Thursday, May 02, 2002

Column for April 28, 2002:

A couple of my jokes got cut to fit: that if you want to get tough on crime, spending on courts must increase, because even if you're busy convicting the innocent, those trials still cost money. And that if you limit corrections spending to population-and-inflation, it means that the slogan becomes, "If you do the crime, you'll do the time--provided that the total number of prisoner remains within constant dollar per capita calculations." And that if new parents insist on having more kids as a percentage of total state population than during the 1980's, then those "extra" kids don't get an education unless you can get a childless family to sponsor increases in family size beyond inflation and population growth. But the (overly subtle) International Genomics Consortium line remained in.


The Arizona Legislature still hasn’t discovered a budget for the new fiscal year starting July 1. No disrespect intended, at least this week; the legislators have a tough job.

They must find a budget that (1) doesn’t raise taxes and (2) while cutting spending, doesn’t cut particular types of spending--and these special off-limits items change weekly.

Sometimes it’s K-12 education; sometimes it’s nursing home inspections, or fighting crime, or lengthening sentences for sex offenders, or DNA testing for death row prisoners, or higher education, or transportation.

Then, after choosing which programs merely get nicked and which get slashed, we also need new public and charitable millions to lure Richard Mallery’s erstwhile nonprofit client to pull our economic development rabbit out of his biomedical hat.

The legislators have to vote on this stuff all at once, and make the books balance. Editorial writers can pick one each week--surely there’s room in the budget to (insert pet cause here)--then return next week with yet another pet cause, all the while insisting that the problem is “too much spending.”

The statistical basis behind the “too much spending” argument is that Arizona appropriated spending has increased faster than inflation and population growth. If state government only spent the same amount, in constant dollars per person as a decade ago, the budget would be in surplus--or so goes the argument.

The problem is that the argument looks at the budget as a whole, and never explains why state appropriated spending has increased faster than population and inflation. The School of Public Affairs at ASU analyzed the budgets of the eight largest state agencies, accounting for over 90 percent of the spending, between 1991 and 2000. Their inflation-adjusted per capita spending did increase about 13 percent.

But only half of the “big eight” budgets increased faster than inflation and population: K-12 education, health services, courts, and corrections. The others--AHCCCS, economic security, state universities, and community colleges--all saw constant-dollar per capita spending decline.

The population-and-inflation crowd ignores that Arizona made some popular, but expensive, public policy choices during the 1980s and 1990s. We lengthened criminal sentences and made prison time mandatory. Naturally, the two big agencies with the biggest increases, adjusted for inflation and population, are the courts (34 percent) and corrections, including juvenile corrections (42 percent).

The spending that grew the most in absolute terms, however, was for K-12 education, which largely gets determined by formula anyway. School funding depends principally on how many kids are in school that year.

Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil didn’t increase all that significantly between 1991 and 2000, even if inflation-adjusted spending based on the entire state population did. (That’s how you get to be 49th out of 50 states in education funding.) In other words, we had more students in school, on a per capita basis, and it costs more to educate this proportionally greater cohort of kids.

So when a politician or pundit calls for cutting spending based on inflation and population growth, remember what that really means: Locking up fewer criminals and educating fewer kids.

Good thing Gov. Hull signed that contraceptive equity bill last week; we need to make sure Arizona’s school-age population doesn’t increase faster than inflation-adjusted dollars per capita.

Maybe that’s what the “just cut spending” crowd means by “family values.”

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