Here we sit on election eve. Before us are decisions not only for Governor and Treasurer, but also questions about reducing the sales tax and others. Our discussions to date – though many, varied and at times heated – have been general in nature. “Should we cut the sales tax or not.” “Cutting the sales tax will reduce State Aid to your community by $2 million.”
These discussions are interesting but largely unhelpful (though I appreciate community-by-community data, which at least provides a basis for discussion). The question is, however, what does this mean to you, to me, to the people government serves? Would a loss of $2 million cause 1,000 fewer potholes to be paved in Town X each year because they had to lay off the road maintenance crew? Would it force the Commonwealth to reduce programs for at-risk youth, creating 20,000 more hours of idle time in the summer for at-risk youth in the City of Y?
While it’s interesting to debate these policy issues in abstract, the results are real, and today we are largely left to a couple data points to determine the impact:
1. What is said by the people and organizations we trust, hoping they have good information.
2. What pundits say, though most people probably discount a lot of what everyone says.
3. We use our imaginations and try to make an educated guess.
4. We think about the impact this will have on our personal budgets.
In actuality, people are weighing the “known” and “real” – the impact this will have on their personal finances – against the perception of the impact as gleaned from trusted sources, pundits and others. We can and should do better. Here’s to hoping that whoever is elected will focus on the business of government, on developing the systems and information necessary to evaluate governmental performance and to tell the public how much of what kind of service we get for our tax dollars. That way, at the next election, we can truly evaluate the impact of possible cuts, or the value of the services new revenue would provide.
Hoping the debate between proponents and opponents will help us get to the truth is fine, but the investment of public funds is a critical and sacred thing; let’s capture the data and talk about whether we should cut the sales tax in half because there is little value to providing services A, B and C. That’s the information voters should have so they can make an appropriate value judgment if they want to. Otherwise we are casting our votes based on some abstraction of what may or may not happen. As someone once said, “Hope is not a strategy”, and our public and private finances are always too scarce to vest them in the hope that the debate of sound bites will get us to the right conclusion.