Tag: budget

Unserious Cost Cutters Only

In a new Governing column entitled “Serious Cost Cutters Only, Please,” William Eggers and John O’Leary offer advice “for those public leaders who are looking to make structural changes that will bend the cost curve of government down.”

The target audiences are state officials who presently find themselves in the politically unrewarding position of not being able to spend as much as they’d like to because the recession has constrained revenues. Eggers and O’Leary correctly warn that policymakers shouldn’t “kick the can” down the road by pursuing short-term strategies that could prove costly in the long-run.

Unfortunately, their recommendations are of the pie-in-the-sky “good government” variety.

The piece caught my eye because I have first-hand state government experience with some of their suggestions:

The first lesson is that it is virtually impossible for the secretaries and department heads charged with running operations to come up with sufficient savings themselves to deliver the necessary cost savings. The best approach by far is to establish a dedicated team, located physically and philosophically close to the chief executive, and charge them with developing a set of recommendations that the mayor or governor can then direct her lieutenants to execute.

I spent two years working for such a dedicated team within Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Management and Budget. The group, “Government Efficiency and Financial Planning,” was originally tasked with conducting a “long-overdue inventory of the state’s operations.” We produced two reports with hundreds of recommendations for making state government more “efficient” and “effective.”

The governor never directed his “lieutenants to execute” very many – if any – of the recommendations. In fact, the lieutenants were so worried about the potential political fallout from the issue of the second report that it was intentionally released when nobody was looking. They needn’t have worried because those interests who might have had cause for concern already saw that the first report was basically inconsequential.

Eggers and O’Leary continue:

There is likely to be some internal friction between the cost reduction team and the various department leaders. That is by design. The cost reduction team is supposed to be disruptive.

GEFP was somewhat disruptive, but not very effective. The governor’s lieutenants typically either sided with the department leaders or did little to support GEFP. The reason was simple. The perceived political costs of GEFP’s efforts usually exceeded the perceived political benefits. Department heads, on the other hand, can create favorable (and unfavorable headlines) and thus possess greater pull.

The sorry story of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation is instructive. A recent series of investigations by an Indianapolis reporter found that the IEDC had long been taking undeserved credit for job creation. When the reporter tried to visit some of the companies celebrated in IEDC news releases, he found empty fields, vacant lots and deserted factories. When he asked the head IEDC official to provide the public with evidence to support the agency’s claims, the IEDC head refused.

The IEDC, which was created by Gov. Daniels, was portrayed quite differently in the first GEFP report released in late 2006:

The previous Department of Commerce was responsible for a wide range of programs that included economic development, energy, community development and revitalization, agriculture, and tourism. The priorities of these programs were difficult to discern while mired within the former structure. The dismantling of the previous department into the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Office of Energy and Defense Development, Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Office of Tourism Development, and Department of Agriculture has enhanced the profile of their respective programs and allowed for greater focus and accountability. Each of these areas now has a strategic plan that identifies its mission and long-term goals.

Adding insult to taxpayer injury is this gem of a quote that’s contained in the report’s introductory section on transparency:

Information on government performance mainly comes from agency heads and program managers. Human nature will incline agency heads and program managers to report results that show their programs in the best possible light. Naturally, agencies have little incentive to report information that would demonstrate inefficient or ineffective performance.

The last I heard, GEFP is now in charge of overseeing how Indiana spends its share of Obama’s stimulus money. The 2006 report, now a distant memory, stated in bold font that “outcomes and results matter.” Unfortunately for Indiana taxpayers, the outcome certainly hasn’t been a smaller state government or lower state taxes.

Eggers and O’Leary rightly acknowledge that politics make government cost cutting efforts difficult. But at the end of the day, politics almost always trumps policy. Government is not a business, and attempts to make it operate like one are a fool’s errand.

More importantly, when Eggers and O’Leary talk about cutting government costs, they’re not really talking about net cuts. Taxpayers bear the cost of government. Therefore, a net cut in government costs would mean a reduced burden on taxpayers. Making government “more efficient” is all well and good, but if the “savings” just get plowed into other programs – as has been the case in Indiana – then taxpayers aren’t any better off.

What structural changes can be made to avoid the long-term fiscal problems that concern Eggers and O’Leary?

I’ve concluded that a strong statutory limit on state spending and/or revenues is the best option. That such limits, like Colorado’s TABOR, are effective is proven by the vociferous opposition they generate from interests that depend on state largess.

Another sign is that it’s rare for an authoritative state policymaker to pursue such a measure for the obvious reason that it would inhibit the  ability to spend other people’s money. Once again, my time in state government was instructive.

When I suggested to Gov. Daniels that he consider pushing a measure like Colorado’s TABOR, he replied that he “guess he didn’t see the need for that.” A Daniels lieutenant would later instruct me, at the governor’s behest, to create a taxpayer rebate mechanism (a component of TABOR). However, I was told that the mechanism couldn’t “cost” much because the governor didn’t want his second-term spending “priorities” to be jeopardized. I was also told it had to “look good” to voters for purposes of boosting Daniels’ reelection prospects.

The bottom line is that policymakers of all stripes say they want taxpayer money spent more efficiently and effectively. If I had a dime for every time I heard a politician promise to root out “waste, fraud, and abuse” I’d be snorkeling in the Caribbean instead of writing this blog post. Therefore, if taxpayers want structural changes that will limit the burden of government, they’re going to have to demand that policymakers offer more than just platitudes.

Obamanomics and my Seven Steamy Nights with the Gals from Victoria’s Secret

The White House is claiming that the so-called stimulus created between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs even though total employment has dropped by more than 2.3 million since Obama took office. The Administration justifies this legerdemain by asserting that the economy actually would have lost about 5 million jobs without the new government spending.
I’ve decided to adopt this clever strategy to spice up my social life. Next time I see my buddies, I’m going to claim that I enjoyed a week of debauchery with the Victoria’s Secret models. And if any of them are rude enough to point out that I’m lying, I’ll simply explain that I started with an assumption of spending -7 nights with the supermodels. And since I actually spent zero nights with them, that means a net of +7. Some of you may be wondering whether it makes sense to begin with an assumption of “-7 nights,” but I figure that’s okay since Keynesians begin with the assumption that you can increase your prosperity by transferring money from your left pocket to your right pocket.
Since I’m a gentleman, I’m not going to share any of the intimate details of my escapades, but I will include an excerpt from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal about the Obama Administration’s make-believe jobs.

President Obama’s chief economist announced that the plan had “created or saved” between 2.5 million and 3.6 million jobs and raised GDP by 2.7% to 3.2% through June 30. …We almost feel sorry for Ms. Romer having to make this argument given that since February 2009 the U.S. economy has lost a net 2.35 million jobs. Using the White House “created or saved” measure means that even if there were only three million Americans left with jobs today, the White House could claim that every one was saved by the stimulus. …White House economists…said the unemployment rate would peak at 9% without the stimulus (there’s your counterfactual) and that with the stimulus the rate would stay at 8% or below. In other words, today there are 700,000 fewer jobs than Ms. Romer predicted we would have if we had done nothing at all. If this is a job creation success, what does failure look like? …All of these White House jobs estimates are based on the increasingly discredited Keynesian spending “multiplier,” which according to White House economist Larry Summers means that every $1 of government spending will yield roughly $1.50 in higher GDP. Ms. Romer thus plugs her spending data into the Keynesian computer models and, presto, out come 2.5 million to 3.6 million jobs, even if the real economy has lost jobs. To adapt Groucho Marx: Who are you going to believe, the White House computer models, or your own eyes?

What Is a ‘Strong’ Defense?

The good people at the Stimson Center’s Budget Insight blog invited me to contribute a guest post discussing the Sustainable Defense Task Force report  Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward. Here’s an excerpt:

The most common response [to the report] has been some sympathy for our argument that military spending should be subjected to the same scrutiny that should be applied to other government spending. There are still a fair number of people, however, who share our concern about the deficit, but who counter “But I want a strong defense.”

Who doesn’t?

The task force report was written with a single consideration in mind: in what ways, and where, could we make cuts in military spending that would not undermine U.S. security?


A leading conservative in the Senate, Tom Coburn (R-OK) wrote that the deficit reduction commission “affords us an opportunity to start some very late due diligence on national defense spending… [as well as] reduce wasteful, unnecessary, and duplicative defense spending that does nothing to make our nation safe.”

Read the rest here.

New York State Should Cut Property Taxes

The New York Times editorialists are at it again.  June 12th’s lead editorial, “The Latest Work Dodge: A Shutdown,” frets over the specter of the New York state government being shut down because Albany’s legislators can’t agree on a budget.  Well, the Times must have breathed a collective sigh of relief late Monday (June 14th).  That’s when the State Senate passed Governor Paterson’s 11th temporary budget extender, which allowed state offices to hang out “open for business” signs on Tuesday.

But, the Times wants a final state budget and claims that more taxing and borrowing and maybe some cuts in school aid will do the trick.  One item that the Times wants off the table in Albany is property taxes.  According to the Times, Democratic state senators outside New York City should stop pushing for restrictions on the rate of growth of property taxes.  I agree.  Instead, the legislators should start pushing for sharp cuts in New York’s oppressive property taxes.  When every U.S. county is ranked according to its average property-tax bill, as a percent of home values, 14 of the highest 15 are in New York state.

As Prof. Steve Walters and I concluded in “A Property Tax Cut Could Help Save Buffalo” (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2008),  New York should follow California and Massachusetts and cut property taxes.  Voters capped property taxes in California at 1% of market value with Proposition 13 in 1978. That forced San Francisco to cut its rate by 57% overnight and brought forth a tidal wave of investment, even amidst a recession. By 1982, inflation-adjusted city revenues were two-thirds higher than they had been before Prop. 13. Massachusetts voters passed Prop 2 ½ in 1980, forcing Boston’s property tax rate down by an estimated 75% within two years. Massive reinvestment, repopulation and urban renewal followed.

‘YouCut’ Spending by 0.017%

House Republicans unveiled a bold strategy to cut 0.017 percent from the $3.7 trillion federal budget this week. Republican Whip Eric Cantor unveiled the GOP’s “YouCut” website, which includes five possible spending cuts for citizens to vote on. Mr. Cantor promised to take the favored cut to the House floor next week for members to consider.

The basic idea of YouCut is a good one — getting citizens actively involved in solving the government’s giant deficit problem and focusing congressional attention on cutting the bloated budget.

But the GOP leadership make themselves look silly by offering such small cuts. The suggested cuts on the new website average just $638 million in annual savings, which is just 0.017 percent of total federal spending. Put another way, it is just $1 of cuts for every $5,800 of federal spending. The average YouCut savings idea is just 0.04 percent of this year’s federal deficit of $1.6 trillion. So we would need 2,500 cuts of this size to balance the budget.

It’s a mystery why the Republican leadership can’t offer more than tiny spending reforms. They’ve got lots of sharp staffers who know how wasteful many large programs are and understand the need to terminate whole agencies. It’s true that YouCut will offer new cuts every week, but so far the cuts are very timid.

The second-largest YouCut idea this week is to refocus “community development” spending on those cities that are the most needy. But the whole idea of the federal government spending money on local projects such as parking lots is both economically absurd and an obvious violation of the Tenth Amendment.

Come on Republicans, you can do better. Terminating all of HUD’s $13 billion in annual community development spending, for example, ought to be an easy vote for any member claiming to be a fiscal conservative.  

Some Republicans do understand the nation’s fiscal emergency and the need for bold action. Paul Ryan, for example, has his excellent roadmap proposal. But thus far with YouCut, we have the Empire State Building engulfed in flames and Mr. Cantor sending in a toddler with a squirt gun to solve the problem.

Still, the House Republicans have created a tool that citizens can use to get the message across about the need for much larger reforms. The YouCut website encourages people to send in their own budget-cutting ideas. I’ll be sending some in, and folks, feel free to borrow ideas from the “Spending Cut” tables on www.downsizinggovernment.org.  

I don’t think conservative voters, tea party activists, and other citizens concerned about the nation’s economic future want to cut 0.017 percent from the budget. I think they want to cut 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, or more. So send your suggestions into YouCut, and we will see whether the GOP puts away the squirt guns and pulls out the fire hoses.

Furor over Government Employees

Concern about the pay, benefits, and performance of government employees seems to be growing. Chris Edwards’s articles on how government pay is outpacing private-sector pay have generated media attention, cartoons, and angry rebuttals from the head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. Steven Greenhut has a new book, Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, and is writing lots of newspaper articles on the high costs of government unions, also the topic of a recent Cato Policy Analysis. New Jersey unions are not finding much sympathy as they try to hold on to their raises, benefits, pensions, and work rules in the face of Gov. Chris Christie’s attempt to cut the budget. Liberal journalist Mickey Kaus is running for the U.S. Senate, trying to warn California’s voters and the Democratic Party about the excessive power and destructive influence of public employee unions.

And now Saturday Night Live. The zeitgeist-riding comedy show had a truly harsh sketch this weekend about the “Public Employee of the Year Awards.” It touched every element of popular resentment toward government workers: “people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere – except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or copayments” – “retirement on full disability” by an obviously young and healthy worker – “Surliest and Least Cooperative State Employee” – “3200 hours [a year] on the job, all of it overtime” – New York school janitors living in Florida – employees with two current jobs and full disability – an entire workday at the DMV without serving a single customer – no-work contracts –  surprisingly early closings – and “he’s on break.”

Time for unions to start worrying?

Congress to Skip the Budget Process—-a Transparency Problem at the Very Least

You are required by law to file your taxes by the end of the day tomorrow, and you get penalized if you don’t. Meanwhile, Congress will not meet its April 15 requirement to pass a budget resolution. The budget resolution is the plan for FY 2011 revenue and spending that dictates the amounts in forthcoming annual spending bills.

It’s an understatement to say that skipping the annual budgeting process is a transparency problem. It’s a management problem, a spending problem, a leadership problem, a responsibility problem …

More commentary and a timetable of the congressional budget process is on the WashingtonWatch.com blog. Politico broke the story (so far as I can tell). Reuters quotes Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) saying, “We’re going to go full speed ahead” with the budget.

You have until the end of the day tomorrow, senator.