FLORENCE GILKESON: Chop Pork? State Facing Some Difficult Budget Questions
Inspired by the rocky economy, at least one cartoonist has already drawn trick-or-treaters dressed as stock market reports and scaring the daylights out of adults.
With financial conditions dire around the globe, it puzzles me why anyone would really want to be president or hold any other high office in government. It will take a miracle to brighten the economy right away.
North Carolina has a law that requires a balanced budget. Critics of state government have been especially harsh in recent years. And I agree that some state leaders are poor examples of the quality of leadership the state has come to expect.
The latest horror story is a projected revenue shortfall in the $2 billion category. News stories last week indicated that gubernatorial candidates Beverly Perdue and Pat McCrory were already preparing contingency plans. They know the winner must be a jump ahead of this budget nightmare before taking office.
Gov. Mike Easley called on state agencies to cut 2 percent from their budgets. Then he issued a second call, upping the cut by another percentage point.
Most government agencies should be able to reduce spending by at least that much without damaging services to the public. Deeper cuts can be expected before the end of the fiscal year, and legislators may as well get ready to tighten belts everywhere in the next budget year.
It would be interesting to learn how much money could be saved if North Carolina could eliminate pork from the budget. The latest euphemism for pork is the word "earmark," but a pig is a pig, with or without red-ink lipstick.
That $2 billion revenue shortfall estimate represents about 10 percent of the state budget. That is one big chunk of money. Yet we do not want to curtail services if we are to protect and educate our people, keep operational what commerce we have left and provide basic services to taxpayers.
It's a funny thing about pork. If you want something for your county, a state grant is an earmark. If the people in another county want a goody from the state pot, it's pork. When former Rep. Richard Morgan dredged up about a million dollars from a couple of state funds several years ago, Moore County was pleased as punch. The money was used to buy property for a badly needed senior center. The folks in Transylvania County over in the mountains and in some impoverished eastern counties probably called it pork.
Despite pockets of poverty here in Moore County, this is an affluent county. There is no real reason why the county could not have raised enough money to build and equip its own senior center. Indeed, an earlier fundraising effort was launched but fell flat, apparently because few people were willing to cough up generous gifts. Why give my good money to a senior center when I'm a member of a plush country club, many asked themselves. And others grudgingly agreed that there was a need for the center, but asked, this time, why give to the cause if the state and the county will pay for it.
This is just one example among many.
I keep wondering how much money we could really save if we did away with earmarks. Would it be enough to balance the budget in a bad economy without crippling vital services? Probably not, but it would make a dent.
And how about a freeze on new programs? With every new governor and every new legislature come piles of ideas for new programs in the schools. I'm not saying these programs have not been needed or have not worked out, but is there any way our leaders could try to go just one or two years without a new education program? To me, it seems the schools are already so jam-packed with new programs that teachers don't have time in the school day to teach students the basics. Then they must spend more hours testing and evaluating programs. Yes, I know, I too am all for accountability, but teachers could find plenty of classroom instruction uses for those testing/evaluating hours. For one thing, there might be more time devoted to individual students, whether the bored super-achiever or the youngster who has trouble catching on.
I hate to sound cynical, but I have little expectation any of these ideas will be adopted. State leaders will look around and victimize the most vulnerable among agencies to balance the budget. They'll borrow from a trust fund or pick on a retirement fund to do further balancing.
That's the way things work.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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