GOP governors stand ready to help

President Obama recently unveiled his $3.7 trillion spending plan for 2012. Unfortunately this plan, like its predecessors, relies on continued deficit spending with money we simply do not have to fund the basic operations of government. This budget proposal is a dispiriting continuation of the spending habits that have brought our nation to the brink of fiscal disaster. For too long, Washington has spent beyond its means, a practice detrimental to the future prosperity and security of our great nation. It is also out of line with how most families and businesses function every day, and how states budget every year with their balanced-budget requirements.

Over the last two years, the federal government has added approximately $3.54 trillion to the national debt, pushing that number to an unsustainable $14 trillion. The president’s budget proposal makes the problem worse. The budget, as presented, aims to save $1.1 trillion over the next decade. That sounds like a big number, until we remember that the deficit for this year alone is $1.6 trillion. In short, the president’s budget is not a serious proposal to restructure the country’s finances and reduce spending. It is a missed opportunity to make hard decisions at a time when strong leadership is needed to avert another financial crisis. It’s late in the game, and yet the White House still chose to punt.

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The view from many state capitols is one of increasing incredulity toward the decisions contributing to the staggering national debt. Forty-nine states have some sort of balanced-budget mandate, with 45 states bound to do so by their constitutions. From Richmond to Helena we have to match our incoming receipts with our outgoing disbursements — we can’t print money and most of us have strict debt limitations. This means we face tough decisions every year, and we try to address them with bipartisan cooperation.

Here in Virginia we have navigated through the same tough economy as every other state. Confronting unprecedented back-to-back years of declining revenues we had a choice: We could cut spending or raise taxes. We chose the former, and cut $1.8 billion out of our previous budget and $4.2 billion out of the current. In the process we shrank state spending to 2006 levels, and turned a budget shortfall into a $403 million surplus. Over the past year our unemployment numbers have fallen and we’ve added 55,400 net new jobs, the fourth highest number in the nation. Last month we witnessed a 12.6 percent increase in revenue collections over the prior year. In short, our decisions to cut spending, keep taxes low and make the tough choices have positioned the Commonwealth of Virginia for strong economic recovery.

Our work in Richmond is not an isolated example. From Gov. Rick Scott in Tallahassee, Fla., to Gov. Rick Perry in Austin, Texas, to Gov. Scott Walker in Madison, Wis., Republican governors are demonstrating the leadership needed to cut spending. Voters want to see those tough choices made, budgets balanced and leadership demonstrated. They understand what is at stake. That is why Republican governors are taking an increasingly active role in the national fiscal policy conversation. States are the laboratories of democracy. We have some ideas and examples that can help get our national fiscal house in order. And we want to partner with Washington in this effort.

Our first recommendation is to return the federal government to its core functions. Washington, D.C., has reached a point, over many decades, where it occupies nearly every field with programs and entitlements that cost greatly. That’s not how a republic is meant to work. It is in direct contrast to the model of federalism that our founders created. They believed that the government closest to the people governs best. We must return to the balance of power that our nation was built upon. The 10th Amendment safeguards the authority of states, and while it is often forgotten, it is a cornerstone of the Bill of Rights. The proper balance of state and federal power must be restored.

Our second recommendation: Stop tinkering around the edges of spending reductions in our national budget. Unless we address Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and other entitlements, as well as defense spending, we won’t make a significant dent in our deficit or debt. To date, the deficit reduction conversation has revolved around the important, but proportionately small, area of non-security discretionary spending. That spending accounts for only 12 percent of our federal budget. Basically we’re trying to improve our whole house by only painting the dining room. 

The time has come, as unpleasant as many may find it, to focus on what my counterpart, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, rightly calls the “big things.” We should increase the eligibility age for Social Security benefits, and reform Medicaid and Medicare. About 40 percent of our federal spending resides in those three programs alone, and until we have the collective courage to reform these budget drivers, we aren’t serious about fixing our problems. I’m the governor of a state with a significant military presence. But I also know that we have to take a reasonable look at efficiencies in defense spending as well, so long as we don’t sacrifice national security.

President Obama’s introduced budget does not properly tackle the fiscal challenges we face. His own deficit-reduction commission gave him some bold ideas to consider. He did not. This is a time for tough choices. Republican governors are ready to work with the administration and Congress to take on this fiscal crisis, head first, right now. 

McDonnell is the governor of Virginia and vice-chairman of the Republican Governors Association.