Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gary Palmer: Tea Party outrage must carry over to state elections

  The latest version of the revolt taking place in America is showing up at the ballot box.

  When Christine O’Donnell won the Delaware Republican Senate primary over liberal Republican Congressman Mike Castle, it caused more shock than when Scott Brown won the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.

  Brown’s win was widely touted by Republican leaders as evidence of voters swinging to the Republican Party. They were wrong.

  Brown admitted during his victory speech that his win was not a Republican victory; it was a victory for independents fed up with the out-of-control spending by both parties. In the Massachusetts election, the voter turnout was the highest in 20 years for a non-presidential election and independents voted for Brown by a 3-1 margin.

  In that regard, O’Donnell’s primary win over a well-funded, big-name liberal candidate hand-picked and endorsed by the Republican establishment, should be viewed as voters taking a swing at Republicans. And it is also an indication that people are not flocking to the Republican Party per se, they are supporting independent candidates who are not part of the establishment of either party.

  In Delaware, the turnout for the Republican primary was double the turnout for the 2008 primary, indicating significant participation by independent voters. Although overshadowed by O’Donnell’s victory over Castle, conservative Glen Urquhart’s narrow victory over Michele Rollins for Delaware’s at-large congressional seat was equally as significant because Rollins was another candidate endorsed by the Republican establishment.

  The apparent driving force leading independents to turn out and vote in the primary elections comes down to public displeasure with how Congress has spent the country into near bankruptcy. What is not as apparent is whether public outrage over out-of-control government spending will extend from the Congressional elections in November to state gubernatorial and legislative elections.

  This November, 37 states will be electing governors and 43 states will have elections for state legislatures. Of the 99 House and Senate chambers (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature), 88 of those chambers are up for election. If the Tea Party members and independents direct their attack against reckless spending to gubernatorial and state legislature elections with the same intensity as they have to Congressional elections, this could have an enormous impact.

  But that may not happen. While most voters are aware of the fiscal crisis at the federal level, they may not be as informed about the fact that some state governments are in very serious financial trouble as well. Alabamians are well aware of this issue, especially residents of Jefferson County who are victims of the malfeasance and incompetence of their county commissioners who have led that county to the verge of becoming the biggest bankruptcy of a government body in the history of the United States.

  A recent report from the United States Federal Reserve stated that the total unfunded debt of state and local government—excluding unfunded liabilities for state employee health and pension benefits—is a staggering $2.8 trillion. According to other recent studies, unfunded liabilities for state and local government employee health and pension benefits could range from $2 trillion to $3 trillion. This means the total unfunded liabilities of state and local government could be almost $6 trillion.

  According to a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, at the top of the list of states near financial ruin are Illinois, New York, Connecticut, and California; Alabama ranks 36th in budget shortfall and neighboring Mississippi ranks 26th. As a side note… with all their gambling revenue, Mississippi should have a smaller revenue shortfall than Alabama, but they don’t. Even though Mississippi only has 63 percent of the population of Alabama, their shortfall is 122 percent higher.

  By some estimates, Alabama faces a budget shortfall of over $500 million. This shortfall is largely attributed to the major pay raises for education employees and retirees pushed by the education union and passed by our state legislature. Between 2005 and 2008 the Alabama State Legislature increased spending on education by $2.122 billion; a 46.1 percent increase. Had the legislators limited the growth in spending to the inflation rate plus the annual percentage increase in state population, the state of Alabama would have had a reserve to help meet this crisis.

  The current Alabama budget shortfalls could have been avoided if the leadership of the legislature had the courage to make much-needed changes to the budgeting process. Unfortunately, because of the reckless spending by state legislators and their refusal to address serious funding disorders, particularly relating to state and education employee health and pension benefits, Alabama now faces our worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.

  Nearly every state faces massive cuts in state spending and the potential of major tax increases to pay down the debts of state and local government. If voters hope to restore fiscal stability to our nation, they will have to look beyond Washington, D.C. and hold candidates for their state legislatures to the same level of accountability as they hold candidates for Congress.

  In terms of unsustainable government spending, both ends of the bridge are out … leaving taxpayers in the middle.

  About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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