In 1802, Thomas Jefferson said in a letter, “If we can but prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy.”
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Debbie Arnold quoted these insightful words this week during her campaign announcement for re-election. (Full disclosure: My company works for Debbie Arnold.) That same morning, former appointed county Supervisor Caren Ray criticized me in The Tribune for my questioning the necessity of fees and taxes in our county.
The timing of these two events couldn’t have been more coincidental.
As Debbie spoke Thomas Jefferson’s words, I couldn’t help but reflect on how true they still are, 210 years later. Too often, the government is guilty of wasting the labors of the people — and the money they receive for those labors —under the pretense of taking care of them.
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In today’s county budget, the money is spread so far and so wide that, outside of providing essential services, it barely makes an impact on the average working family. Government employee wages are one of the biggest expenses that use tax dollars.
According to a November 2014 Wall Street Journal report, the federal government employed 2.7 million people, excluding non-civilian military, in the fall of last year. And, while the same article lists these federal jobs as the lowest number of employees since 1966, the real impact is at the local level.
According to the same Wall Street Journal article, “Local governments, in particular, have boomed from 4 million employees in the 1950s to over 14 million today. In the mid-1950s, state governments employed half as many people as the federal government. Today, state governments employ nearly twice as many.”
It takes manpower to provide a service, and wages must be paid to continue providing that service. That doesn’t sound like simple “cost recovery through fees” — as Caren Ray phrased it — to me.
Essentially, the difference between liberals and conservatives is their gut reaction to budget shortfalls and how to deal with them.
When liberals encounter a budget shortfall, their gut reaction is to instinctively raise taxes or fees to meet the necessary budget demands. If it’s a service the county is providing, liberals will raise fees to continue providing the service.
Conservatives are more like everyday, hard-working Americans. When monthly expenses go up, they don’t run to the boss and ask for a raise. They look at their monthly budgets and make tough decisions. They cut out unnecessary expenses, tighten their belts and find a way to make their pennies stretch.
When local government budget shortfalls are identified, conservatives move to freeze all hiring and not fill vacancies left by retirements and look for additional savings by identifying waste.
This is why a majority of voters are frustrated when they work so hard to scrimp and save and they don’t see elected leaders doing the same. They’re taking tax and fee dollars, mismanaging them and coming back and asking for more.
Conservatives believe in smaller, more efficient government. They believe that by keeping money in taxpayers’ pockets, they’ll have more money to support the community and help others.
Most importantly, by keeping money in taxpayers’ pockets, they’ll be better able to help themselves and will be less likely to depend on a government program.
Essentially, it’s obvious: Former appointed Supervisor Caren Ray and I disagree about the role of government.
Governments should empower the people by supporting policies that foster an environment friendly to small businesses, one that encourages private sector job creation and free enterprise — not one that raises taxes and fees to grow and expand government programs. If only we could take Thomas Jefferson’s words to heart, and stop believing that if we provide more money from our labors, we could fund a government to better take care of us.