What is the role of government?
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Monday, February 9, 2009

Now that our economy is in a recession (almost entirely due to government efforts), many people are losing their jobs, health insurance and homes, and tightening their belts.

But the saddest stories are certainly those of government planners, who are faced with declining tax revenues.

Recent news stories have featured Iowa City Mayor Regina Bailey grimly warning about city budget shortfalls.

Little belt-tightening here; her answer is to raise taxes:

  • Property tax rates will be increased by 4.4% (at least $60 per year for the average homeowner)
  • Incredibly, they’re already promoting another 1% local option sales tax
  • A new school levy next year
  • A possible city income tax

(All on top of the SILO tax, the Conservation tax, etc.).

Tax-hungry government planners don’t seem to realize that higher tax rates will lengthen the recession and actually result in lower revenues by discouraging work and investment (and encouraging residents to live elsewhere).

The true remedy is to cut expenses, to prioritize spending according to a clear set of criteria.

We must ask ourselves: What is the purpose of local government?

Most reasonable people (even libertarians) agree that safety services and roads are the primary legitimate functions of local government.

Unfortunately, these now get short shrift because money is instead allocated to politically-trendy programs like Iowa City’s “Human Rights Activities” (budgeted for $250,000), “Neighborhood Services” and “Public Art”.

The police and fire departments are requesting more officers and firefighters (the actual need should be independently assessed), and visitors and residents alike have commented on our abysmal snow removal.

No worry – we do have many other non-essential programs that benefit small groups.

Like the various “planning and community development” administrators who cost more than $1 million yearly – does Iowa City need this much “development”?

And the Senior Center, at $850,000. A nice enough thing to have downtown, but since American seniors are the wealthiest generation of humans ever, couldn’t the center solicit donations and charge means-tested membership fees instead of hitting up less-wealthy, younger taxpayers?

Or – the elephant in the room – the Library (at roughly $5 million, the 4th-largest item on the city budget).

Now, I greatly enjoy our library every week, but should non-users be forced to pay for my entertainment? Because that’s what the library is now: a repository of popular novels, DVDs and Wii video games for the middle-class. The justification of public libraries as the only way poor people could access the “great books” is long gone.

The nonprofit library could certainly charge membership fees on a sliding scale, the truly impoverished joining via a charitable “Friends of the Library” association. Many middle-class people, myself included, would eagerly join a subscription library, just like we join Netflix (still much cheaper than buying new books).

I won’t even go into the transit system that only about 5% of residents use regularly ($6.5 million a year – is this efficient?).

Many residents ask: “Why shouldn’t we be entitled to these services and more? They add to our quality of life.”

All those people who bought houses they couldn’t afford asked themselves too why they shouldn’t have bigger, nicer houses. Answer: Because they couldn’t afford the payments.

There is a cost to all these amenities and services – they’re not actually “free” (and it’s more than what they would cost if service users paid directly – government is notoriously inefficient).

Taxpayers already pay on average more than 40% (yes, nearly half) of their earnings in various taxes – the real human rights issue of our day.

The taxes to support privileged government employees (with far better benefits than we ourselves receive) will eventually suffocate the productive sector, leading to long-term economic stagnation and fewer (non-government) jobs for us and our children.

Again, is the function of local government to provide us with “free” entertainment (or subsidized entertainment via the Englert Theater)? Or to provide cushy “development” jobs, feel-good “human rights activities”, art and other amenities?

Or is it simply to protect our legal rights, our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How happy or free can we and our children be, impoverished and enslaved by the massive debt and taxation necessary for ever-escalating government spending?

Soon enough we’ll find out.