As President Ronald Reagan once said, “Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” For those who enter politics, the very first rule of government is that there’s never enough money, NEVER! It’s an important lesson because the budget is the only real reason the legislature has to meet.
Here at the end of the first week of Montana’s 2017 legislative session, the budget is already front and center. With steep declines in tax revenue from coal and oil, no timber being cut and ag prices in the tank, the state is facing a serious budget shortfall. It’s part of the normal business cycle, but very few legislators currently in office have ever faced a serious economic downturn. So what will they do? Normal people like you and me would tighten our belts and cut our budgets. It seems logical. But that’s not how government thinks. While citizens in the private sector cut their budgets, government looks for ways to keep growing.
The second rule of government is that a cut is not a cut. When agencies scream that their budgets have been cut, it usually means the legislature cut the rate of increase. If a department anticipated a 3% increase and their budget only goes up by 2%, they call that a “cut.” It’s all in the definition, and there’s a big difference between the public and private sectors in the definition of a “lean budget.” This week the legislature asked agencies to cut their budgets by 20 million dollars, collectively. The agencies came back and said their budgets were already “cut to the bone,” but they could “sacrifice” 5 ½ million. Remember, that’s collectively, not individually. With our state budget being somewhere north of 6 billion dollars with a “B,” a 20-million-dollar-cut is miniscule, and a 5½-million-dollar-cut is laughable.
Montana government has exploded in size in recent decades. Now we’re facing a budget crunch, and it’s time to cut back. In 2001, I remember the House Appropriations chairman going to the director of the Department of Corrections and telling him we needed to cut his budget by 5 million dollars. The director said he understood but wanted to identify the cuts himself rather than letting the legislature do it. They agreed the director would take the weekend to analyze his budget and would report back to the chairman on Monday. When Monday rolled around, the director proposed not a 5-million-dollar-cut as requested, but a 7-million-dollar-cut, and that’s when the state budget was around 2 million dollars. Contrast that with the agency’s current collective offer of 5½ million dollars and you see how silly it is. The only problem is that it’s NOT silly, because government has something the private sector doesn’t have, and that’s the ability to raise taxes. If you and I come up short, we can’t run to our boss and demand that he pay us more money, but government can, and they WILL, because legislators and bureaucrats tend to take the path of least resistance. They never actually CUT budgets and they never lay off employees. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to make agencies leaner and more responsive, government will circle the wagons and do everything in their power to maintain the status quo.
Which reminds me of another thing President Reagan said about how the closest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.