Win-Win Solutions for a ‘New Indiana City’

November 30, 2009

For release noon Tuesday Dec. 1 and thereafter (619 words).

“If someone wants to play golf, get a ride to the store, build a building for their business, watch a sports event or attend the local symphony, it is not a denial of their rights to expect and demand they pay for it themselves.”

“Revenue reduction” — those are words striking fear into the hearts of municipal bureaucrats and politicians across Indiana. And the immediate and fervent response has been to leave no stone unturned in the search for more money for government to spend.
But it’s time — long past time actually — to recognize that the right and better course of action is for taxpayers to keep a great deal more of their money (i.e., their property). It goes to the heart of the fiduciary duty of elected officials.

Local government entities raising taxes directly, adding taxes known as fees, imposing taxes on currently tax-exempt organizations, seeking more funds from state and federal taxpayers and even pinning hopes on expensive marketing plans and slogans — all losing propositions.

There is a better way for local government, citizens, business and community organizations to deal with property-tax caps and other reasons for reduced revenue. We can begin by recognizing two basic, non-partisan facts:

First, all revenues received by local government are paid under severe penalty. Taxes are not paid voluntarily, motivated by civic pride or a sense of community. Nor are they the incidental “price of civil society,” as some like to say. In fact, if you don’t pay your taxes you can be fined, your property can be seized and ultimately you can be taken by force. This is not some anti-government diatribe; it is simply tax law.

Secondly, the lion’s share of tax revenues is spent on compensation. Tinkering around the edges will hardly make a dent in a city’s revenue shortfall. It is only by confronting personnel costs in local government that a solution can be crafted.

That will require limiting local government to it’s proper functions: the protection of life, liberty and property from force or fraud. Cities don’t need to be reconstructing antiquated downtowns, building sports facilities, operating businesses or numerous other functions they now attempt. Those costs (capital, operation and labor) would be saved and the money (that’s property again) could remain with citizens to be used as they see fit.

This all leaves ardent community boosters aghast. I always ask, though, whether they feel so strongly about their pet idea for a sports stadium or whatever that they would be willing to send a neighbor who disagrees to jail. It is a vitally important question to be applied to every municipal issue.

And there is something else: The vigorous support of free-market solutions for the wants and needs of citizens. Look around any Hoosier city and you’ll find that nearly every government function also is provided by the market. It is a winning political and policy solution to apply the tremendous options available in a free market to our municipal problems.

Finally, there must be an assumption of personal responsibility on the part of the citizenry. Sadly, in our country and surprisingly even here in Indiana more and more folks automatically look to government to provide for them. And most politicians are happy to oblige. When they do, though, everyone loses.

If someone wants to play golf, get a ride to the store, build a building for their business, watch a sports event or attend the local symphony, it is not a denial of their rights to expect and demand they pay for it themselves. It is a fundamental American notion that each of us, individually and voluntarily, must be responsible for our families, our neighbors and ourselves. How else can it work?

Success in what some of us are calling the “New Indiana City” depends on a dynamic embrace of these principles of limited government, free markets and personal responsibility. They produce the only solutions that benefit everyone. And that is true regardless of economic situation or political philosophy.

Ryan Cummins, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a Terre Haute businessman, served two terms on the Terre Haute City Council.


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