Friday, July 10, 2009

Tough Choices: Governing, or Spending?

A friend once mentioned this simple concept: "you can govern, or you can spend." I've repeated it a number of times in "testimony" before the Town Council, with the usual results of such efforts. I appreciate the underlying wisdom anyway.

To govern means to "moderate." If you put a governor on your child's car, it is not there to allow them to go beyond what the car (and they) can handle. It is there to moderate, or limit, the speed your child can achieve.

And many of us, a dying breed perhaps, look for our elected "leaders" to exercise prudence and judg-e-ment (see Biden pronunciation guide) as they assess the revenue they have available and the budget requests before them, and attempt to reconcile the two.

And what do we hear in response? "We have a lot of tough choices to make." Or, "we face some really tough decisions."

Let's declare at the outset that those who fund government, involuntarily I might add, face such challenges everyday as they grapple with their own financial realities. And we shouldn't blame those good folks a bit if they feel little sympathy for their elected officials.

All of us understand that there are a broad range of factors that complicate matching local revenues with local expenses. Some of these are random in nature, or relatively unpredictable, such as twice the normal rainfall or snowfall amounts. Other factors are entirely predictable, because they have to do with the popular tendency to look to government and the taxpayers to resolve whatever personal dilemmas a constituent might face, like finding a babysitter, for example.

Other equivocations aside, I assert there are at least two fundamental reasons why budget cycles at every level result in wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth.

First, government officials are oblivious to the defining principles that dictate what the role of government is, and what it isn't. At the Federal level, the U.S. Constitution constrains the role of government, and every federal official takes an oath to protect and defend the principles of that document, although you'd never know it. At the State level, there is a Constitution that defines and limits the powers of the government in Augusta, with oaths required to uphold those constraints. Again, you'd never know it. What fun is it to be in power if you can't do whatever you damn well want?

At the local level, we have a Town Charter that defines the role that municipal government is to play in the day to day conduct of town affairs. This document, in theory, says what our local leaders can dabble in, and what they can't.

A few years ago, a town resident pleaded for town government to provide day care for her children. I could find no language in the town charter that authorized such a role, but that objection seemed to fall on deaf ears. "People are demanding these services" is the response in such instances. To which I reply if people "demand" that the town service and repair their cars, does that mean we should do it at taxpayer expense? Of course not. Demanding has absolutely nothing to do with legitimacy. And we've yet to see a list of names of those demanding things from the town; wouldn't that be fun to look at?

Second, elected officials, no matter what their previous principles might have been, undergo a conversion once they arrive in office. I have personally seen this happen in more than one case. The impulse to make everyone happy overwhelms the ability to distinguish "needs" from "wants." Suddenly, whatever anyone asks for becomes a priority. Subjectivity overwhelms objectivity.

So, when it comes to budgets, our officials have no grounding in what government is obligated to do and prohibited from doing, and further, they seem unable to distinguish which "demands" from residents are a necessity, and which are simply a blatant attempt to have someone else pay for their desires.

The end result is a disaster every time budget season rolls around. Those responsible end up overwhelmed by all manner of emotional pleadings and irrelevancies, because they have not established an a priori understanding of what budgets are designed to do and not do. In the absence of such specifics, seekers and pleaders perceive a blank canvas on which to draw their idyllic view of "community needs."

You can't run your family and home this way. Business owners can't run their enterprises this way. And there is absolutely no reason to tolerate government running OUR public affairs this way.

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