Budgets Are about Choices

Earlier this month, the city council of Topeka, KS, voted to decriminalize domestic violence in what has become a national-headline-grabbing budget dispute between the city and its county seat, Shawnee. Some are arguing that it's a sad spectacle when a couple of local governments within our nation play jurisdictional games with such a serious issue, but it's important to point out that the standoff didn't have to occur.

Over the past month or so, the Shawnee County district attorney’s office has stopped pursuing domestic violence charges – a misdemeanor offense – due to state budget cuts and an overwhelming caseload of felonies. To prevent the costs shifting onto the similarly budget-strapped city, local elected officials chose to repeal the city ordinance outlawing domestic violence, directing the cases back to the county.

State governments are dealing with the worst revenue shortfalls in modern history – with average state revenues still nine percent below pre-recession levels – and most have adopted severe budget cuts to deal with these shortfalls, affecting important social services like education, health care, and economic assistance. These cuts can have a devastating impact as they travel down the line to local governments, as exemplified by the Topeka case. But when budget cuts can go no further, local officials could push responsibility back up the chain and make the case for taxes.

Unlike local jurisdictions with high unemployment and a limited tax base, the federal government has numerous options for raising the revenue local communities so desperately need to pay for vital services. Many of these revenue options enjoy majority support among the public. Whether it’s financial taxes, a surtax on the wealthy, or repeal of the top two Bush tax cuts, additional federal revenue are popular and critical to providing help to states and localities still grappling with the Great Recession.

Alternatively, state officials could pair a small revenue raiser with spending cuts. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), only five states “balanced deep spending cuts with significant revenue-raising measures” to close fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget shortfalls. Kansas was not one even though residents pay only 9.7 percent in state and local taxes (a little below the national average).

Politicians are too docile about speaking to the public about taxes. Taxes help pay for important things like the ability of a county prosecutor to protect domestic violence victims. Elected officials need to have the moral courage and leadership to raise their voices and discuss these issues. Budgets – whether federal, state, or local – are about choices; we fund those services we believe the government should pursue, and the prosecution of domestic abusers should be one of those services.

Image by Flickr user Sneebly used under a Creative Commons license.

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