Federal & State Spending, Debt, And Taxes

For anyone who's been paying attention for even the past 6 months, it's obvious that our country has a major problem: debt.

While this is not a new problem, it is the magnitude of our national debt that has become quite worrisome. On top of that we have a Congress (or at least one chamber of Congress) that seems incapable of dealing with this problem. Rather than dealing with it, they seem fine with staying the course they set over four years ago. It doesn't help that the President seems hellbent on allowing them to continue their profligate ways, all while trying to stymie the Republican opposition trying to deal with it buy doing what needs to be done.

While the Democrats are convinced this country has a major revenue problem, just about everyone else knows what we have is a spending problem, and that we've managed to dig what John Stossel is calling The Money Hole.

While part of Congress and the President seem unwilling to do something to fix the problem, there are a number of other chief executives at the state level who have similar problems and met them head on. One in particular stands above all the others.

Some governors have shown the way. You know about Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rick Scott, John Kasich, etc. But you probably don't know about Luis Fortuno.

Fortuno is governor of Puerto Rico. Two years ago, he fired 17,000 government workers. No state governor did anything like that. He cut spending much more than Walker did in Wisconsin. In return, thousands of union members demonstrated against Fortuno for days. They clashed with police. They called him a fascist. (Gee, that seems to be the accusuation du jour, as a union leader called Chris Christie a Nazi, too. -ed.)

Fortuno said he had to make the cuts because Puerto Rico's economy was a mess.

"Not just a mess. We didn't have enough money to meet our first payroll."

Fortuno's predecessors had grown Puerto Rico's government to the point that the state employed one out of every three workers. By the time he was elected, Puerto Rico was broke. So the new conservative majority, the first in Puerto Rico in 40 years, shrank the government.

What did Fortuno cut? Believe it or not, everything, including his own salary. Nothing was immune from his budget ax. As he said, raising taxes wasn't going to happen because they were already too high. And he didn't waste time doing it, either.

Fortuno's advice for leaders who want to shrink the state: "Do what you need to do quickly, swiftly, like when you take off a Band-Aid. Just do it. And move on to better things."

The longer the delay, the less likely it will get done to the level needed in order to turn things around.

Many of our states are in a similar bind.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has been fighting this battle from the day he took office. And while he hasn't been gentle in dealing with the Garden State's abysmal financial conditions, he has been straightforward dealing with them. He hasn't pulled punches. He hasn't apologized. And he hasn't taken crap from state employees or teachers who feel they are entitled to plunder New Jersey taxpayer's wallets. He's told it like it is and the taxpayers of New Jersey appear to like what he's been saying.

My home state of New Hampshire, while not in the dire financial straits seen in New Jersey, California, Michigan, and a whole host of other states, has still had to deal with the aftereffects of a four year spending spree by legislative Democrats that started in 2007.

Normally a frugal state, New Hampshire legislative Democrats and the governor opened up the floodgates for state spending, increasing the state budget by over 30% in four years. The only problem was that they used overly optimistic revenue projections to justify it. Their projections were wrong and they left the state with an $800 million+ deficit, something illegal under the state constitution. They attempted to plug the deficit by boosting business taxes during a deep recession and seizing surplus funds from a state-chartered (but not state-funded) medical malpractice insurance agency, just to name two instances where they tried to use un-New Hampshire-like tactics to refill state coffers. Both failed, the first when voters revolted and threw the Democrats out, and the second when malpractice policyholders sued the state in court and won a decision that banned it from 'appropriating' private funds to which the it had no claim.

This year the Republican-dominated legislature cut the budget by 10%, though the Democrat governor may veto it as it stands. (The GOP has a supermajority, meaning they can override the veto should the governor do so.)

It's not just the states that have had to bite the bullet to fix government overspending.

Our neighbor to the north found itself in a similar position to where we are today, but they didn't hesitate when it came time to put their financial house in order.

When I think Canada, I think big government. I'm embarrassed that I didn't know that in the mid-'90s, Canada shrank its government. It had to. Its debt level was as bad as ours is today, almost 70 percent of the economy. Canada's finance minister said: "We are in debt up to our eyeballs. That can't be sustained."


The problem, he added, was that Canada had a government safety net that was more like a hammock.

So in 1995 Canadian leaders cut unemployment benefits and other programs. It happened quietly because it was a liberal government, and liberals didn't want to criticize their own. The result was that Canada's debt stopped increasing. As the government ran budget surpluses, the debt went down.


Canada fired government workers, but unemployment didn't increase. In fact, it fell from 12 percent to 6 percent. Canadian unemployment is still well below ours. And the Canadian dollar rose from just 72 American cents to $1.02 today.

That means that laid off government workers got new jobs elsewhere and became productive citizens rather than a drain on the taxpayer's wallets and the Canadian economy. Isn't it likely the same thing will happen here as well? Or are our gummint employees only competent enough to work for the government? (Unfortunately that might indeed be the case, as sad as that sounds.)

So the question is whether or not Congress will tackle the fiscal mess they helped create? Or will they continue along the path of least resistance (and the least amount of work) and not address the problem until they have no other choice, like when we're coming after them with pitchforks, torches, and a lot of rope?