On Friday a town hall was held by Mae Beavers, Terri Lynn Weaver, and Mark Pody at the Smithville Community Center and a lot of folks turned out for it. We were there to share our opinions about the Governor’s budget and infrastructure proposal. Instead of asking for our feedback, Representative Weaver began the meeting by telling us she had already made up her mind.
Despite her certainty, people shared their opinions about the state of our roads and bridges and how best to pay for their upkeep and repair. As our legislators answered questions I noticed they liked to point out that our state has a budget surplus thanks to them.
I’ve been thinking about this story and what it communicates – and more importantly what it doesn’t. While virtually all politicians identify fiscal responsibility as crucial, it turns out there is not widespread agreement on what that means. With debt, budgets, Gross Domestic Product, unemployment, and many other measures of economy to consider, things get complicated really fast.
Beyond the debate about what fiscal responsibility actually is, I have a deeper issue with our legislator’s story that having a budget surplus is the definition of success. Balancing taxation and spending is important for economic stability. However, we have to keep in mind the point of economic stability in the first place. Money is a tool we created to organize our world and achieve goals in life. It is not an end in itself.
What about the quality of education our kids are getting? What about the physical and mental health of our people? What about the state of our roads, the quality of our air and water, and the availability of work that pays the bills and is fulfilling? Without these things, a momentary surplus in the budget is meaningless to the people of Tennessee.
The point of government is to bring in money and use it to create a stable and just society. Waste and overspending lead to problems, but so does neglecting to proactively address the next issue coming down the pipeline. It saves money and a lot of trouble to deal with things in advance if possible. If our state legislators are going to accumulate our taxes, pat themselves on the back for it, and then turn around and not give enough funding to schools or roads, something is seriously wonky.