadening the income tax base while simultaneously lowering income tax rates for all residents. . In total, the Press-Democrat declared that the plan could bring in up to $10 billion in new annual revenue, a critical injection for a state struggling to balance its checkbook.

That new funding would pay for a host of other reforms including a revamped two-year legislative session, an additional $5 billion in annual funding for K-12 schools, another $2.5 billion annually for higher education and a combined $2.5 billion annually for cities and counties.

"California has seen its share of reform initiatives — and their unforeseen consequences," the editorial board wrote. "But it’s painfully clear that the state needs to update its government to meet 21st century challenges, and the Think Long proposals are a good place to start the discussion."

Most states are confronting a revenue problem and, at the same time, trying to stimulate economic growth. Below are excerpts from other editorials across the country that addressed the fiscal issues that their respective states are facing.

In Alabama, legislators have proposed eliminating the state's 4 percent tax on grocery sales, but have been stymied by the problem of replacing about $300 million in revenue annually. The most recent proposal, from state Sen. Gerald Dial, addresses the problem, the Montgomery Advertiser said on Nov. 29. Dial proposes recovering the lost revenue by raising the state sales tax on other items, according to the newspaper. But that would have a disproportionate effect on the middle and low-income families, the Advertiser wrote, particularly those who pay for groceries with food stamps, which are already exempt from the grocery sales tax, but also would face higher sales taxes elsewhere.

Instead, state lawmakers should considering combining Dial's plan with ones proposed by state Rep. John Knight, who has suggested reducing state income tax deductibility for federal income tax returns to pay for eliminating the grocery sales tax, the Advertiser concluded.

"The bottom line is that the Legislature needs to remove the sales tax on groceries -- but without making matters worse for the state's working poor, who already pay more than their fair share in taxes," the newspaper wrote.

In its Nov. 27 editorial, the Jackson (Mich.) Patriot Citizen credited the Michigan Supreme Court for ruling that the state could tax the pensions of retirees, a plan passed by the state legislature and approved by Gov. Rick Snyder. The newspaper noted the decision's "major short-term impact" as the tax is projected to reap more than $330 million in new revenue by fiscal year 2013. And with the number of retirees in the state set to "explode" in coming years, the policy should have a beneficial long-term financial impact as well, the Patriot Citizen asserted. Considering those residents will depend on state services, it's only fair.

"This pension tax is not popular, and it may come back to hurt some lawmakers who voted for it," the newspaper wrote. "Yet that fact only makes that vote more courageous politically. In the long term, it will be good for state government and, by extension, all taxpayers."

On the local level, the Buffalo News encouraged the Erie County Legislature to find a worthy successor to its departing county comptroller (now taking over as county executive), one who is "independent and impervious to political pressures." The newspaper praised the departing comptroller, Mark Poloncarz, for the critical eye that he cast on proposals for the county's $1 billion budget and said the next officer should cast an equally "skeptical eye." Political pressures can be a dangerous influence, the News said in its Nov. 29 editorial, but county legislators "should be able to find someone willing to be vigorously independent even while wearing the same uniform."

While many states and localities are focused on figuring out how to balance their budgets, the Lincoln Journal-Star took the opportunity in its Nov. 30 editorial to praise its state legislature for the projected $62 million surplus at the end of the current budget year. After detailing some of the measures that other states have been forced to take in response to budget deficits, the newspaper credited Nebraska's unicameral legislature for part of the state's financial success. Although its steady farming economy is the primary driver for the state's financial stability, the Journal-Star asserted that the state's more streamlined lawmaking body has also saved millions over the years.

"Considering the budget misery in other states, it seems odd that legislators would be willing to take risks with ideas that proved to be ineffective and counterproductive but ignore the proven success of Nebraska's unicameral legislature," the Journal-Star concluded.

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