Let the roof leak; just have fun in Vegas
February 6, 2013
Stop us if you've heard this before: Treat the public purse like the household budget - when times get tough, government should tighten its belt.
Or better still: Run government like a business.
But what homeowner would neglect his leaky roof or delay fixing his car's brakes - while blowing his bonus on a vacation to Las Vegas?
And what corporation is going to forego maintaining and updating its office computers - while declaring an artificially high dividend payment?
Yet, Idaho's leaders are engaged in play-now-pay-later scenario. No, it's not a deficit. Nowhere in the current budget deliberations will you hear anyone accuse Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter or the Legislature of spending more than the state takes in.
There's money to cover government's current expenses - just barely.
But rather than invest in the future, Idaho's leadership is spending your money on goodies, including last year's $35 million income tax break for corporations and wealthy families. There's another $20 million as a down payment on a proposed $141 million cut in the personal property tax businesses pay on equipment. Plus $35 million for Idaho's budgetary contingency reserves with another $13 million left as a budget year-end balance.
As long as you stay focused on the cash flow, it adds up.
Dig a little deeper into the ledgers, however, and the picture begins to darken:
Building maintenance - The University of Idaho, Lewis-Clark State College, Boise State University and Idaho State University say they're about $700 million behind. Last month, they provided legislative budget writers with proof: a UI classroom with brown water marks on the ceiling, rotting window frames, crumbling sidewalks and a boiler that was corroded and leaking. The institutions are seeking $53.6 million; they'll probably end up with one-sixth that amount.
Highways - It's been 17 years since former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt persuaded Idaho lawmakers to invest more money in the state's aging network of bridges and highways. Four years ago, Otter came up short and hasn't tried since. Lt. Gov. Brad Little's task force penciled the backlog at more than $540 million.
Staff - State workers are falling behind what their colleagues earn in the private sector or at other government posts. The cost of aligning their wages closer to what they would earn elsewhere ranges between $36 million and $93 million. Otter's budget has no money for raises.
Allowing those problems to fester is not the same as a budget deficit in the technical sense of the word. But government obligations go neglected. This behavior amounts to a systematic liquidation of public resources - whether it's buildings, transportation or people.
Maintenance deferred today only leads to bigger headaches tomorrow.
Transportation systems deteriorate or fail to meet emerging trends.
Not paying competitive salaries translates into higher turnover and a diminution of quality service.
Left unchecked, it leads to a vicious cycle of government disinvestment matched by businesses and individuals who choose to locate in another state. You can't call it a budget deficit.
You can, however, describe it as deficit of leadership.
"I think the state has an investment in people and infrastructure," says state Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. "And if we let it crumble, we aren't fulfilling our responsibility to the public."
Ringo's accuracy is matched by her political isolation. Today's generation of governors, legislators and voters have no intention of solving this problem. They're passing it on to their successors to fix. - M.T.
The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.
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