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April 12, 2011 > Editorial: Budget battles

Editorial: Budget battles

Budget battles are raging everywhere. In just about any context - local, regional, national, international - heated discussions among learned people debate the wisdom of walking away from economic problems through bankruptcy and letting existing systems fail or working toward modifications and solutions of broken wheels in government and financial institutions. Advocates of a failure philosophy espouse the theory that our current system of government is heavily burdened with a patchwork of temporary fixes, too skewed to repair. Unfortunately, a corollary of this approach is chaotic dissolution of a mechanism intrinsic to our lives and livelihoods.

For example, the budget of the United States of America is so immense that current debate over deficits and entitlement appropriations can transcend practical discourse and quickly enter the realm of theoretical economics. Pundits have described recent budget battles in the billions of dollars as trivial when compared to the gross budget of the country, counted in trillions (how many zeros in a trillion?). Some argue that simply eliminating the structure ("Shut it down") and starting over again will solve all problems.

So far, however, discussion has centered on philosophical wrangling over relatively minor budget appropriations for programs such as Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio; ideological rather than economic measures. Straying from the premise of balancing a budget adds complexity and introduces additional factors to a basic discussion of budgetary restraint and competence. While many U.S. "representatives" argue over regional views of a national budget that defy reasonable conversation, dialogue on a local level can be a bit more focused and realistic.

Municipalities administer budgets of millions of dollars. Most of us can relate to the number of zeros in a million and items costing tens of thousands of dollars. Local expenditures including street repair, park maintenance and protective services are tangible and direct. When these budgets collide with economic reality, choices can be relatively clear. The prospect of bankruptcy and economic collapse must be weighed against the impact of a service void as the result of no government at all. Advocates of bankruptcy are presented with concrete examples of the results of such actions and must answer fundamental questions of local service disruption. Is no service preferable to flawed service?

Almost every city council agenda contains a list of items under "consent," considered routine. These are everyday items, most of which have associated price tags. Adding up the cost of these items can quickly convince even the most skeptical that running a city is a necessary multimillion dollar undertaking. To simply abandon mundane and less visible functions of government due to dissatisfaction with more contentious issues can quickly lead to chaos. Contracts for capital projects, repairs, administration and services are ongoing and important even if taken for granted by the general population. To abruptly end such functions would severely limit the health and well-being of a community.

One method of making difficult choices is use of a principle called "Occam's Razor." In it, a simplistic explanation, the fewest complex choices, is preferred when all other factors are equal. A significant part of this process is determining if all factors are truly equal. The idea is to favor known facts instead of the unknown unless a preponderance of proof and justification exists for a different conclusion. Unfortunately, what is "complex" or "simple" is determined by world views and ideology.

In the political realm, to gravitate toward a "simple" explanation may not be self-evident at all and can collide with unintended consequences. Explanations and solutions that appear irrefutable may, upon closer examination, become extremely complex and unwieldy. Grappling with municipal issues, especially in these troubled economic times is a difficult task but must be done. While an outside "disinterested" consultant can help put issues into perspective, public confidence in the process can be enhanced by the addition of another point of view through an oversight panel of citizens well versed in business and budget management.

Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address that our government is based on the premise that it is "...of the people, by the people and for the people." If this is so, let the people help solve the difficult choices we face at this time. Lincoln erred when he said, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Although not as monumental as the Civil War, our battle for budget control is also a fundamental conflict that needs resolution for and by the people.

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