Struggling with a financial straitjacket

Pawlenty will not cave on his “no tax” pledge, but, hopefully, it’s the last such promise.

Somewhere out there, politicians are pondering their political futures. We have one request: If it includes the Minnesota governorship, please don’t make a “no tax” pledge.

We’d prefer future legislators also to refrain from such promises, but it’s more dangerous when a governor binds him or her self so tightly. Balancing the state’s budget is challenging enough – freezing revenue makes it almost impossible.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty made such a pledge in his 2002 campaign. Then, the 2003 budget saw a $4.2 billion deficit. The state whittled down government to some extent. But it relied more on accounting gimmicks and back-door taxes to close the gap.

Nothing in life is free. The public pays taxes for certain state benefits. When there is a deficit, the state should find ways to provide more with existing funds. But, typically, this does not solve the problem, and government has two options: raise taxes or cut benefits. There is little difference between them.

For example, when we skimp on roads, we pay in car maintenance and time in traffic. Cutting targeted government spending is more problematic. When a social program is cut, those who would have benefited lose. Instead of enduring tough times together, lower-income individuals often bear a larger share.

Government cannot do everything and at times attempts too much. But the debate should proceed assuming everything is give-and-take; we can raise new revenue, make cuts or do some of both. Students should understand this. The state balancing the 2003 budget without new revenues led to $185 million dollars in cuts from University funding. Thus, we stomached two huge tuition hikes. Students paid more so taxes could stay the same. Maybe this was the only way, but we question that idea.

It’s budget time. Those accounting gimmicks and the “no tax” pledge mean we need to cut as much as $1.4 billion. The early contenders seem to be subsidized health care for low-income individuals and the American Indian population’s gaming revenues. We don’t expect Pawlenty go back on his pledge – conventional wisdom dictates such a choice is political suicide – though we would admire his political courage if he were to.

But please, in the future, no more “no tax” pledges. The state’s most politically vulnerable people can’t handle it.