Guest Column

Compassion in Government

It means having sense enough to see what needs to be done with public resources to sustain a prosperous and desirable community

In the Kalispell Center Mall there are fascinating pictures of Kalispell in the old days. The streets were dirt. Later, wooden sidewalks appeared. I wonder who built those sidewalks? What was their motive and justification for the expense? Was it compassion for poor souls who get their shoes muddy? Or was it self-interest, to encourage commerce?

Eventually our sidewalks became concrete, built with taxes. And with taxes come controversy about the proper role of government. I can imagine citizens of an earlier day saying, “Taxes? How dare the city do such a thing! This is tyranny, using the force of law to take my money and spend it on sidewalks! What do I care if people walk in the mud?”

I speak of taxes and sidewalks because recently a state legislator wrote a letter saying that when we evaluate a candidate for public office, we should not consider whether the candidate is compassionate (Dec. 20 Beacon: “The Christmas Compassion Test”). He argues that helping distressed citizens is compassion, and compassion is not proper for legislators to consider. My reply is that it is very much the duty of legislators to consider the distress of citizens and the wellness of the community. We need people able to work and participate in our economy more than we need sidewalks.

I assure this legislator that I have no interest in his personal compassion. My disappointment is his lack of understanding of his job. If he and his colleagues fail to fund adequate health and human services, the commerce and quality of life in our community will be severely reduces. We appropriate taxes for streets and sidewalks to promote prosperity, so more people can work and shop. We fund health and human services for the same reason.

The legislator argues that funding these services with taxes is equivalent to stealing a man’s wallet to give money to a beggar. His analogy is ridiculous and insulting. If he knew his constituents, he would know about young mothers who cannot maintain regular work attendance because they have sick uninsured babies. He would know about working couples who give up a much-needed job because an elderly parent requires 24/7 care. He would know that charitable and civic organizations, admirable as they are, cannot meet the need. He would know that compassion in government does not mean impulsive pity or reckless spending. It means having sense enough to see what needs to be done with public resources to sustain a prosperous and desirable community.

Michael Merchant lives in Kalispell.