PORTSMOUTH — An organization devoted to solving the federal deficit woes in America is taking its message to Maine and New Hampshire this year, hoping to start making substantiative changes at the state level.
Co-founded by former New Hampshire Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, the Concord Coalition characterizes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit national organization that advocates for fiscal responsibility at the federal, state and local levels. That involves sharing its message of deficit-reduction and close examination of some of the nation's biggest cost-drivers.
Robert Bixby, executive director of the organization, said Tuesday that while many people advocate for either bigger government or lower taxes separately, he said, those platforms come with necessary long-term sacrifices.
"It bothers me a great deal that we don't have a plan to pay for it except for running up the debt, which isn't a very good plan," Bixby said, adding later, "If you're in favor of big government, you have to pay for it. If you're in favor of lower taxes, you have to be willing to make some very hard choices on the spending side."
He said, ultimately, raising taxes without reducing spending and the reverse is not going to result in a decrease in the $1.35 trillion federal budget deficit. Ensuring a sustainable plan for the future requires figuring out how to best balance the two, he added, acknowledging taxes are unlikely to go up while the country is still mired in a recession.
"It's the only solution," he said. "Those are the things that everybody wants: To have some sort of weight loss program that doesn't require any hard choices; and people want to get rid of the budget deficit the same way."
According to figures gleaned from the Government Accountability Office, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs and interest on debt represent close to 75 percent of the revenue the government pulls in. By 2025, that number is projected to exceed all federal revenues. He acknowledged the first meeting of the fiscal commission created by President Barack Obama to study the nation's debt was held Tuesday, and said bringing home the work done at the federal level is an important facet of the Concord Coalition's work.
"One of the messages that we try to bring is that this is not some abstract issue in Washington. It has real-world consequences for what's going to happen in state and local governments," Bixby said.
He acknowledged any conversation about the long term has to start with the real concerns in the here and now, with residents, businesses and state and local staff grappling with fiscal issues in their own right. However, he said the health care bill that sharply divided many Americans is less worrisome in the long term than rapidly increasing costs for programs such as Medicare and defense spending, and huge projected increases in interest on the national debt. The increasing number of baby boomers who will soon be eligible for Medicare and Social Security will only compound that issue, Bixby said.
He said Maine and New Hampshire are "focus states" for the nonprofit in part because of their political importance and partly because the Concord Coalition is familiar with the states. New Hampshire in particular has shown it is receptive to fiscal responsibility messages, Bixby said.
He noted New Hampshire's "tax averse" nature, but said he believes the state is capable of making rational decisions on fiscal matters. On Tuesday, the group was headed to the University of New Hampshire to speak with students, who he said also have proven receptive and will be dealing with future fiscal crises firsthand.
Steve Marchand, a Portsmouth resident and former mayor, has alternated between working and volunteering for the Concord Coalition for nearly 20 years. Marchand said the challenge is setting a focus on the financial picture 10, 20 or 50 years out and going beyond election cycles. He recalled talking about the same issues as a student at Syracuse University, but said the problems that were then a concern persist today and require immediate attention.
"A lot of the biggest decisions we have to reach are generational in nature," Marchand said.
While their vision of the future is dire if nothing changes, Bixby said the group is made up of optimists who believe, despite the numbers, people are willing and responsible enough to make a change. Jeffrey Thiebert, Southwest regional director of the Concord Coalition and director of National Grassroots, said the concerted effort in Maine and New Hampshire is a step toward reaching those who are receptive to change.
"It's very important we take this to a local level," he said.