Monday, June 23, 2003

Getting Our Money's Worth

The headline's not quite accurate, as my point involved not just federal spending but also state budgets, which particular bullet we may have dodged here in Arizona, at least this year, but the threats to funding for developmental disabilities--to pick an example about which I often write--will return again anon.

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 15, 2003

As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote last week (he supported the Iraq war, so you’re obliged to listen), start deciding what you will do without.

With the budget battles at both the state and federal level winding down, start figuring out what services you won’t get anymore. Everybody loves getting something for less than its cost, or even for nothing. But that’s no formula for long-term survival, much less success.

That’s what all these tax cuts mean. Arizona fixed this year’s budget with federal bailout funds, but we’re committed, at both the state and federal levels, to paying less. So start thinking about getting less.

Do you prefer fewer cops, prosecutors, judges, trials, or prison sentences? Even if nobody moves to Arizona, there’s inflation, and people in the system expect to earn more as they gain experience. Just keeping up costs more each year.

But as Arizona grows, we’ll have more crooks and scoundrels. You can’t handle a larger problem effectively using the same numbers of people and money. Without more of both, we stretch the system even thinner -- and the crime that falls through the cracks could be the one against you.

Everybody must get less. We have to pay interest on the rapidly-increasing national debt; the alternative minimum tax (AMT) needs fixed, and then there’s that Medicare prescription drug benefit. Military spending is increasing rapidly, and the Bush administration wants to spend billions on a missile defense system that will be built first and tested, if at all, later. That’s a pretty long line.

With less to go around, seniors on Medicare will get less health care, or their physicians and hospitals will get paid less. Veterans will find longer lines and fewer benefits. College students will graduate with greater debts.

We can’t hire more border patrol agents, buy more high-tech weapons, protect civilian airliners from terrorist attack with electronic flares, and funnel money to so-called faith-based charities and cut spending simultaneously.

Forget about doing anything new. Take one example: A permanent death benefit for fire and emergency workers. How can we pay for an entirely new discretionary spending program, when Congress and the Bush administration have committed us to spend less in that category, in real terms, than now?

Oh, nominal spending numbers may increase eventually, due to inflation. But inflation, advances in technology, and population growth mean getting less because (on average, anyway) we’re paying less. (You may not notice, because those big breaks for the rich really skew the averages.) You’ll do without, or else pay more for services you now get. Forget dreaming about some big new program. The future is clearly less, not more.

We’re way beyond throwing out bathwater; with the Arizona legislature considering cutting funding for prenatal care and caring for premature births, we’re throwing out the babies. The new state budget makes it more expensive to adopt special-needs kids with disabilities, too.

The next time somebody -- like my friends on The Tribune editorial page -- talks generally about cutting spending, stop them. It’s not abstract anymore. We’re cutting services, by the billions. Make ‘em tell you specifically what they want you to give up.

Sure, you may not have an autistic kid, so that budget cut won’t bankrupt your family. But you, or somebody on whom you depend, probably get something out of the social compact, whether it’s Medicare, a state university, your kids’ public school, or even a government job.

Figure out what you’re willing to do without, because something’s gotta give. And it isn’t going to be the big tax breaks for people making more than $330,000 a year.

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