So much for “the will of the people.” When Mark Poloncarz ran for Erie County executive – and won handily – he did it on the promise of undoing the damage wrought by predecessor Chris Collins. Their race was all about who would safeguard libraries, cultural organizations, infrastructure and safety-net programs that taxpayers said they value.
Now some county legislators want to listen to the people again – just different people.
In the face of Poloncarz’s proposed 3.4 percent property tax hike to pay for such services, the Legislature’s minority caucus has a survey on its website asking if residents support the increase and, if not, which of seven budget lines – from libraries to day care subsidies – should be cut.
Given where the survey is posted or distributed, and who will likely respond, the Republican initiative is about as valid as when an MSNBC host asks loyal viewers to text their responses to some loaded question about Washington. In fact, to borrow the late U.S. Sen. Russell Long’s tax-reform critique, the responses will likely suggest that we don’t cut services for you or me, but only for “that fellow behind the tree.”
That’s not a knock against electronic democracy. Rather, it’s to suggest that instead of pointing at everyone else’s programs, a more useful debate would start with what each of us is willing to put on the table. In that vein, it would be a lot more illuminating if the lawmakers had asked a different set of questions:
• Which county park that you use should have its hours cut and its upkeep deferred?
• Which county road in your community should be plowed less often this winter and repaired less often next summer?
• Which theater or concert hall that you patronize should go dark on certain nights?
The reality is that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly was half right – a marked improvement – when he said 50 percent of the country wants people to give them things. The entire country wants that, whether it’s tax breaks and subsidies or food stamps and a decent place to live. The only difference is that some Americans really need the help, and some are fortunate enough not to.
Those who shop at Barnes & Noble or have home computers may well think that county libraries are expendable. People whose kids play in after-school soccer leagues or go to summer camps may not need community centers or parks. But such public facilities are a lifeline for others.
Asking folks in well-off suburbs which of those programs to cut misses the point of what government is supposed to be doing to create a livable community.
No one wants to pay more taxes than necessary; legislators have a watchdog role to play. But the county had an election last year – and the nation had one last week – over this very question.
If elections matter and we’re serious about dealing responsibly with budgets – from Poloncarz’s to the painful Simpson-Bowles federal deficit-cutting proposal – we need a new rule: No one can speak unless first detailing what program or service they or their constituents are willing to give up, or how much more in taxes or fees they’re willing to pay.
The resulting silence might help us think our way through these budgetary challenges.