Sunday, July 12, 2009

When Evil is Done By Good People: The Ohio Budget Debacle

Regular readers of this blog know that I don't express political opinions unless I feel that the facts are clear and compelling from my vantage point as a Christian. As a pastor, I don't want anyone to think that I'm claiming God's endorsement of particular political philosophies. As I've said many times, "God isn't a Democrat or a Republican," but I do write "opinions" when I feel that Christian belief clearly points in one direction.* I feel that such clarity exists on what I'm addressing in this blog post.

Here in Ohio, we have been witness to a sorry episode in which both the Democratic governor and Republican leaders in the General Assembly, our state legislature, have shown a reckless and despicable disregard for the real needs of real people. Past poor planning--resulting in a rainy day fund that now has a balance of 89-cents, the closure of many businesses, and the economic downturn all created a major challenge for the Governor and General Assembly.

Their task? Fashioning a state budget for the next biennium that would meet the obligations of state government, based on realistic assessments of likely revenues, accomplished through necessary expense cuts and tax and fee increases.

At stake were the well-being of thousands of Ohio students, at risk infants, the hungry, those in need of medical care, families in need of after-school programs, the elderly in nursing homes, and others who cannot survive without state help.

But our leaders showed a callous disregard for these people, many of whom can't vote and most of whom will never be able to afford contributions to a political campaign.

Instead, they played a game of political chicken that saw them, first miss the budget deadline and then, put the lives of thousands of people at risk while they bickered and dithered.

And why? Because going into the 2010 campaign, neither party wanted to be accused of raising taxes or increasing fees. (Some will argue, of course, that any tax increase will chase away potential business relocations into the state. The counterargument is that a state that refuses to provide basic, adequate services for its people won't be a place to which businesses will want to relocate anyway.)

The final solution agreed upon by the Governor and the General Assembly is to place slot machines in Ohio's race tracks, a proposal that already has been rejected by the people of Ohio four different times!

The Governor claims this will result in another $933-million in the state's coffers, a projection insusceptible to either confirmation or dispute. So, now the state government's financial solvency--in support of a budget that guts many essential programs--is dependent on expansion of the state's gaming industry.

A friend of mine once said to me years ago, "Legalized gambling in all its forms is a Third World solution to budget problems." Forget for a moment that shell games have routinely been played with gambling-generated revenue, meaning that hardly any increases in expenditure on education for our children--the usually-promised beneficiary of such revenues--actually happens. Governments forge into gambling when they give up on the idea that taxation with representation is the payment all citizens make for living in a free and civil society in which we are mutually accountable to one another.**

Having worked for state government some three decades ago, I feel certain that there is a lot of waste and abuse and that government should be diligent in rooting it out. (One could start in the very office operations of the Governor and the General Assembly which felt no compunction about hurting thousands around the State with their already-draconian cuts.)

But as a pastor active in my community, I also know that good and important programs which can probably only be accomplished by all of us through our government, are threatened still by the inadequate 2010-2011 budget of our state.

That's why a few weeks ago, the members of our congregation spearheaded a community food drive to help those who "fall in the cracks" for government assistance. We worrked with our county's Job and Family Services agency on this.

In a few weeks, on August 22, we'll conduct a Drive Through Community Baby Shower, in which we'll collect people's donations of baby formula and disposable diapers. This will support the efforts of local programs funded by the state that have been gutted already: Help Me Grow, WIC, and others.

The Church should also be in the compassion business, doing voluntarily what Christ calls us to do: to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can't and shouldn't ask the State to do that for us.

But the state, which represents us all, is also the agency through which we mutually support one another's freedom and ensure one another's safety and well-being by deputizing the state to have our best interests at heart, to enforce our mutual will as written in our state constitution and our state laws.

Clearly, many of our state elected leaders in both parties did not have our state's interests at heart in recent days...and it angers and saddens me.

Maybe the solution is that in 2010, these pols who selfishly acted to extend their political careers, unless they played a constructive role in the recent political melodrama, should be tossed out of office. Up for re-election this coming year: a Democratic governor, one-third of a Republican controlled State Senate, whose members serve for four years, and the entire membership of the House of Representatives, who serve for two years. (In Ohio, people are limited to serving just eight years in any state office.)

No one who serves in public office is perfect, of course. (No one who's a preacher like I am is perfect either!) We should expect neither perfection from them or that we should always agree with them.

But when elected leaders won't bite the bullet and pursue the hard courses they may need to take to benefit their state's people and fulfill the work we've given our government to do, something is wrong.

This editorial in The Columbus Dispatch says it well.

This is not a proud moment for this state I truly adore and from which I pray that Christ and His Church will never call me.

I believe that even good men and women can, thoughtlessly, be guilty of great evil. I also believe that Governor Ted Strickland is an essentially good person. My knowledge of several Republican legislators tells me that they are good people, one of whom I count as a friend. But great evil is exactly what we've seen under our Capitol's rotunda in Columbus in recent days.

Someone needed to be willing to risk losing re-election in order to advance the state. Few seemed so inclined.

*And to those who often write to say that they agree with me, but don't I believe that one is closer to God than the other, I say absolutely not.

**They also ignore the gambling addictions and insolvencies that they enable, abet, and extend.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

It's amazing how politicians thrive during good economic times, even when their policies have little or anything to do with such prosperity. But when things turn south, the voters punish politicians, even when their policies have little to do with such a downturn. The politicians know this, and so across the country they're playing a game of chicken to see who wants to sign off on tax increases and painful budget cuts.

I'm not sure I can fully agree that the politicians are being "evil" when they refuse to vote for tax increases their constituents refuse to pay or for budget cuts that would be exceedingly unpopular. About the only taxes politicians can safely raise these days are on cigarettes, alcohol, the gaming industry, and the extremely wealthy. Is it a moral imperative for representative political leaders in a democratic country to buck the will of the people?

It's sad, but the same voters that have seen their incomes drop perilously for decades now and have lost all sense of fiscal balance in their own lives naturally can't hold their political representatives accountable for tough budget decisions. I doubt God could blame political leaders for giving the voters what they want, on penalty of being voted out of office in disgrace.

If the politicians are following the will of the people and the people's will is "evil", then how is it fair to blame the politicians? The people will always get the leaders they demand and vote for.