On Knowing the Statewide Facts and Hosting Rallies
For his latest RI Policy Reporter column, Tom Sgouros has moderated his vitriol and, in one way of reading it, attempted to explain what he meant by his statement that tea party goers are “afraid if they do learn about [the issues they claim to speak about], they will lose the purity of their opinions.” Herewith, two of Sgouros’s “basic facts relevant to the policy proposals promoted by the tea-baggers”:
The fact is that when we spoke, [tea party organizer Colleen Conley] didn’t know some very basic facts about her own proposals, like how much any of them could save, or even about government spending. For example, if you’re going to recommend that cuts in pension costs be used to balance our budget, it’s worth knowing that our state’s annual personnel costs are around $800 million, or less than a quarter of general revenue. The current budget deficit of somewhere around $400 million is almost half that, and two and a half times as large as all the pension payments we make each year. Trimming pension costs might help meet the budget goals, but it’s not nearly enough.
The first thing to note is that Sgouros’s statement of our annual personnel costs is not accurate. Referring to the FY 2009 column of the table on page 15 of the governor’s 2010 budget personnel supplement (PDF), one finds that, while it may be true that the costs derived from the general revenue hover around $800 million, the total annual personnel costs for 2009 are listed as $1.632 billion. Even if we cut out federal funds, personnel still claims $1.261 billion.
None of the revenue lines that make up the difference appear to be such that it’s reasonable to leave them out while discussing the high cost of Rhode Island’s government:
- Restricted receipts are dollars taken by the government for specific purposes.
- Internal service funds are dollars listed under one department’s operating expenses to pay another department for services.
- Other funds represent government fees and other sources of income (e.g., college tuition).
A $400 million deficit is not “almost half” the non-federal-fund spending on personnel; it’s less than a third. The total may be “less than a quarter of general revenue” expenditures, but that makes it the second largest category, after Assistance, Grants and Benefits. It would still be excessive to carve our deficit out of that single chunk of the budget, but that only means that some percentage has to come from elsewhere.
As for pension costs, well, this is a case of taxpayers’ looking toward the future. According to the Pension Reform Panel (PDF), by “2010, taxpayers will be paying a total of $400 million to fund the pension system.” According to a recent Projo article, the current projection is for an $835.3 million annual expense by 2017. Perhaps Mr. Sgouros missed all the tea party signs that were directed toward the future.
But all of this is moot, as far as I’m concerned, in addressing Tom’s complaint that the tea party’s organizers and attendees didn’t show up at the State House with a proposal in hand. The event wasn’t a policy summit; it was a political demonstration. The point wasn’t to come to a consensus on what our representatives should do, specifically, in order to rein in government, but to convey the message that they have to start doing something.
Yes, we all know that the organs of the Left formulate policies and hold rallies as marketing events for their presentation, but once again, that’s the difference between a popular movement and an establishment structure for special interests.