Lawmakers so far lack the courage to compromise

Two meetings at Western Michigan University this week helped to underscore an increasingly obvious truth when it comes to taxes and government programs in our state: The time is now to compromise on both.

That’s just a reality that no one, regardless of political persuasion or ideology, wants to face. But Michigan simply cannot have its cake and eat it, too. There’s a lot less cake, and everybody’s hungry.

One of this week’s meetings, on the state of funding for higher education, demonstrated what almost everyone now realizes, which is that the state’s ability to support our public colleges and universities at even present levels is continuing to fall. More of the cost of college degrees must be borne by students and their families in the form of rising tuition and fees. This is happening at a time when financial aid resources are declining and families’ private resources — home values, 401(k) funds, income — are declining as well.

But the same dynamic exists whether you are talking about higher education or health care or public schools: The state is able to do less and less, so more and more costs are shifting onto increasingly strapped families.

The other meeting included data on the latest state budget trends from Mitchell Bean, director of the nonpartisan Michigan House Fiscal Agency. Part of his message as he travels around Michigan is that state revenues have plunged as unemployment has spiked, property values have declined and the Legislature has failed to close billions in tax loopholes or implement any meaningful tax reform.

Almost everyone will tell you they support effective education, a clean environment and affordable health care. But the truth is that, over the next few years, there will not be enough money available to support any of those or other areas at even the present — diminished — levels.

For those of us who say we are willing to accept some higher taxes to preserve what we believe are crucial programs, here is your hard truth: Programs of all kinds will continue to be cut or eliminated in Michigan.

For those of us who say the way to make ends meet is to continue to cut programs without raising any taxes, here is your hard truth: State revenues must rise somehow to help close the state’s structural deficit; it can’t be done by cuts alone.

And the problem will worsen by hundreds of millions of dollars more come 2011 after federal stimulus dollars are gone.

Bean said at his meeting that nearly $35 billion in potential state tax revenue is lost because of various loopholes, exemptions, credits and deductions, some of which were enacted years ago and may no longer make sense. Clearly, considering the money involved, we must look at those.

The sooner we come to grips with both of these truths — that programs must shrink and revenues must rise somehow — the sooner we can reach the compromises that we and Lansing must now make. The time for ideological posturing and political platitudes is past, and the work is critically urgent.

We ask lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to demonstrate the courage and leadership that so far has been painfully lacking.

Our message is this: Cut wisely, tax wisely. But get the job done.