Nobody Wants to Pay

Published August 30, 2012

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo expressed the frustration of many public officials when discussing transportation needs for the Port City. How can you build and maintain roads, Saffo asked, when nobody wants to pay for them? This is the big conundrum, not just for roads but all aspects of the public sector.

When you ask the wrong questions you get wrong answers and right now we are asking the wrong questions about government. Instead of heated and unproductive debate about whether to cut or expand government let’s begin by fundamentally deciding what we want and need the public sector to provide for the common good. For instance, is it government’s job to build and maintain a transportation network with good arteries to get us to our jobs, enable the expeditious movement of goods and services in commerce and provide for safe and efficient travel? If we agree this to be a responsibility of government, let’s figure out how to pay for it.

In 1795, North Carolina opened the first public university in America but our state failed to develop and prosper largely because most of our people were illiterate. Beginning in the 1850’s, we instituted a statewide system of public schools, adding language to our Constitution that guarantees every child a “sound basic education.” Do we still believe education should be provided by the public sector? We can debate how well the task is being accomplished, but if we agree education is a public function and that our economy and wellbeing depend on an educated populous we must also agree to adequately fund it. The same questions should be asked about other government services. Should government provide clean water and sewer services, commerce and environmental regulations, workplace safety controls, police and fire protection, a judicial system, jails and other services?

Many of us can identify waste and inadequate accountability in the public sector and we recognize dissatisfaction resulting from those revelations as the basis for today’s anti-government sentiment. But does this mean we are unwilling to pay for any government services and infrastructure?

Few of us enjoy paying taxes, but most recognize there is a price tag attached to everything we desire. Here are three questions to ask in considering the scope and cost of government. Are we funding the needs we have, through consensus, identified as priorities? Are all paying fairly and equitably for these services and are we getting good value for the dollars invested? We seek answers to those questions as individuals, families, in business and in all other aspects of our lives. Why not government?

Government is nothing more than a social contract. That contract must determine what we want to do ourselves and what we want our government to do for us. Every generation should review and revise that contract to reflect current times, but that hasn’t happened on a large scale since the Constitutional revision of 1971. North Carolina has changed dramatically since that time so we are long overdue for a social contract revision. Only when we decide what we want from government can we then determine how much we are willing to pay and how to fund those services.

What’s not acceptable is to say we want government services but refuse to pay for them.