This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 22, 2017.
In Tom Loftus’ recent piece, “… Matt Bevin Reaches His Defining Moment as Governor,” we saw a Christmas miracle. Governor Bevin and Representative Jim Wayne, certainly no political doppelgangers, agreed about the imperative of revenue enhancements. The governor wisely — and bravely — proclaimed, “You can’t cut your way into everything. You can’t.”
It’s not as if Kentucky has not tried the “cut into everything” approach. Both Governors Beshear and Bevin have enacted a seemingly never-ending — and at the same time, prudent — series of budget cuts. A little here. A little there. And yet the intractable issues that confront us as a commonwealth become more complicated and more urgent. In some of those initial cuts, some “fat-trimming” was achieved. But nothing more. We have gone from cutting fat to cutting into the very marrow of the state’s social and economic fabric.
As daunting and critical as the pension crisis may be, perhaps it has been a blessing in disguise. Discussion around that issue, in many ways, has been a catalyst for leaders across the political spectrum to utter the thoughtful — and courageous — take that Kentucky needs tax reform that will recognize the realities of the 21st century and allow us to sustain and invest in the public infrastructure that will help us to move forward as a state. Pragmatists realize the need for additional revenue when it comes to the pension crisis.
Can I simply say that, without additional revenue, pensions are but one of many crises we face and will continue to face in Kentucky?
From where I sit at Kentucky Youth Advocates, Kentucky’s children and families face a blizzard of crises that are just as real as the pension woes and will also require additional revenue. That may be a reality that none of us likes to confront, but it is a reality nevertheless. As an example, the child welfare system, which protects children from abuse and ensures that every kid has a family through solutions like kinship care, is facing an unprecedented strain on the system. Yes, addressing that strain is going to require additional fiscal supports. Also, if we know that quality child care is vital to help young children get a strong start in life and for their parents to join and stay in the workforce, then additional supports, including increased reimbursement for child care providers and increased access to subsidies for parents who cannot otherwise afford to work, are an imperative.
There is not an arena in which more progress has been made of late than juvenile justice, and yet, in many ways, we have just begun. If we want kids to stay on the right track and ensure public safety, then safeguarding the savings gained from reforms for reinvestment is essential.
Finally, you cannot begin to think about the well-being of Kentucky’s children without addressing the rising rate of poverty, and we know that pragmatic solutions abound. As an example, a state refundable Earned Income Tax Credit allows families to keep more of their hard-earned wages and energizes local economies. And still, a state EITC will require some upfront investment.
The encouraging news is that every measure I have noted — a deepened commitment to the child welfare system, real supports for early childhood, continued reform of juvenile justice, and common ground economic security initiatives — ALL provide a return on investment. Putting resources around prevention of abuse, as an example, not only spares a child from an unspeakable tragedy but saves the state dollars in treatment. Diversion programs for kids who have made a mistake are so much more effective and cost-efficient than detention. Quality child care access puts moms and dads in the workforce as taxpaying wage-earners. And each of these proven ideas does require upfront “seed” investment.
Kentucky consistently allocates seed capital to corporations wanting to come to the state, and in general, that is a smart investment. We as a commonwealth need to be just as focused on providing those kinds of seed investments for children and families. And that will require additional revenue on the front end.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “guts” as “bravery and determination.” Gov. Bevin is exemplifying that term as he continues the hard press ahead on revenue reform. When the General Assembly and the governor achieve that goal, they will have given every kid and every family in the commonwealth a belated Christmas present that represents more than glitter under the tree. That kind of investment will create a more vibrant and prosperous Kentucky both today and tomorrow.
Dr. Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.