I recently finished a stint serving as executive director of a government transition of power in Northampton County, PA. I have lots of campaign experience, but wanted to engage in actually helping build a $400 million government in my community. What I found out was going on in the outgoing Republican Government was absolutely appalling and shocking for me at first, but gradually fell right into line with what I had expected from watching the Republican Party operate in Washington, Harrisburg, and other capitols around the country.
The former Executive in Northampton County had literally balanced his budget for four years on the backs of the needy, the vulnerable, and the employees of the county. He didn’t fill essential positions like Warden at the prison, for months and even years. He was squeezing the county work force for more of what he referred to as “efficiencies,” which just meant more work for less pay. He had corrections officers working overtime regularly. He had problems in both the county’s senior care and the children and youth departments, mostly because they were understaffed. He literally ran the county like a corporation, which is to say he let services suffer in the name of “profits,” which in this case were only the money he was using to balance his budget, and even run a surplus that he wanted to run for re-election on (fortunately, we beat him). What’s worse is that he and his Republican Council went so far as to create “lockbox” accounts to put money in that couldn’t be spent out of without supermajority votes, to further deny services to the public which uses them.
I would like to say here that this is uniquely bad, but it is not. Today I watched Steven Mnuchin say that “blue” states like California and New York should stop trying to find ways around the new tax law’s elimination of the state and local tax deduction, and should instead just cut their budgets and taxes, like other states (i.e.- New York, a successful state, should become Oklahoma now). In this statement, Mnuchin essentially gave away the real game in eliminating the state and local tax deduction federally- to force states that have functioning government services to stop having functioning government services. New Jersey should stop taking care of their poor, their sick, their elderly, and their children, and should instead cut the taxes of millionaires living in Colts Neck.
Speaking of Colts Neck and New Jersey, next week a much larger transition will come to an end, and the Chris Christie nightmare will finally end when Governor-elect Phil Murphy takes the oath of office at the statehouse in Trenton. While this seems like a happy moment, Murphy is taking over a very precarious situation. He was elected promising big improvements for New Jersey. He wants to rebuild the state’s infrastructure, particularly NJ Transit and the proposed new transit tunnel into Manhattan. He wants to fund public schools at higher levels, especially for the poorest districts in the state. He wants to create a state owned bank. He wants to make the state’s payments into the pension fund. He wants to invest in the people of his state, and the combination of Chris Christie and Washington Republicans have made that increasingly hard to do. Christie “reformed” the state’s pension system on the back of the workers, and then simply didn’t make the payments into the fund- then left Murphy with quarterly payments to make, mandated by law. Washington Republicans made it much harder to pass his “millionaire’s tax” to help finance his initiatives by taking away the state and local tax deduction that was critical to New Jerseyans at all income levels. Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to go after states that legalize marijuana and tax it, just as New Jersey is considering this as a financing option. The clear signal of national Republicans is that they don’t want Governors doing things in the public interest anymore than they wanted President Obama to do so, and they will throw every barrier they can up in the way, even when the voters want an active government. Of course they and their compatriots in Trenton will now cry foul of Murphy and say New Jersey cannot afford to do the things the public wanted him to do. They made sure of it.
Back here in Northampton County, we found the same crunch coming from Washington Republicans. Our new County Executive’s agenda was rather restrained and modest- fix the problems left for him in senior care and children and youth, increase economic development in the county’s northern rural core, protect the county nursing home, preserve our open green space, return our work force to proper staffing levels, and do so without raising taxes. With existing money and revenue projections moving forward, this was quite possible, before the Washington Republicans pulled off their tax-scam legislation. Due to their cuts to Medicaid, made in the name of “deficit reduction” after they cut the government’s revenue by $1.5 trillion for the next decade, the math got a lot tighter. Medicaid is a huge provider of health insurance for senior citizens (largely because they are on fixed incomes and qualify for it as the supplemental insurance for their Medicare), and Medicaid therefore is a huge piece of the puzzle for the county maintaining their nursing home, a safety net the voters voted to keep by a 75-25% margin in 2011. The cuts to Medicaid are being made to finance tax cuts for the highest tax brackets and corporations, and those cuts jeopardize an essential service of the county, which in turn jeopardizes the ability to do virtually anything else in the agenda the voters voiced support for with 54% of the vote, just this past November 7th.
The United States is a very wealthy nation, a nation that can do far more for it’s people than it is doing now. We don’t have endless reserves of cash to give everyone free everything, but we can certainly provide more and better services that the public says it wants, provided that we prioritize better. The current Republican Party, whether down at your county court house, or bumbling throughout the White House aimlessly right now, is fighting a war to make sure that the government can’t do anything well, or even adequately. These men and women in the GOP are running for office to leave the government impotent and incapable. This is not a disagreement over the scope of government programs and whether or not we should waste money at this point, this is a war against government. We need to engage that war.