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Determining What is a Priority a Challenge for Lawmakers

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

The headlines scream – House ups budget by almost $100 million more and adds nearly 1,500 new government employees to the payroll . . . and we all thought that the state was faced with a financial crisis and a shortfall in revenue.
What happened? Do lawmakers not comprehend the reality that there just isn’t any money in the till? Of course they do, but they are going to find ways to pay for those added positions and increases in the state budget. Now more than ever, there will be pressure to raid the hurricane relief fund, take money from the Hawaii tourism authority, raid a variety of special funds and in the end raise taxes on liquor and cigarettes.
Are lawmakers acting responsibly? Not if it means that they have to find new resources or create others to raise the money they need to finance all of these programs and positions. It means lawmakers will have to find ways to take more money out of the economy to put into public sector programs and services. This is money that the economy could have used to create and sustain jobs in the private sector.
So what’s wrong with this picture? What we have in the legislature is the inability for lawmakers to set priorities for state government. Instead of deciding just what the role and function of government should be, they pander to each and every individual request. We hear of the importance of education and how we need to fully fund the educational system. Then along comes the department of health which also claims that there are a number of programs which are vital to the health of our community from dengue fever eradication to mental health priorities. And don’t forget the safety net for our welfare families, that needs funding as well.
And so the litany goes on and on, fund this program and fund that program. Every program seems to have its legislative champion or sponsor. So when it comes time to put all the requests together, that is what makes up the state budget. If the amount of requested spending is larger than what is available in resources, lawmakers just go out and hunt down another fatted cow to kill to pay for the added expenditures.
Little do they give a passing thought to the possibility that some of the programs may not be necessary to the health and welfare of the community. Instead of starting from the spending end, lawmakers should start from the revenue end and ask themselves just how much is available to fund government programs. Once that limit is determined, they should then look at the many requests for funding and decide what the real role of government is in this community and begin to outline what the mission of state government is.
Once that yardstick has been established, it should be easier for lawmakers to determine just what the priorities of government are. If a proposed program or existing service cannot pass muster based on the criteria established, then that program or service should not be funded.
What? Not fund a program? Yes, Virginia, there is a time when there isn’t enough money to fund every request. And that’s our problem. Lawmakers have to learn how to say no. No, that program is not a core service that is critical to the health and welfare of the community. Or, no, that service is already provided in the private sector, let’s not duplicate it in the public sector.
So lawmakers should start with programs which they determine to be of highest priority and work their way down with the resources they have available. When those resources run out, that is it. No more funding means saying no. Sure, saying no may mean losing the next election, but it also may mean winning the election as well if people understood that it takes a lot of courage to make the “no” decision.
That is what is sad, that lawmakers who we elect to office cannot make decisions, cannot set priorities, and don’t know how to say no. Instead, they want to be everyone’s best buddy by funding every single request that comes in both the front and back door. What they forget is that it is taxpayers who end up having to pay for those spending habits.
Despite the cries that state government has been cut to the bone, no one asks if the remaining services are really necessary. Nor do lawmakers seem to pay attention to the fact that many of the state jobs have migrated from being funded with general funds to being underwritten by special funds which now enjoy the new tax called user fees and charges. Thus, instead of dealing with the problem which is government is spending too much, lawmakers have chosen the easier route of just finding new funds either through higher taxes or raiding special funds.

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