Now that we've cut taxes, let's trim the scope of government
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade's tax rate cut to levels of two years ago, coupled with another assessment drop, should save taxpayers overall 18% on payments to the county.
The cut could be even greater, because commissioners last week merely set a rate ceiling that they could trim further in September.
But don't expect it.
Instead, coming weeks will be spent jockeying to see how the cuts already approved will affect the county's governors and the governed.
The battle will revolve around what the unions will or won't yield and how many county jobs must go to make the tax cut work.
A secondary battleground will be service cuts. Many want to reduce the scope of government, but virtually everybody will balk at cuts to sacred programs or affecting favored groups.
Whatever the final form of the cuts, however, Mayor Carlos Gimenez will have kept his word to roll back tax rates. And Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, a likely foe in next year's mayoral race, will have scored an equal victory in the tax cut derby.
A tax cut this year was certain. Across the nation a wave of austerity has inundated local governments. Voters have had enough of spending — at least, for now.
Tax cuts, though always popular, might not always be right. A certain level of service is vital. The debate now should center not on how much county spending is waste but on the service level that is both vital and belongs in government's realm.
For example, Miami-Dade funds services of many community groups. In question is not so much the quality of their services as whether community-based organizations should forever rely on tax support.
At what point should government just say no? That question might not be part of the budget debate this year, but it should be soon.
Whatever the county ends up cutting — outside groups, programs, internal operations, jobs, or wages and benefits — we'll all enjoy needed tax relief.
But, like the hangover after a very long party, we'll also feel the impact of what was cut. And that hangover may last until next year's election, which falls just 11 months after the final tax rate and budget are set.
The trick then will be for Mr. Gimenez and Mr. Martinez to trumpet the truly vital victory of a tax rate slash without having to take heat for voters' pain from the cuts.
In truth, however, the cuts shouldn't hit bone. The county's payroll has been padded even while its duties have been declining for more than a decade as more cities formed and served residents using local tax levies instead of county taxes.
But instead of shrinking commensurately, county government kept growing, adding undreamed-of bells and whistles.
So cuts now should still leave the county more than enough funds to provide necessities — once officials are willing to admit that many frills added as tax receipts grew with burgeoning construction and property values may not be vital.
After all, not everything that bloated taxes permitted the county to fund is crucial. The trick is to find consensus on where need ends and frills begin. It was only because tax receipts far outpaced core duties that the county could dole out cash to groups that, however wonderful, don't belong on a list of county-funded services.
In next year's election, will the debate shift from whether to cut taxes to what is the proper sphere of government? A charter review — required in 2012 but not yet gearing up — might help draw the line.
For example, blanketing the county with cities handling truly local needs would lighten county responsibility and hence the need for county taxes to fund that work. That might not cut total taxes, but it would shift levies to cities, which operate much closer to home.
Beyond charter review, a debate over how broad a role to play should be burning in county hall. Shrinking tax receipts should fuel that discussion.
That debate should also play out in the 2012 mayoral election as hopefuls jockey. This year's large field was nearly unanimous in agreeing taxes needed a rollback. What will candidates pledge next year for an encore?
Instead of promising that government can do more for less tax money, pray that candidates start promising to do less with less.
That should be a winning strategy.
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