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The Rev. Dennis Sparks: Moral answer to budget crisis: Rich much pay their share

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I'm a child of Appalachia, so I know hard times: how to survive them, how to get out of them, what we owe to those still struggling. I'm also a minister who, throughout my career, has focused on finding common ground and a shared purpose with other faiths, pastoring to my own congregation and organizing the poor and forgotten to take possession of their lives and leadership of their communities.

All of these experiences and interests lead me to a clear conclusion about our seemingly endless federal deficit debate. The practical and moral solution lies in more tax revenue from those who can afford it, not more budget cuts that our middle class and poor most assuredly cannot.

My father moved from rural Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio, thus making my family "urban Appalachian," part of a large community of folks seeking more economic opportunities outside the hills and mountains. As a minister, my first congregation was in Chicago, where I wound up tending to another urban outpost of Appalachian people.

My community organizing activities quickly made it clear to me that the search for economic justice united these white, rural, working-class immigrants with the African-American and Mexican-American working families of the city. Later, I moved my ministry back to Appalachia proper, to the poorest county in Ohio, and finally I came to work here in West Virginia.

What have my decades of personal and professional exposure to struggling Americans -- whether from Appalachia, the South Side of Chicago, or Guadalajara, Mexico -- taught me? That there is real hardship in our nation, of a type and intensity that elite Washington participants in the never-ending budget drama never consider and probably can't imagine.

 Those politicians attending fundraisers in Capitol Hill townhouses tonight, discussing over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres how to solve our budget dilemma by cutting kids from Head Start, or making Medicaid less accessible, or eliminating job training, must never have seen want in a child's eyes, or desperation on a senior's face, or the grim determination of the long-term unemployed.

 They need to get beyond the Beltway and into the hills of West Virginia to find out there's not much excess here to be tapped in the name of "budget austerity." Instead, they should be looking to their donors on Wall Street and in Hollywood, where investment bankers and movie producers use accounting tricks and tax code giveaways to avoid offering up their fair share of taxes to the common good. And they should also demand that our nation's biggest corporations -- so far missing in action in the cause of deficit reduction -- begin contributing to our communal effort.

Here are a couple of ways we could fix our twisted tax laws both to make the system fairer and to generate the income we need to lower our debt and continue investing in the American people.

We could end the extra value our wealthiest households -- the top 2 percent, including millionaires and billionaires -- get from their tax deductions. Instead of letting them get a tax deduction worth 40 cents on the dollar, let's limit it to 28 cents on the dollar. That's the maximum tax deduction that middle-class families in Charleston or Wheeling can take. This common-sense change would bring in over $500 billion in the next decade, according to the respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

We could also end the tax loopholes used by multinational corporations and their wealthy investors that allow them to hide the profits they make in America in overseas tax havens, where they pay little if any tax. This just encourages the draining of wealth -- and U.S. jobs -- from our shores. This could raise up to $1 trillion over the next 10 years, according to a U.S. Senate study.

My ecumenical work with other faith traditions leads me to offer some advice to politicians who can't seem to find it in their hearts to compromise over taxes and spending. The key to bridging differences is to listen, and try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. I think if more members of Congress who've made the hasty and unwise pledge to never raise taxes -- even on billionaires, even in the midst of a fiscal crisis or other national emergency -- used their moral imagination to picture the daily tribulations of some of my parishioners, they would understand that deficit reduction must focus on greater revenues from the wealthy and well-connected.

I know Sen. Manchin understands this. He impressed me with his genuine dedication to the working people of West Virginia when he was governor and we worked together to essentially double the threshold over which low-income families have to start paying state income taxes. I pray that he'll convert his congressional colleagues to that same kind of dedication today.

Sparks is the former executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, is president of the board of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and head of the consulting firm Sparks Innovative.


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