Columns 2009

Budget Babble

Cutting the state budget through a hiring freeze is like me cutting my budget by eliminating all green food purchases, whether jelly beans or broccoli. It doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t in any way address whether or not the green food was a major cause of my debt or whether eliminating it would have any appreciable effect on my overall economic health.

The fact that even I can see the deficiencies in this approach to our fiscal problems should be a large flashing red light with siren blaring alarm considering my general inability to have the slightest amount of economic know how. But even I see this as the absolute laziest of approaches to a problem that requires more fiscal discipline and pain than most politicians are willing to give.

Not surprisingly, neither the governor nor anyone associated with her budgeting process gave any figure for the amount of savings they expected to realize by this cost cutting measure. The minute politicians start getting soft on details like that, it means they are whistling in the dark.

When you don’t want to have to impose any real fiscal discipline, it’s just easier to dump all over state employees. After all, aren’t they pretty much lazy bureaucrats who suck off government until retirement and then leave for hotter climes on the millions they’ve made as admin assistants at Fish and Game?

I could almost forgive this fuzzy solution if the budget shortfall had come as some sort of surprise. But if this did come as a surprise to our governor and her staff, then they really need to start reading something other than the latest People magazine.  Because the reality of a substantial budget shortfall is something everyone else seemed to know well in advance of the State of the State speech.

What really amuses me is that whenever a budget freeze is announced, the statement is always made that this will hold for only non-essential personnel, accompanied by a list of essential positions. What no one ever details is the people the governor considers non-essential and why, if they are, we should even have those positions on the state payroll. Either we need the positions or we don’t. And quite honestly, when I’m at DMV renewing my license, I think the clerk whose presence means my visit will be less than all day is absolutely essential.

My daddy taught me a long time ago that I shouldn’t spend what I don’t have. Although the advent of credit cards allowed him to loosen up a little, it was generally the financial theory that guided his life. If your income went down, so did your outlay. And your outlay stayed down until your income went back up. This was not rocket science.

Which is why I watch the state and federal government’s budget process in awe, wondering how they manage to somehow not understand that very basic principle. No matter how much politicians scream about the need to cut budgets, the only thing they ever seem to cut is taxes. Then, in some convoluted world of economic doublethink, they proceed to spend as much if not more than they spent the year before. They do this year after year after year and are still consistently surprised that there is a budget shortfall at the end of each fiscal year.

To which I can only say, DUH!

Cutting taxes is popular and easy. Everyone likes to go back to his or her constituents and say they cut taxes. No one wants to go back and tell their constituents what those tax cuts will mean in terms of service cuts. So they don’t cut services. They lower income while raising outlay and seem honestly stunned by the outcome.

So to Governor Palin and all our distinguished and not so distinguished representatives and senators, how about this year you speak clearly and plainly about what we need to do to make our income match our expenses.  No more magic thinking that consistently produces “balanced budgets”, which end up in the red. No more political sound bites about freezing non-essential hires that are nothing more than meaningless babble.

It’s like my daddy said. If you don’t have it, you can’t spend it. How hard of an economic principle is that to understand?