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Barbara's Column
Tuesday, February 2, 1999


The Salem Evening News

Curing government
of its addiction to money

By Barbara Anderson


Government is like a certain type of lottery winner.

Not the winner who carefully invests some, shares some, spends some; nor the person who happily spends it all, then returns to his or her normal, wage-earning existence.

Government is like the person who spends the lottery winnings and then, because spending money one hasn't earned is so much fun, keeps spending until filing for bankruptcy. Except that the government doesn't go bankrupt; when the winnings are gone, it demands -- and usually gets -- more free money from you.

This analogy might make it easier to understand why raising taxes or keeping a tax surplus to reduce government debt usually doesn't work.

Spending unearned tax dollars is so much fun that even humongous amounts of them aren't enough. So the government borrows more and keeps on spending.

This is how the federal government accumulated $5.5 trillion dollars of national debt. It spent as many tax dollars as it could, and it spent Social Security's alleged "trust fund," then it spent another $5.5 trillion dollars on top of that.

During the Reagan years there was a tax cut, but there is no built-in limit on federal debt so the spending-addicted federal government just kept piling it on.

Since state and local budgets are required to be balanced, state debt is better controlled. But the common-sense notion that a tax surplus can be used to reduce the debt level would be an uncommon result in government.

Alcoholics have AA, drug addicts have treatment centers; there are programs for people addicted to gambling and sex. People who can't stop spending can get help. But there's no similar program for government's spending addiction because, unlike other addicts, government usually has no motivation to quit.

At the federal level, the debt makes a convenient excuse not to cut taxes. And the clever addict can get even more money to spend if the money already spent doesn't solve the problems it was supposed to address.

Billions spent on public schools, and the test scores are abysmal? Have fun spending more.

If, because of citizen outrage, a problem actually is addressed properly, the government quickly finds a new problem that suddenly needs attention.

Welfare reform happened because people finally saw the suffering of children trapped in the welfare culture. Voters demanded an incentive for recipients to work instead of having more kids they could not afford, and these voters got what they demanded -- welfare reform.

Today the numbers for welfare recipients and illegitimate births are down, but the savings from welfare reform are being "reinvested" in more government programs.

State attorneys general successfully sued tobacco companies for the taxpayer dollars that they determined their states had been spending on tobacco-related illnesses. After an initial windfall this spring, Massachusetts will receive roughly $300 million a year. But will it reimburse the taxpayers who provided the money to deal with these illnesses in the first place? No, Massachusetts will spend the extra money itself. Spend, spend, spend.

Our commonwealth took 207 years to reach a $10 billion budget in 1987. Just 12 years later, our governor proposes a budget of over $20 billion. He offers cities and towns, who have more free cash than ever, almost $500 million more in aid than last year's record amount. And still some of them want Proposition 2 overrides this year. Spend, spend, spend.

Gov. Paul Cellucci wants to cut the income tax rate to reduce some of the giant surplus that remains even after giant spending increases. But House Speaker Tom Finneran, who calls himself a fiscal conservative, uses his state-of-the-state address to propose more new programs while neglecting to mention tax cuts.

The size and scope of government has grown dramatically on their watch. It has doubled in 12 years. It will double again soon unless taxes are cut, the tobacco reimbursement returned to taxpayers, the debt cap maintained and the spending addiction treated.

In his 1998 state-of-the-union speech, President Clinton told us that "the era of big government is over." We applauded.

In his 1999 speech, he proposed increasing the size of government, according to a National Taxpayer Union Foundation analysis, by $288 billion. Many people applauded again.

It's generally understood that addicts need tough love to help them recover. Family members and friends must learn not to be enablers.

The same is true for government. Taxpayers should demand lower taxes, not only for themselves, but to help their governments kick the spending habit before it's too late. We can do it together, one tax cut at a time.


Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. She writes regularly for the Viewpoint page. Her biweekly column also appears in other publications.


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