With just a few days left in the current special legislative session, it may be too early to give a real assessment of how things turned out, but there are some observations worth making.
The first is that going into the eighth straight year of cuts to the state budget finding additional cuts on anywhere near the scale we need to balance the budget is getting pretty difficult. While cuts should continue to be looked at and efficiencies made, it’s getting harder and harder to just squeeze them out of whatever is left.
A case in point, the House sent to the Senate a list of just over $70 million in cuts above what the governor had recommended. That was a good number, but in all honesty, it’s hard to describe most of those cuts as anything but “fake.” You can’t really cut the Department of Education’s budget by 85 percent and eliminate the state’s testing program or make some of the cuts to health care that were suggested. That’s just not realistic. The Senate restored almost all of them.
So the takeaway there is that if we are going to make any significant cuts in next year’s budget, it is going to have to be in a way that’s based on some sort of structural spending reform. That can mean a lot of things, but ultimately it seems that we would finally have to establish our spending priorities, target our revenues to those things, and probably just stop spending money on things that are less important. History tells us that’s a tall order.
It’s also disconcerting to hear the remarks made by the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee suggesting that allowing a deficit in this year’s budget could be an option. Of course, that would be the ultimate kick-the-can-down-the road outcome and the suggestion was widely dismissed. But it’s that type of thinking that creates concern about how all of this is going to turn out.
Another takeaway is that, so far, this session doesn’t seem to be doing much to help with next year’s budget. Close to half of the solution for the current year’s problem is coming from one-time revenues. That’s okay for a crisis like the one that’s staring us down now, but that’s also the habit everyone swore they were going to break.
Unclear is what kind of plan lawmakers have, if any, to ultimately solve the recurring fiscal problem that’s been nagging us for years. It seems evident that won’t happen in this session, but when you consider that the biggest new revenue source for next year – a new penny of sales tax – is universally loathed and something everyone vows will be temporary, you start to wonder when and how they’ll begin to address something more permanent.
Finally, one thing that is clearly missing from the debate during this session is any discussion of what we want our state to look like when this is over. It’s always about can someone cut their budget a little more and nothing about what do they need to get the job done right. “Right” is the operative word here. Is higher education really where we want it to be? Do we feel confident we’re putting enough into things like mental and behavioral health and other areas of health care? What about those who inspect our food and water? Lest we forget, the bad judgment that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan was a result of chronic budget problems.
The point is that in dealing with these issues we have to be fiscally prudent and at the same time forward looking. Sadly, it appears not much has changed. Making fake budget cuts isn’t fiscally prudent and thinking only about money and not outcomes isn’t forward looking. But just like walking and chewing gum, we ought to be able to do both.