By JACK COLWELL
SOUTH BEND – There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
You know the meaning of that saying: You don’t get something for nothing. If you’re promised something free, watch out, there are strings attacked. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Not everybody heeds that advice. Certainly not a lot of customers back in the days when saloons advertised “free lunch” for anyone who bought a drink. The lunch often was quite salty. So was the price of the drinks, many of which were consumed. That’s why the saying became popular.
And it often is used these days to describe political promises.
Republicans in control of the Indiana House aren’t citing that saying, but they’re wary of the cost of “a free lunch” as they pass a state budget that takes into consideration the real cost of lunch.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence promised a 10 percent state income tax cut in his victorious 2012 campaign. He didn’t win because of that promise. Many other factors were involved in what turned out to be a close race. But Pence expects his fellow Republicans in the legislature, with big majorities in House and Senate, to pass his tax cut, a free lunch to be welcomed by Hoosier taxpayers.
Wait. What’s the cost? The House Ways and Means Committee knew it would cost the state the opportunity to restore education cuts made amid the recession and cost also any realistic effort to do more to improve the lousy roads and other infrastructure.
Thus came a proposed budget that didn’t give the promised free lunch and instead used revenue for something deemed healthier, restoring education funding and providing more for transportation and some other neglected areas of state concern.
Legislative leaders also fear that returning money to taxpayers from a state surplus - not really a surplus when state obligations are considered - would leave the state in bad fiscal shape in another economic downturn. A downturn could come sooner rather than later if Congress can’t prevent the sequester cutbacks. And betting on Congress is like betting on the Cubs to win the 2013 World Series. Not impossible. But how likely?
Lunch probably wasn’t always bad in the saloons. Could have been tasty. But it wasn’t free.
As we’re figuring taxes owed for 2012, a tax cut proposal doesn’t sound like a prune and jalapeno sandwich on moldy bread. It could be something tasty. But it wouldn’t be free.
As the legislature works to adopt a budget and the governor keeps pushing his fellow Republicans to approve his tax cut, the debate really will be over this: The cost of the free lunch.
Is it worth it?
Will it help to spur the economy? Or will it hurt the state’s future efforts to compete, to have a better educated workforce, to have the crossroads of the nation not crumbling?
In a South Bend appearance to plug for his tax cut, Pence said the cut would make Indiana “the lowest-tax state in the Midwest.”
Critics of putting off expenditures for education and infrastructure would say the cost would be making Indiana “the Mississippi of the Midwest.”
Warnings in politics about a free lunch not really being free used to come mostly from Republicans. They warned often from Roosevelt’s New Deal through Johnson’s Great Society.
Republicans said an imagined free lunch of benefits and programs wasn’t really free because they were all paid for by taxpayers through higher taxes. Lunch, tasty or not, wasn’t free.
In more recent times, especially with the presidency of George W. Bush, warnings come from Democrats.
They say an imagined free lunch of federal tax cuts wasn’t really free because cuts were all charged, not paid for, resulting in a horrendous national debt.
With the Indiana budget, final approval won’t come until another revenue forecast gives a better picture of what will be there for tax cuts now or for education and infrastructure for the future.
Maybe there will be a compromise, with some of that tax-cut lunch being served.
Maybe some of it - or all of it - should be served. Just remember that it won’t be free. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Colwell has been covering Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.