Carefully finding a safe path
Published 7:23 pm Tuesday, January 11, 2011
When Virginia legislators are gaveled into action today, they will proceed into yet another year of recession-fueled budgets, depressed tax coffers and postponed priorities.
After two previous budget cycles worth of similar problems, it would have been nice for everyone involved if the economic climate could have warmed sufficiently by now for things to be different. But things are what they are, and folks at all levels of government will have to come to grips with that reality.
Even though economists have been saying for more than a year that the recession is over, the news has yet to reach the pocketbooks and bankbooks of most Virginians.
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On the other side of the equation, many of the traditional beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse — schools, nonprofit organizations and social programs, for example — have been unable to count on the state for the level of support they had come to expect in previous years. Last year, for instance, marked the first time in memory that school systems saw an actual decrease in state funds.
It’s a pretty grim time to have to put together a budget, no matter what level of government it’s for. As it happens, however, the same thing is true of personal and household budgets. With many people unemployed — and those who are still employed often making less than they did in the past, or having diminished reserves — the average taxpayer is hurting, too.
Given the situation, legislators should be very careful about giving in to the inevitable pressure to raise taxes, to burden Virginians with extra fees and to expand programming in the face of poor economic performance.
There will be plenty of arm-twisting employed in the effort to get certain groups more money. And there will be a backlash against any proposal that would save money by asking for sacrifices. There will be plenty of complaints, for instance, regarding the governor’s suggestion that state employees begin to pay a portion of their future retirement benefits.
With the anemic nature of the economic recovery, however, Virginia must be open to such new ideas. Teachers and other state employees will make it hard for legislators to hold fast to their fiscal principles, but legislators must do so to protect the shaky economic gains that have been made and to ensure that any budget increases for the following year will be sustainable.
We’re not out of the woods yet, economically speaking. Until we are, it would be advisable not to break into a run. There’s much to be said for taking our time and picking out a safe path forward.