“Surplus” Just Means They Haven’t Spent It, Yet
Gary Trott tries to apply too much common sense to public-sector budgeting:
What should a Rhode Island city or town do if it suddenly finds itself with a surplus of unspent funds amounting to nearly $6 million? You’d think that it would do the responsible thing and not spend those funds in order to ease up a little bit on the taxpayer.
Well, that’s not what the School Committee in Warwick did during the final days of December when it voted unanimously to take the $6 million surplus from the previous year and spend it by giving raises to teachers and also by cutting the 20 percent contribution that the teachers were to pay toward their health care benefits (ProJo 7 to 7 News Blog, Dec. 29).
The problem is that this isn’t just spending for spending’s sake, as Trott takes it. Rather, all of the incentives push government bodies in the direction of spending everything and, in particular, spending as much as possible on raises and benefits for employees.
Obviously, the electoral threat implicit in public-sector unionization is one incentive. So is the likelihood that unspent dollars won’t just be considered a windfall to be kept, but will be targeted (rightly, in my view) both for a direct return to taxpayers and for a reduction in subsequent years’ budgets. When the money isn’t given freely as an economic exchange, but is taken under threat of law as taxation, the emphasis shifts from claiming as much money as a consumer can be convinced that the service is worth to providing cover for the claim that so much, and more, is needed, or even required by law. The process becomes one of budget tricks.
In Tiverton, for example, the school department claims that the town is required to make up for any difference in the amount of state aid that is estimated at the financial town meeting. (Naturally, extra aid is never reduced from the local appropriation.) So, say the local appropriation is $20 million and the FTM estimates that the schools will get $5 million in state/fed aid. If the aid comes in at $4 million, then the schools take another $1 million from the town’s property tax pool.
Here’s the best part: for the purposes of calculating the state-imposed cap on how much additional money it can request, the school department considers the $21 million to be part of its new baseline. It then begins the performance of declarations about what it will have to cut, close, and eliminate if the town doesn’t bust the cap.
The process doesn’t begin, in short, with the question of what the payer will bear, but with what the payee can take. The only way to change the incentives and the outcome would be to organize enough voters to place better candidates on the boards, councils, and committees and counterbalance the corrupt symbiosis between elected officials and labor.