Sunday, February 20, 2011

Budget accounting

I've been watching the mess in Wisconsin with dismay. I want to yell at the teachers, "YOUR STATE IS BROKE, WHAT DO YOU THINK ANYONE CAN DO???"

I don't know. My parents live in Illinois, which is now the home of the multi-tens-of-percents (I've heard calculations ranging from 67% to 90%) increase in state income taxes to deal with similar issues. (And I would not be at ALL surprised if my dad saw his state teacher's pension reduced, or health benefits from it cut, or something).

(I think the Wisconsin governor should maybe lay it out on the table: "Okay, citizens, here is the problem. We are $X million dollars in the hole. We can fix this in one of several ways: First, we could ask state employees to kick in something every month for healthcare and pensions. Second, we could raise EVERYONE'S state income tax (or state sales tax) enough to make up the shortfall. Or, we could just cut the social safety net to the tune of what we're missing. You choose."

I suspect that even many of the unhappy state employees would choose the first option. And you know, if that were happening in my state, that's what I'd choose. (I am, technically, a state employee, though THANK THE GOOD GOD not a unionized one. I had enough "union" experience as a TA on a unionized campus (and even more: a campus where you were automatically in the union, no choice). )

I see it as being like the family sitting around the dinner table: "Okay, so Mom got laid off of her job. We need to cut back so we can keep the house and continue to pay for the essentials. We are going to have to drop having cable TV, stop going out to eat except on VERY special occasions, and rely more on store brands and generics for our food budget."

I lived - as a child - through the 1970s. An era of inflation and high gas prices. I remember we went without certain things - fancy vacations, meals out at restaurants (it was a rare treat, like for someone's birthday). I was expected to change out of my 'school shoes' when I got home at the end of the day to save them.

You just do it. Sometimes it's unpleasant, sometimes it means giving up some nice things, but you do it because you have to.

If it came down to me having to contribute $200 or $300 more a month towards pension and healthcare (I think that's the figure I heard quoted for Wisconsin), I could do it. I'd probably have to cut back on my voluntary contributions to a 357B plan I have, and I'd probably have to cut back on purchases (and maybe even on charitable giving, though I would consider that a last resort), but I could do it. I wouldn't be HAPPY about it, and I'd hope the sacrifice was being shared by, oh, I don't know, the coaches and the administrators and others, but I'd do it. I'd not march on the state capitol and cancel my classes and stuff. Because I've seen how much budget cutting we've done ALREADY...and I realize that if much more comes, it probably will hit benefits and salaries.

I may be alone in my grudging acceptance of that, if it comes, which means things could get ugly...I can see how some teachers, if they chose not to march, would be kind of shunned by their peers who did. Because that's just how politics and human nature are.

Another thing: Is it my imagination or does there seem to be a distinct shortage of grown-up talk in all the rhetoric surrounding the Wisconsin budget? Or for that matter, the federal budget? It seems like there's a lot of vilification and a lot of finger-pointing and very little acceptance that there ARE going to need to be sacrifices made somehow. To me, the hallmark of being an adult is realizing that tough choices have to be made, trying to make the wisest one possible, and not complaining excessively about it...because there's nothing you can do about it.

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