Empty promises

Published 11:41 am Saturday, August 18, 2012

So profound is fiscal conservatives’ disillusionment with government that even GOP vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan, perhaps the most serious advocate of smaller government to hit the Washington scene since Barry Goldwater, hasn’t seemed to light their fire.

Beginning with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” in the mid-1990s, the conservative establishment has time and again promised — but failed — to put the country’s fiscal house in order. For those who want to blame the obstructionism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it should be noted that federal spending and debt soared during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush.

Fiscal conservatives’ disappointment doesn’t flow just from Washington.

Here at home, Southampton County conservatives thought they were imposing fiscal discipline in county government last fall when they elected a slate of four new, tough-talking county supervisors, an instant majority of the seven-member board.

Wishful thinking.

Within a few months of taking office, three members of the “Gang of Four” voted for what one of their colleagues called the largest tax increase in Southampton County history — a punitive $200-per-household “garbage fee” that had zero to do with the cost of garbage disposal, which is going down.

It was, pure and simple, a taxation scheme by supervisors who promised serious fiscal reform but, when the chips were down, lost their political courage.

Alan Edwards, Bruce Phillips and Barry Porter owe Anita Felts, Moses Wyche and Walter Young an apology. Had the challengers not promised an expense-cutting alternative to taxation as usual, the incumbents would have returned to office and raised the same revenue, except they would have done it the fair way: by raising the real estate tax rate, instead of imposing a regressive “garbage fee” that disproportionately punishes the working class.

As politicians are wont to do, the newcomers said the county’s fiscal condition was worse than they knew before taking office.

If that’s the case, they simply didn’t try very hard as candidates to understand the situation. County government’s debt-service schedule was established — and became a matter of public record — the moment the money was borrowed. The only real surprise during budgeting season was a positive one: more state dollars than had been originally forecast.

The teachers’ lobby and others who opposed the “Gang of Four” at the ballot box hailed the newcomers’ “statesmanship.”

Meantime, the disillusionment of the conservatives who put them in office deepens.

Maybe Paul Ryan, the latest, greatest champion of fiscal conservatism, will restore their faith.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.