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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

John David Dyche: Budget Pitfalls, Pratfalls.

Budget pitfalls, pratfalls
By John David Dyche

Recent developments in the Republican senatorial and Democrat mayoral races call the budgetary bona fides of two candidates into serious doubt. This is bad news for both since voters are extremely exercised about government debt and spending.

Republican U. S. Senate candidate Trey Grayson, long admired for policy seriousness, is airing a television ad that lambastes his GOP primary opponent Rand Paul for saying the Social Security retirement age should rise to 70. The demagogic attack is out of character for Grayson and suggests desperation after polls putting him 15 percent behind Paul.

According to the Cato Institute's Michael Tanner, at 23 percent of the federal budget Social Security is the world's largest government program. The Social Security tax is the largest levy average American families pay. Nearly 80 percent percent of Americans pay more Social Security tax than federal income tax.

George Will observes, “Nearly half of Social Security recipients choose to begin getting benefits at 62. This is a grotesque perversion of a program that was never intended to subsidize retirees for a third to a half of their adult lives.”

The Congressional Budget Office recently reported that Social Security will pay more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes this year. The Social Security Administration did not expect this dire situation to happen until 2016.

Congress has already spent a $2.5 trillion payroll tax surplus accumulated over decades. It now faces the frightening prospect of paying benefits with general fund revenues and borrowing. The crisis will worsen as Baby Boomers retire in waves.

Denial is predictable from Democrats, but Republicans seeking to reclaim a reputation for fiscal responsibility recognize that real reform requires additional increases in a retirement age already on its way up to 67. Leaders of the conservative Republican renaissance, like Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan and Florida U. S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, courageously advocate upping the retirement age to 70, saving money as participants work and live longer.
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Ryan would make the hike gradually. Rubio would only apply it to persons now under 55. Either approach takes political courage, especially in Florida , which is full of politically powerful seniors suspicious of any Social Security changes.

Grayson should offer his own plan for facing-up to Social Security's unsustainable future before criticizing others. But he seems more concerned about whether Paul should have withheld payroll taxes from campaign workers' checks than about the system's solvency.

Grayson's website essentially ignores entitlements, the biggest driver of America 's bleak budgetary future. He provides a platitude, not a plan: “The best thing we can do for the Social Security Trust fund is to get the economy growing again, put people to work and paying payroll taxes.” Yet even robust economic growth cannot save Social Security from impending doom due to demographics.

In the Democratic primary for Metro Louisville mayor the problem is not with what frontrunner Greg Fischer said, but with what he did not say. When rival Jim King asked Fischer the amount of the annual general fund budget and rainy day fund, Fischer failed to respond. Regardless of any explanation he now offers, voters must assume that the soporific Fischer simply did not know that the general fund is about $500 million and the rainy day fund is about $65 million.

Sometimes such “gotcha” questions are unfair, but this one was about a fundamental fact that a would-be mayor should have at his fingertips. This is especially true when that candidate has been running longer than anyone and boasts of his economic expertise.

Fischer's silence also points up a significant contrast with King. Both have impressive business backgrounds, but King has also spent countless hours in committee meetings mastering the minutiae of Metro money matters. While King has helped write several city budgets, it seems that Fisher may not have even seen one.

Many people place hope in Grayson and Fischer. But both have given them good reason to reconsider.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney who writes a political column from time to time in Forum. He is the author of “Republican Leader: A Political Biography of Senator Mitch McConnell.” His views are his own, not those of the law firm in which he practices. Read him on-line at; e-mail:



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