The Debt and Spend Republicans
There was a time, way back, when Republicans balanced the books. Yeah, you could trust those Democrats to maybe go off on some flight of fancy, some childish attempt to throw money at a problem, but Republicans were the party of the adults, straight-laced and bottom-lined. Those years when the Democrats were in charge and went off the rails -- spent too much, ran up debt -- those would be followed by lean years with the Republicans cutting spending and paying down debt.
That's not how it works anymore. Like modern families, both political parties have learned that the shortest route to becoming "most favored parent" is to buy it for the kids and put the debt on the credit card. Under no circumstances must the voters be taught lessons in budgeting and that spending money you don't have has consequences.
The debate over the funding of the Transportation Trust Fund has produced a curious dichotomy within the GOP. On the one hand, you have a small group of starched-assed Republicans who simply refuse to continue the Santa Claus myth that a revenue source can remain constant for nearly three decades and magically fund all our transportation needs.
They know that the last time the revenue collected from the gas tax covered the cost of the transportation program it was designed to fund was in 1990 -- 25 years ago. Year after year we've fallen further and further behind in debt, to the point where last year the tax on gasoline and diesel brought in just $750 million. That same year the cost to pay the debt was $1.1 billion. It had to be paid before a single pothole was filled. And paid it was -- with more debt.
For 25 years we've been using roads and bridges that we couldn't afford to pay for and nobody seemed to notice, nobody seemed to care. And anytime anyone dared to suggest paying off some of that debt you could hear the howls and cries of the children's chorus. Why is it that we only hear calls for savings when there's talk of paying more? Why doesn't anyone ever notice the debt until the credit card statement is due?
For 25 years we have watched our incomes rise in an attempt to keep up with inflation, while those on Social Security received cost-of-living adjustments to combat inflation -- increases of 5.4% in 1990, 3.7% in 1991, 3% in 1992, 2.6% in 1993, 2.8% in 1994, 2.6% in 1995, 2.9% in 1996, 2.1% in 1997, 1.3% in 1998, 2.5% in 1999, 3.5% in 2000, 2.6% in 2001, 1.4% in 2002, 2.1% in 2003, 2.7% in 2004, 4.1% in 2005, 3.3% in 2006, 2.3% in 2007, 5.8% in 2008, zero in 2009, zero in 2010, 3.6% in 2011, 1.7% in 2012, 1.5% in 2013, 1.7% in 2014, and zero in 2015 -- but the price we paid to maintain our roads and bridges remained the same? Didn't we ever wonder how?
New Jersey is a fiscal mess because it has the nation's highest property taxes and runaway debt. According to the Tax Foundation, New Jersey has the worst business climate in America -- 50 out of 50 states -- because, and let's quote them here: "New Jersey is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, is one of just two states to levy both an inheritance tax and an estate tax, and maintains some of the worst-structured individual income taxes in the country."
So the adults in the Republican Party, fashioned a plan to attack a big part of this sorry state of affairs. Being in the minority, in both chambers of the Legislature, they had to work out a compromise with the Democrats. But they had an ally in Governor Chris Christie, who wouldn't let anything less than comprehensive get past his veto pen. Painstakingly, they worked out a very detailed plan that gets rid of the estate tax before the Governor leaves office, eliminates the tax on retirement income for most seniors, cuts the sales tax to boost commerce, provides a tax credit for working people with low-paying jobs, and provides a personal tax exemption for veterans. The plan also addresses debt by raising the tax on gasoline and diesel to make up for all those 28 years it hasn't been adjusted for inflation.
Even with the increase, all of the existing tax and the first 10 cents of the increase is needed just to start paying down the irresponsible debt New Jersey ran up while nobody wanted to pay attention. Without a 23 cent increase, we cannot maintain and repair our roads and bridges, fund our transportation system, and start to pay down the debt.
You know that meetings have been held with Republicans around the state, asking for ideas on what to cut and how to cut to make transportation construction more efficient and less costly to taxpayers. And we have to tell you, that the same people who demand savings have been less than forthcoming with specifics. Everyone has a hashtag but nobody has specifics. And how did it come to pass that Republicans are so scared shitless of numbers? Lots of hooting and waving of hands until you ask somebody to put it down on paper, run the numbers. They look at you as if you asked them to go to the moon. If we are going to have savings, we are going to have to do better.
Can you hear the howls? They're coming from the debt and spend Republicans. See the hashtags? They read #NOGASTAX. Now there is a responsible plan... isn't it? With such a plan we can solve all New Jersey's debt issues. Three short words squished together gets it done. Brilliant!
Remember when Republicans busied themselves with spreadsheets instead of hashtags? Remember those Republicans in the boring white shirt sleeves and ties, who had survived Patton's winter drive through France, who had lived through MacArthur's island-hopping, and who came out of it to remake the Republican Party and launch the new conservative movement? Remember them?
Well, they are not with us anymore. Oh, there are a few who keep to the path begun by them. But for too many, understanding spreadsheets and budgeting is hard work. Reading requires attention. So the new Republican is content to be a celebrity-chaser who has given up reading white papers for hashtags and tweets, who requires entertainment instead of facts, ice cream lies instead of hard honesty. Piss on knowledge. Lie to me, they say, lie to me and make me feel righteous in my anger. It feels so good to play the victim.
When Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was asked by a Mrs. Powel, "Well, Doctor, what have we got -- a Republic or a Monarchy?" To which Dr. Franklin replied: "A Republic, if you can keep it."
Citizenship was never meant to be easy. It requires attention, interest, and vigilance. Hashtags are no substitute for reading the legislation or for understanding the numbers. Tweets should not replace books.
As residents of America our distractions are many but as citizens of America our attention must be to the Republic. We have self-governance in our hands if we merely make time for it. But that will mean putting aside those with the too-simple-to-be-true answers that allow us to happily keep to our distractions. If we want our Republic back, we are going to have to grow a set of balls, learn to read the bills and understand the balance sheets, demand to be told the unpleasant truths, and brook no easy lies.
And yes, we are going to have to wean ourselves off debt and learn to pay our way. Because if we don't, we will condemn our children and our grandchildren to be debt slaves to Red China.