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Editorial: A small profile in courage

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Anyone who takes a realistic look at our nation’s fiscal situation will see that both spending cuts and tax increases are necessary to get the federal budget back on a sustainable path. For those who disagree, we direct you to an excellent editorial in Monday’s Washington Post, which lays out just how the federal debt might be stabilized if tax increases are entirely off the table. It isn’t pretty. This “spending cuts only” strategy would require, among other things, committing to a series of increases in the retirement age and massive cuts to defense spending.

State budgets are also facing significant strains. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, half the states resorted to tax increases in 2009. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projects that here in Rhode Island, the state will confront a $395 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2011. Surely, it wouldn’t be prudent to plug that entire hole with only tax increases or only spending cuts.  

Despite the seriousness of the situation, few politicians at the local, state or national level are willing to get into specifics. Which programs are going to face spending cuts? By how much are taxes are going to increase? Across the nation, many newly elected representatives will take power next year without having clearly laid out the details.  

So, is there any hope for a substantive, truthful conversation about taxes and government spending? We think so. In the Rhode Island gubernatorial race, voters chose the one candidate who offered more clarity and forthrightness about the sacrifices he was going ask citizens to make. Last January, when Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 announced he was running for governor as an independent, he also endorsed a plan to apply a 1 percent sales tax to certain items previously exempt from state’s usual 7 percent tax.  

Chafee faced a barrage of attacks for the plan, and other candidates were not eager to offer their ideas in similar detail. Republican John Robitaille promised to veto any budget that contained a tax increase, the Providence Journal reported. And after Moderate Party candidate Ken Block proposed a particular tax cut, his campaign manager told the Journal that the amount of lost revenue was “unknown” because the campaign did not have access to the “complex economic models” needed to crunch the numbers.  

We applaud Chafee for his courage in taking a politically unpopular position and his refusal to insult the intelligence of the electorate. And we are glad that Rhode Island voters rewarded the candidate who offered the most specifics.  

Clarity on fiscal policy is especially crucial right now. The economic recovery hinges on businesses’ investment and hiring decisions, and uncertainty only makes them more hesitant.  

Chafee’s plan won’t singlehandedly balance the state’s budget — according to the Providence Journal, it is projected to raise about $90 million in revenue. But Chafee’s campaign demonstrated a serious commitment to both fiscal balance and substance in political discourse. Other candidates across the state and the country should take note.  


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