When former president Bill Clinton balanced the budget during his presidency, it was celebrated by economists as an exemplary show of fiscal responsibility. However, by the 2002 fiscal year the American government was once again in the red. Although the federal government is used to running deficits, the budgets of most state governments are required to be balanced. In Wisconsin, the government is constitutionally required to balance the budget. Many consider this provision vital to keeping the state fiscally at bay, but I think to require a balanced budget every single fiscal year is unethical and economically irresponsible.
Since the Wisconsin state government provides social welfare programs to its citizens, it has a responsibility to keep these programs running efficiently and effectively. The federal government spends a large portion of its budget on social welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security, and because cuts to these programs are politically unpopular, the government will run a deficit to keep them afloat. However, in Wisconsin the constitution demands the budget be balanced every fiscal year, so there is no flexibility. For instance, last year Gov. Scott Walker chose to make cuts to the state’s government-run health care plan, BadgerCare, in the same year that he cut property taxes significantly. Many would argue that this was to maintain a balanced budget.
Here’s where the government runs into an ethical problem. Assuming the measures to lower taxes are meant to invigorate a struggling economy, the government is in a situation where having flexibility is advantageous. However, since Wisconsin has a balanced budget amendment, a decrease in taxes must be complemented with either new sources of revenue or budget cuts. In Wisconsin politics today, many conservatives argue that this decrease in revenue from taxes should be offset by cuts to social welfare programs. However, many people depend on these programs for their general well-being, and cuts will result in lower quality of life and uncertainty for those who depend on them. Balancing a budget during economically sound fiscal years is one thing, but cutting social services during financial catastrophes is nothing but unethical.
Balanced budgets are also economically irresponsible because they leave the government with no choice but to make cuts even during times of crisis. When there is an economic downturn, it’s the responsibility of the government to draft provisions that would avert a crisis. According to Keynesian economic theory, one of the most influential economic theories in the 20th century, times of economic crisis are when the government should increase spending and cut taxes to kick-start an economic recovery. Conversely, during times of economic prosperity the government should contract expenditures and raise taxes. All in all, this theory allows for temporary budget imbalances to level off the losses and gains achieved through bear and bull markets.
In fact, this Keynesian economic theory is so effective that its concepts even helped us get through the Great Depression. The massive government spending in World War II and the following prosperity proved that government spending can have a great impact on the economy. Despite this, a balanced budget amendment does not allow for a Keynesian approach to economic damage control on a state level. It promotes economic policies where debt reduction in the form of either tax expansion or spending cuts is considered the key to economic recovery. For example, Kansas’ Republican controlled state government balanced the budget by cutting taxes and spending to make the state a desirable place to start up businesses and live without a large tax burden. By the end of Gov. Sam Brownback’s first term, the state was in economic catastrophe.
Of course, running deficits every year is fiscally irresponsible, but requiring every budget to be balanced will also cause economic problems. States need flexibility to deal with unforeseen economic downturns, and a historically proven method for dealing with difficult economic times is the Keynesian economic theory that is impracticable under a balanced budget amendment. It’s time for Wisconsin to give itself more options and flexibility by repealing the balanced budget amendment.
Nichalous Pogorelec ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying sociology.