Our three former presidents who served as governors have enough clout to focus attention of citizens, public workers and politicians on the true magnitude of the fiscal crisis in our states.
Bet your bottom dollar – in some states you already have, you just don’t know it yet – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have a pretty good grip on the true magnitude of state fiscal catastrophe.
They must unite to sound the alarm and push for honest public accounting of this hidden deficit before it is too late just as they would warn of a natural disaster.
They know the only question is how huge the crisis is. Current rules allow government to hide details so thoroughly nobody – not even governors and legislators – can calculate it.
If they issue a joint clarion call for immediate Truth in Accounting, states, like alcoholic friends who don’t think they have a problem, will have to confront the secret fiscal beast devouring them and deal with it. If they stay in denial, the crash is inevitable.
According to Sheila Weinberg, founder and CEO of the Institute for Truth in Accounting, at the recent Peter G. Peterson Foundation 2010 Fiscal Summit Clinton mentioned state “accounting gimmicks” that “will cause a real problem” in discussing the host of economic ills our nation faces.
“I was so excited he focused on that, I got in line to shake his hand and thank him. As an ex-governor, he knows. He asked me, 'I'm right on this, aren't I?' and I told him, yes, keep saying it,” the conservative Republican recalled Thursday.
Weinberg has been shouting into the void for years that the great overlooked fiscal threat is right under our noses in state governments.
But nobody is paying attention. Clinton could get Carter and Bush to help push the urgent message through the sheer mind-numbing complexity and rising background noise of general economic calamity.
As three of only 17 citizens in our history to serve as governor and president they have the knowledge, credibility and high profiles needed to make America focus on an imminent disaster bigger than any hurricane or earthquake.
Yes, this goes beyond routine tax hikes and superficial service cuts.
Most states and many municipalities must impose unprecedented taxes and true spending reductions that will sabotage any struggling national economic recovery and cripple essential services.
Our governors and legislators right now don’t even have accurate information on which to gauge or effectively target taxes and cuts.
Our three former governors and presidents can state together clearly that realistic accounting of the calamity is of vital national interest way beyond partisan politics.
They know the stunts they pulled as governors to achieve “balanced” budgets in the frenetic scramble every legislature inflicts on itself as the session clock ticks down.
They understand deals that must be made, expenses shifted and deferred in desperate hope economic growth or some other miracle will happen before a future day of reckoning.
That day of reckoning is here. We’re out of growth and miracles.
Why is this like a hurricane or earthquake?
State and local governments provide essential services that are the ligatures of social order: police, fire, prisons, public health, water, sewerage, sanitation, roads, bridges, mass transit, traffic control. Think about it. Cut those, people die.
None on the Right should delude themselves our state, county and municipal workers are all just lazing around in patronage jobs.
Despite the egregious examples of a few, the overwhelming majority of them believe in what they do and ultimately make possible what the rest of us do. A lot of the work truly is horrible, dirty, dangerous, grueling and depressing.
It’s not their fault politicians went on a revenue bubble spending binge and their union leaders betrayed them.
One thing we can count on is politicians cutting the most essential, visible and cost effective services to panic taxpayers into accepting increases.
Nor should anyone on the Left pretend increasing state and local taxes – generally among the most regressive – never reaches a point of diminishing returns stunting economic growth. Stretched homeowners lose their shelter; struggling businesses close under the load.
Right now official operating deficits caused by overspending and revealed by a recession that returned revenues to 2006 levels are but a fraction of what state and local governments actually owe.
To “balance” their operating budgets virtually every state still is pushing off the inevitable – guzzling moonshine that got them hooked in the first place – and the inevitable is getting worse.
Carter, Clinton and Bush are in a unique, historic position to do our nation one more service.
They can issue a joint statement, write a letter to all media, make public service videos, slap us in the face, push an intervention, anything to wake up our states and force leaders to account the truth, admit the magnitude of our problem.
Without that, we never will solve it.
For more information on how extensive state and local governments’ true deficits are, and links to details, check:
Frank Keegan is an editor for the Franklin Center on Government and Public Integrity and watchdog.org.