Fiscal restraint is a key component of conservatism. Some take this to mean spending less is always better and that all spending cuts are good. But, true fiscal conservatism also requires that when we do spend, it is done efficiently and effectively so we get the most benefit from each tax dollar.
In reality, some spending — even by government — is necessary to avoid the need to spend even more money down the road. For example, fixing a leaking roof when the first signs of water appear on the ceiling is far less expensive than waiting until the ceiling collapses before stopping the leak. The same principle applies to government spending. It is less expensive to keep a bridge in good repair thus extending its life than to replace it frequently. In terms of human services, it is better to provide care early rather than to allow conditions to worsen and become more costly both from a humane and a financial perspective.
That is why current proposals to cut state spending on human services are short sighted and destined to create bigger problems in the future. There is no doubt that state government is bloated, spending cuts must and should be made, and that taxpayers cannot afford higher taxes. To that end Governor Corbett is absolutely following the right course by drawing a line in the spending sand.
But with $27 billion to spend priorities must be established. Government must perform its core functions such as providing for public safety, transportation infrastructure and a reasonable social safety net. To do this it is neither necessary nor desirable for state government to become a super charity, but there is widespread agreement that those in need of assistance through no fault of their own should be rendered such help.
For example, several years ago the state's mental hospitals were closed and treatment programs were largely devolved to the counties. As is typical, state government mandated counties provide such services without establishing a corresponding adequate flow of funds. Counties and nonprofit agencies are already struggling — with limited success — to fill the need. Now they face having to do the job with even fewer resources. Much like the leaky roof or bridge that needs repaired; early intervention is far preferable to allowing medical conditions to worsen. Or, as happens all too frequently, the person commits an act that requires a trip through the criminal justice system followed by expensive incarceration.
Such indiscriminate cutting of the state budget masks an even bigger problem. It allows budget-makers to avoid making the really difficult decisions that deal with the fundamental problems confronting the commonwealth. To carry our roof analogy a step further, it is like slapping a coat of paint on the ceiling to mask the water stain rather than replacing the shingles so the roof stops leaking.
Cutting human service funding may help balance this year's budget. But it doesn't address the underlying cost drivers that put us in this mess. Antiquated prevailing wage laws will continue to drive up the cost of building projects. Bloating of the welfare rolls siphons off money that should be spent on the truly needy. A public education system lacking in choice remains archaic, ineffective and expensive. The state's outdated liquor store monopoly holds captive funding that could be better spent addressing core needs. Our prison system cries out for reform to bring a halt to escalating incarceration costs.
These changes require strong leadership and courageous votes. But rather than address these structural problems, those responsible for crafting our state budget prefer to take the easy way out and cut spending for programs that benefit our aging, mentally challenged, chemically dependent, and otherwise truly needy citizens. Such an approach is not just financially short-sighted, it is morally unjust.
Before this year's state budget is adopted lawmakers should restore the proposed funding cuts to human services, and begin taking the steps necessary to address the factors that are driving up costs beyond our ability to pay. For all too many years our elected officials have behaved like politicians rather than like legislators. The time for bold leadership, principled votes and a fundamental reordering or our state's fiscal priorities has arrived. That is a truly conservative approach to governing.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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