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Local dialogue mirrors national, state

After last weekend’s candidate forum, voters should have a good sense of where the candidates stand on classic issues like taxes and spending as well as more recent hot-button ones like sand mining, medical waste incinerators or the closure of Barber Road.

What struck me about the forum were its parallels to the intense political battles at the state and national level. As Theresa Rhoden points out in her letter this week, the local candidates’ messages sound very similar to those emanating from the campaigns of Mitt Romney and President Obama; and I don’t think that’s coincidental.

“The incumbents are failing us,” all the challengers say. “We’re improving, not as much as we’d all like, but things are progressing and the sky’s not falling,” seems to be the call of those in office.

It’s like we’ve become so politically polarized, and there’s so many ways to be exposed to the propaganda of the right and the left, that realistic solutions to the day-t0-day challenges of local government get lost in this giant echo chamber we’re all stuck inside thanks to the Internet, social media, cable television and supped-up smart phones.

Take for instance, the debates over public spending during the forum. I think everyone knows, including the Democrats running for local office, that more spending cuts are nearly impossible to avoid. Even though trimming has been ongoing for one, two or three years now, government coffers are behind the curve because they feed off the larger economy.

But instead of having a sobering conversation with voters about what they believe should be trimmed, most of the candidates walked down the path of least resistance. They said they would not raises taxes. They didn’t like using rainy day funds to cover routine operating expenses, either; which left the elephant in the room — what would you cut?

Only school board candidate Andy Johnston had a straight answer. You may not like his answer — which was cutting the pay of substitutes and teacher aides — and I doubt it will make up a million-plus-dollar shortfall, but at least he had an answer.

Other challengers responded with generalities like “do whatever it takes,” “cut to the bone” and comb through budgets “line-by-line.”

Incumbents, meanwhile, pointed to their record of cutting spending in the past. But, and I hate to parrot the talking heads on TV, elections are about the future.

It’s true that in the boom years, elected officials did not go on spending sprees that could have strapped taxpayers with heavy debt loads or erode savings. However, both the school district and the county have relied on their ample reserves to plug budget gaps in recent years. The school district, more so than the county, may be able to take that approach for another year and hope for the best in 2014.

What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe your road doesn’t get graded. Maybe high school classrooms continue to go without air conditioning? Maybe your trash piles up for a week because you have to tote it to the landfill yourself.

Regardless, these are the unpleasant scenarios that voters should ponder when thinking about the taxes they pay and the services and quality of life made available in return. Hopefully, the candidates present at our next forum about two weeks before the general election will be ready to have that conversation.

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