Monday, May 18, 2015

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Two words actually.  Fiscal responsibility.

I don’t think I am speaking too flippantly when I say that Allan Kittleman ran with very few actual policy initiatives in his platform.  Truthfully if you were looking for anything, you would find more overarching . . . "perspectives" than proposed initiatives.   Here is my outsider’s determination of the four that stuck out: government is a noun not a verb, government should be transparent, I am independent (presumably from overt party influence), and fiscal responsibility.  I’ll deal with the first three in future posts but for today I want to focus on fiscal responsibility. 

A lot of people don’t like to hear this, but developing a big budget requires creativity.  It is silly and kind of annoying to compare government budgeting to personal finance for many reasons but one of which of course is that government budgets are developed around projections because we can’t possibly know precisely how much money will be coming in or need to go out for that matter. 

I read two things from Allan Kittleman when he emphasized fiscal responsibility.  The first was simply that he would spend less money than his predecessors.  Not Brownback style reckless budget cuts but budget cuts nevertheless.   His budget proposal appears to reveal this strategy.  He did make some budget cuts including zeroing out road repaving, pushing off a desperately needed update to the emergency radio system, and kicking a few other cans down the proverbial road.  None of it is immediately debilitating although zero investment in infrastructure upkeep will certainly come home to roost.

The second message I read from Kittleman around “fiscal responsibility” was that he would not be so loose and creative with his budgeting the way that other guy was.  As I said earlier, large institutional budgets must be, by definition, creative at times.  There are, to be sure, limits (by both policy and best practices) to how creative.  The Ulman administration embraced creative budgeting which by and large I see as a very good thing (though I am sure others disagree) but always seemed to hold to certain core best practices to keep the budgets clean. 

I remember hearing, in reference to Howard County’s budget, that we do not and should not ever use one-time money for the general operating budget.  I haven’t researched the history, but I do believe it to be true in the time I have been paying attention.  The reason is easy to understand, and one only need look at some of the surrounding jurisdictions and their budgets during the “great recession”. Anything in our operating budget, by definition, will exist year after year and so if you pay for any of it with money that won’t be there next year, we have a problem.  

Kittleman’s proposed budget takes $5 million in revenue from the sale of a piece of property and uses it to pay for operating expenses, half of it in the school budget of all places.  That’s not fiscal responsibility; it’s the height of irresponsibility.  The administration is stating that in future years revenues will be stronger and so they will make up that money then.  This is the precise fool's gamble that makes this move fiscally irresponsible.  Also of note is that in future years we are going to encounter a whole bunch of cans we should have dealt with earlier that will be competing for that new revenue.

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