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Adding Good Money To Bad

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Amidst the debate over how the surplus moneys in the state general fund should be spent, it appears that many assumptions are being made about how the system works. 

Cries to invest those surplus dollars toward education make the assumption that the way they do business in the department of education is improving the education of our children. Others decry the backlog of maintenance problems of not only educational facilities but also our roads and call for putting surplus dollars there. 

While all of these needs beg attention, merely throwing surplus dollars at the problem does not insure that things will get better. For example, is the educational system operating under its current rubric improving the education of our children? If not, why put more money into a system that does not work or has not improved the quality of education. If, indeed, the department of education has devised a new strategy that has prospects of improving the quality of education, then perhaps lawmakers should entertain funding that new strategy. But to merely say that we should give the surplus funds to education does not insure that the quality of education will improve.

Similarly, unless the system has changed of how repairs are made to not only school facilities but also other state buildings, the work will take as long as it has in the past. The problem is not for the lack of funds as much as it is how efficiently those repairs are accomplished. In an antiquated system that is fraught with red tape and bureaucracy, such repairs may cost many times more than they actually should because of all the paperwork and rules with which the contractor may have to comply. 

For example, a vendor with a contract with the state must secure tax clearances from both the state tax office and the Internal Revenues Service not to mention a clearance from the state labor department and a certificate of good standing from the department of commerce and consumer affairs. Now this is a state contract which requires clearances from other state departments and a federal agency that has an agreement with the state tax department to share information.

In order to enter into the contract and later to get final payment, the vendor has to go to each of these agencies to get those clearances and certificates. A stop at each of these agencies can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours depending on how busy they are that day. It would make a lot more sense and save a lot of time and money if the contracting state agency could check with each of these agencies upon authorization of the vendor to secure these clearances. After all, it is one state agency talking to another state agency. But then again, that is an awfully big assumption – that is that state agencies talk to one another. 

The problem with merely directing that those surplus dollars be spent on this or that public program is the assumption that lawmakers and administrators have a game plan, a time line which indicates when certain milestones have been reached on the way to a final goal. 

While lawmakers seem to subscribe to this approach of setting benchmarks and check points as reported in the legislature’s recent report on putting together a sustainability plan for the state, this certainly has not been the practice. Shining examples of how poorly lawmakers have thought out many of their recent great ideas include the bottle bill for returning beverage containers, the gas cap law, and the shift to the use of ethanol for vehicles.

In the case of the bottle bill, it appears no thought was given to how the redemption centers would take back the empty beverage containers or how the funds would be tracked or for that matter what check points were there to insure the actual recycling of the various materials. Similarly, apparently no one thought about how the anticipation of gasoline prices going up or down would affect the marketplace and consumers’ attitudes on when to make their fuel purchases. With the mandate for ethanol use, it appears no thought was given to making the mandate take effect after the local production was up and running or the added costs that would have to be incurred by retailers of the fuel for renovation of service stations. 

So the point here with respect to the surplus is that until lawmakers and administrators have a game plan and have set measurable benchmarks, no amount of surplus dollars thrown at any one problem will insure that things will improve. Merely throwing money at a problem for which no new or innovate strategy has been designed is like throwing good money after bad.

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