When it comes to budget priorities and policies, elected government officials need to do what they were elected to do - make tough choices.
Last year, the Federal government reintroduced a wonky budget term to the public - "sequestration." It is a legal term based on the concept of seizing property from the owner to prevent harm while a dispute is resolved in the courts. In 2013, it was simply a fancy term for across-the-board spending cuts in the federal government.
A budget is fundamentally a statement of priorities - those things you are willing to spend money on in order to meet your goals. It is true for a household budget, which must provide for shelter, food, transportation, clothing, etc.; and can also provide for entertainment, leisure, and fun. It is true for government budgets which must prioritize spending for trash collection, police, health and human services, etc. In fact, one of the main duties of any law making body is the approval of a budget which determines how public monies will be spent.
Public officials will initiate across-the-board cuts when they do not wish to alienate any of the public, arguing that everyone gets cut the same percentage so no one should be too upset. However, by simply choosing an arbitrary percentage they are ignoring the impacts of each cut. They are abrogating their responsibility to choose spending priorities, an impeachable offense in the minds of some.
In 2008, when the economic crisis hit, many state and local governments looked to across-the-board percentage cuts as a means to deal with shrinking revenues. In Philadelphia, the Nutter Administration undertook a fascinating exercise to address the issue. Each City Department was tasked with identifying the impacts of various levels of spending cuts. A 2 percent cut would be achieved in a certain way, which would have certain impacts on the government and residents. Similarly for a 4 percent cut and a 7 percent cut. The Health Department might reduce the number of inspectors which would mean a longer time period between restaurant inspections. Fewer Police officers would result in a change in anti-crime initiatives, and potentially higher crime rates. Waste collection could switch to every other week, with impacts on cleanliness, disease, and even tourism.
Each Department then presented their findings to the Mayor and his cabinet, in a series of publicly televised sessions. All of the materials presented were available to the public on the City's website. The public had a front row seat as the "budget sausage" was being made. The Mayor and his cabinet then presented a budget plan which, to some extent, was based on choosing from among the various difficult scenarios to achieve the necessary savings. You may not have agreed with the spending decisions made by Mayor Nutter, but he clearly laid out what the available choices were, the various impacts, and what he believed were the spending priorities in the best interests of the City. From a process perspective, that should be our expectation from every public leader.
While it takes a crisis to initiate the dramatic process utilized by Philadelphia, to some extent these are the decisions being made every time a budget is assembled. Across-the-board cuts (or increases for that matter) represent the abandonment of leadership by those chosen to lead. There is no attempt to evaluate the impacts of each decision, no effort to mold the future, no courage of ones convictions. Mahatma Gandhi noted that "action expresses priorities." The "inaction" of sequester-like cuts belies claims of responsible fiscal management.
Uri Monson is Chief Financial Officer for Montgomery County.His is former executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA).