Governance backsliding

Published 3:45 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The traditional approach to government budgeting is to go year-to-year.   This approach creates annual havoc and political grandstanding, which is not at all in the public interest.  It only benefits the “few” and mostly the wrong “few”  (you know, the 1 percent). Governance is 99 percent about infrastructure and most public infrastructure issues are long-term and perpetual, not annual events. Planning steps and phases over a 10-year window helps to reduce cost, not increase it. (I’ll have to explain this to the “time is money” crowd)
Time for a story. When I was growing up in a small community in West Virginia, one local politician decided that he wanted a tribute to his greatness.  He strong-armed and threatened until he got a new county courthouse to replace a perfectly good historic courthouse. The historic courthouse was demolished and the new one was built over a couple of years by one of the politicians big supporters. Unfortunately everything about the new one was a lesson in how not to build a public project.  Within five years, the building was settling with large cracks appearing in the brick walls, a heating/ air conditioning system that was woefully inadequate, doors leaking air, windows leaking water (you get the picture). Years later, you still have a building that is a money pit.  The historic building had stood the test of time and only needed some renovation.  The whole idea was a bad use of the public dollar.
By planning expenditures long-term rather than year-to-year, it minimizes one of the worst causes of public dollar waste that exists, the starting and stopping of infrastructure projects.  There are costs to starting and stopping projects. It’s not an on/off switch that can be flipped  at any time without consequences. The key is to minimize disruption of on-going efforts.  Once you start a project, it should have a clear and definite end-point that both the government and those that are providing the services can reasonably anticipate.  Year-to-year budgeting is not conducive to sensible long-term projects like upgrading infrastructure or repairing a “city hall.”  It is disastrous to cost containment and the cost of governance.  (Why? That’s another subject requiring me to explain the differences between public and private projects)   Multi-year budgeting allows for sensible transitions between benchmarks in project execution.
But one of the most important benefits (and there are others) is the ability to predict the level of taxation years in advance to match up with the services that are demanded by the public. Governing cannot be like private ventures that can “change on a dime.” Why?  Simply, that governing is a process that involves the public – it is not and will never be autocratic in a democracy.  If it is, it is not a democracy.   It takes time to come to a consensus about what should be done.
So why is predicting and announcing the need for revenue changes so important?   Simply that the value is that the public does not get the annual “spring” surprise of an increase in their tax rate with very little notice;  payable in a short time window.  If you are on a fixed income, the inability to absorb and respond to tax burden changes is directly related to the “time-frame” that they are implemented.  If you know three, four or five years in advance, you can plan and adjust for it.  If it’s six months in advance, you may lose your home.
The fact that a $0.10 increase is being floated by our current leadership shows a lack of understanding of governance and their obligation to the public.  We worked for years to establish a long-term budgeting “psychology” and process that seems to have been dismantled without regard to the interest of the public.
We have clearly started “backsliding.”

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