By Lowell L. Kalapa
It appears that it is business as usual down at the state capitol building as department after department attempts to make its case before the money committees that more money is needed to run their program during the coming eighteen months.
Even the administration has submitted a financial plan that calls for continued increases in spending over the next several years. What happened to the resolve to right-size state government? Apparently lawmakers and administration officials don’t seem to have the political will to say no to requests for more and more spending. Departments don’t seem to have gotten the message that doing with less will actually be better for the community. Public employee unions chant the mantra that more spending is better.
Unfortunately, it appears that no one has sat down to figure out what is going on with state government and how it affects the well-being of the community. What elected officials should have learned during the long economic slump was that government took more capital in the form of taxes and fees, businesses were left with little to reinvest in the creation of new jobs and expansion of their activities. While the excesses of government were tolerated in the good days of the economic bubble, once the bubble burst, no one could afford the premium that government imposed on the economy.
Instead, those businesses that could not adapt were lost to bankruptcy or just plain went out of business. Those who figured out how to hang in there pared their operations down substantially. Jobs were eliminated and people went unemployed. Those who had plunked their money down on big purchases like cars or homes walked away or moved away. The lenders were left holding the bag with foreclosures and repossessions.
For a time there, lawmakers struggled between wanting to spend more and being reminded that the community needed relief so that it could restore the economy. Finally, out of sheer political pressure and a re-election campaign, political leaders bit the bullet and cut taxes. They set about to “study” reform. With that little encouragement, businesses and workers put their faith in recovery.
Now that recovery is within grasp, it appears that elected officials are reluctant to finish the job. Why cut when the economy is coming back anyway? “Let’s spend our good fortune. After all these are necessary services – are they not?”
Doubting that state government needs downsizing, some lawmakers have even had the nerve to ask just how much should be cut. These lawmakers seem to have forgotten that they “owe” taxpayers the more than $600 million that they spent going over the constitutional spending limit at the start of the 1990’s – spending down the excess of revenues that they had taken out of taxpayers’ pocketbooks. They don’t seem to stop and think that if they had left that money or returned that surplus to the economy, perhaps the downturn would not have been as severe.
So what is the proper answer to that question of just how much should lawmakers cut spending? Well perhaps they should take a cue from other governments which set a spending target well within anticipated revenues. Not spending every cent forecasted for the coming year anticipates a surplus at the end of the year and provides a comfortable margin should revenues not materialize as forecasted.
By setting a spending target within the forecasted revenues forces decision-makers both within the administration and the legislature to set priorities. Setting priorities for spending taxpayer dollars appears to have been the downfall of elected officials over the past two decades. Instead of deciding education is important, lawmakers decided education and a host of other concerns should be funded, albeit at a level less than what is considered optimum.
The result is mediocrity. Mediocre schools, mediocre health care, and mediocre social services are all the result of not being able to decide and to set priorities. After all, it seems the chief goal of an elected official is to keep everyone happy even though those people are only partly happy. The circus continues.