Returning state surplus to citizens makes poor fiscal sense

It cost money to send us all a refund check, there are better better way to use the budget surplus… Reprinted with permission by the Columbia Missourian.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:48 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Between budget cuts, layoffs and an improving economy, Missouri’s budget surplus may be as much as $400 million. Give the citizens their money back. Yeah, that’s the ticket to make Missouri legislators look like heroes.

So it goes as one listens to the commercials voiced by Daniel P. Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

That appears to be at odds with state Rep. Rick Stream, R-St. Louis, Missouri’s House Budget Committee chairman.

As a fiscal conservative, he, too, would like to give the money back to the people: “But sometimes, you also have to spend money on big capital improvements to move the state forward.”

Thus the conservatives are once again fighting to see how conservative one can be.

Missouri is not the only state struggling with a few extra bucks, but eyes are focused here on what our legislators will do during their not-so-special session come September.

A bad idea

It is unfortunate that the “Give it Back” movement has the money, thus the voices, to make one think that returning money to the citizens is a good idea.

It is not.

Consider these three facts about small fiscal windfalls for citizens:

  1.  It is expensive to write all of those checks. Even if the state could return the majority of the money electronically (all cheer for technology!), the cost of returning the funds is wasting the very good money that is being designated for the citizens.
  2.  Low- and lower-middle-income families will not spend their money on new material goods. Most will spend the few extra bucks paying past-due bills, purchasing medication or food or, if the timing is right, buying clothes for their children in school.
  3.  There will be no new jobs. The money will not stimulate the economy, and it will not create jobs, as the fiscal conservatives believe. To do that, the money must be put to work, repairing the damage caused by past budget shortfalls.

Better options

Let’s use the money to repair our infrastructure. Missouri is the crossroads of the United States; we are the truly the middle of Middle America. With six interstates in the state and close to a dozen major federal highways crisscrossing, commerce is dependent on Missouri to maintain the byways.

Let’s use the money to bolster education. The state has woefully underfunded K-12 for years, tapping into education to balance budgets and placing additional burdens on local school districts. Buildings need repair, teaching materials need to be replaced and revised. Instead of using the crayons to write me a check, let’s give them to the kids to learn math, science and the arts.

Let’s use the money to reinvigorate the Missouri’s Second Injury Fund, which providing funding for those with pre-existing injuries or disabilities aggravated further through new work-related injuries. Yes, the governor just signed a bill that would “shore up” the fund, but as more men and women go back to work, the fund will once again be challenged.

Let’s use the money to help those in need to pay for health care. Wait. Our conservative legislature hates the idea of Obamacare so much that its members tried to make it illegal in Missouri, and they rejected the extension of Medicaid for millions of Missourians in need.

No cure-all  

This list continues, but $400 million can only go so far, and it will not cure all of Missouri’s ills. But spending money to return money does not make a whole lot of sense.

It makes about as much sense as SB 253, which would have reduced state income taxes only to have them replaced by a sales tax. Doing the math, the sales tax would cost the lower- and lower-middle-income citizens more than they would save.

Taxes are an easy target, but they are a poor target if a state wishes to advance. It seems that our state Chamber of Commerce has forgotten the basic adage of all business: You gotta spend money to make money.

Giving money away can make you a short-term hero, but if the mission of the chamber is to “protect and advance Missouri business,” giving away money does neither.

I urge you to write your state representatives and senators and demand that they think with their heads and not their wallets. Use the surplus to put and keep Missourians at work, not make false heroes of legislators.

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. 


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About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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