Saturday, February 20, 2010

Budgets, Taxation, and Morality

This one appeared in today's Idaho Statesman
If you agree with me here, please call and write and email your legislators and let them know that we need a more equitable way to deal with our state budget.

If you want to identify the real values of any institution - from churches, mosques and synagogues to corporations, states and nations - you do not examine organizational creeds, pledges or mission statements. These are words, often carefully crafted by PR experts, and they are frequently deceptive. The heart of any institution is, instead, found in its budget, and budgets do not lie. When all is said and done, we spend our money on the things that matter most to us. This is essential to bear in mind, because beneath the often dry and convoluted columns of numbers, a budget is both a road map and a report card on an organization's moral soul.

By this measure, our governor and state Legislature are flunking. Yes, these are difficult times; we all know that money is tight. Yet, most of our lawmakers are looking to balance the budget on the backs of our most at-risk citizens. Three thousand years ago, Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah proclaimed that the virtue of a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. If the prophets were to visit our Statehouse today, they would be appalled.

The ethical alternative to draconian budget cuts is clear: increase revenue. Who and how we tax is also a moral issue.

Today, Idahoans earning $25,001 a year pay at the exact same rate - 7.8 percent - as those earning $250,000 or more. Indeed, given the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy - access to expert tax preparation services and a host of tax benefits and loopholes - poor families actually pay a much higher percentage of their income in taxes than the most prosperous Idahoans. This is both unjust and fiscally unsound. Raising state income tax brackets for well-to-do citizens who can afford to pay would create a more equitable system and provide the revenue that would enable us to better support education, health care and vital social services.

So let there be no doubt: We have the power to determine how we raise and allocate our communal resources, and the choices that we make provide the surest reflection of our collective morality - a topic of utmost concern for all people of faith (and secular humanists as well). If our governor and Legislature decide to use the recession to gut our schools, eviscerate health care and destroy the safety net, it will be because that is how they put their values into action. Our leaders may opt for keeping money in the pockets of the wealthy over securing the welfare of the most vulnerable Idahoans. But if they do, they will have squandered any claim to moral governance, for a government incapable of empathy and advocacy for its most at-risk citizens is not just fiscally but - far more damningly - morally bankrupt.

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