I expected civilization to be ending about
As I started writing this column, there was a
chance the federal government might shut down on Friday. Here in
Massachusetts, public employee unions were rallying against
something, not sure what, but if our Democratic legislators flee
to Connecticut to avoid addressing our state budget deficit, as
Wisconsin Democrats fled to Illinois, Beacon Hill may shut down
This would have left us with only the mayors,
city councils, and selectmen to see that basic federal, state
and local services are provided. I was glad for fee-based water
bills; the Marblehead Water & Sewer Commission would at least
keep us hydrated, flushed and showered.
It's reminded me of the 1980 Proposition 2˝
campaign, when voters were told that water would cease to flow
from the spigots of Cambridge if the ballot question passed.
Cambridge had a fee-based water supply system, so it wouldn't be
affected by a property tax cut, but Cambridge voters rejected
Prop. 2˝ anyhow.
However, despite dire warnings from local
officials and intense opposition from public employee unions,
voters statewide passed the initiative by a margin of 59 percent
to 41 percent. I honestly don't know if they didn't believe the
warnings that civilization was about to end, or if they did
believe it and just didn't care anymore. There had been too many
years of overspending, broken promises about reform, pleas to
raise taxes "for the children" and arrogance from uncontrolled
Voters said "enough!" The public employee
unions marched and no one cared. They filed bills against the
new law and but no politicians dared interfere. They went to
court and lost. Eventually everything settled down and now, 30
years later, Prop. 2˝ still stands as a monument to citizen
activism and determination.
But the "law of unintended consequences"
wasn't repealed, either. Because of the political pressure from
the property tax limit, the state shared more of its revenues
with the cities and towns; this seemed like a good idea at the
time. However, over the years, many local officials, unable to
stand up to their unions, allowed much of the new money to go to
pay for the extraordinary employee benefits that are now
Oddly, union leaderships just kept demanding
more, without seeming to worry about the growing unfunded
liabilities in their pension and health insurance "accounts."
These same union leaders often urged voters
to allow higher taxes because they'd been "working without a
contract" for months. When I first heard that expression, I felt
bad for them; I thought this meant they weren't getting paid!
Eventually someone explained to me that it
meant they were getting paid the same amount they were making
under the old contract, without the pay raise and/or new
benefits that the government managers were resisting in the new
This is kind of like the federal government
"working without a budget," which it's been doing since the
beginning of its fiscal year last October because the president
and the Democrat-controlled Congress didn't get around to
So, as with "no new contract" employees, the
federal government has been operating under the previous year's
budget, spending roughly the same amount, a portion at a time.
Now it's March, and the newly-dominant
Republicans are saying "enough" to the current levels of
overspending, as they were elected to do; they want to cut the
current budget by roughly $62 billion.
They made an offer to cut $4 billion
immediately and go on from there for another two weeks while
negotiations continue. If Democrats balked, there wouldn't be
another "continuing resolution" and the federal government would
have shut down this Friday.
Meanwhile, President Obama has filed his
budget for the next fiscal year which begins in October 2011.
He's suggesting $3.7 trillion, including a deficit of $1.6
trillion, and we're told he's cutting $90 billion (over 10
years, but that's ridiculous, so for the purpose of this
analysis let's pretend it's $90 billion a year).
The Republicans are analyzing this budget and
will offer much larger cuts, as demanded by voters in November,
when the House responds with its own version of the budget this
But let's try to make all this understandable
by relating it to something we can all grasp — our own budgets.
I don't actually budget, but I just filed my
taxes so I know what I earned last year: Consider that $24,000
as my "spending plan." If I cut the same percentage as President
Obama (at $90 billion a year), I estimate I'd have to get by
with roughly $1.60 less a day.
Over the years, when the state government and
its unions wanted a tax increase and taxpayers objected, we were
told it would only cost us the equivalent of a slice of pizza a
The $4 billion congressional Republicans were
looking for this week just cuts the pepperoni from the federal
Would the Democrats shut down the government
because they couldn't have pepperoni on their pizza?
But Tuesday the House voted 335-91 in favor
of a budget extension, supported by Obama, that included the $4
billion in cuts, and Wednesday the Senate followed suit.
Has the earth really tilted on its axis? It
seems there are enough Democrats in Congress willing to settle
for a slice of basic cheese, without the pepperoni, in order to
save civilization for another two weeks.
STOPGAP 2011 BUDGET: Voting 335 for and 91
against, the House on March 1 passed a stopgap measure (HJ
Res 44) to keep the government in full operation between March 5
and March 18 while cutting spending by $4 billion over that
period. The House and Senate will use the two weeks to negotiate
a budget path for the last half of fiscal 2011, which ends Sept.
30. Among this bill’s cuts are $650 million in highway spending
and a $2.8 billion rescission of once-popular earmarks that have
been abandoned by their congressional sponsors.
Rodney Freylinghuysen, R-N.J., called the
bill “a thoughtful path forward to avoid a potential government
Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said Congress needs to
invest in “education programs ... in infrastructure ... and (in)
mass transit, so that ... we can grow the economy.”
A yes vote was to pass the bill.
Voting yes: Tsongas, Keating
Olver, Neal, McGovern, Frank, Tierney, Markey, Capuano, Lynch
Not voting: None
Both Brown and Kerry voted Yes in the Senate.