Tag: price tag

How to Fix County Budget Problems

I’m wrapping up a paper on the real cost of public education, the total price tag per student, not just the stripped down version they typically trot out to show voters. One of the districts is Arlington, VA, which is the one I  happen to live in.

Though the district is an unusually big spender, their most recent budget, for fiscal year 2010, contains hand-wringing typical for school districts across the country. “FY 2010 will present unique challenges and hardships for staff, however as stated earlier, these reductions are taken so that there is minimal impact on classroom instruction.”

Arlington is planning to spend over $23,000 per student this year according to the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE). That’s a 33 percent increase in constant dollars since 2000.*

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And yet the county is still talking about tax increases to cover the expected $80-$100 million shortfall the county expects next year.

Here’s a great alternative; fund the schools at 2000 levels and we’re left with an extra $108 million. Voila, no tax increases!

* The WABE listed per-pupil figure leaves out some k-12 spending and provides a number that is significantly less than that in more comprehensive, but older, state records or that can be compiled from district budgets, so I’ve divided the total expenditures listed on p.23 by the enrollment to get real total per-pupil spending.

Senate Votes to End Production of F-22 Raptor

As I have written previously, President Obama and the members of Congress who voted to kill funding for the F-22 did the right thing.

The Washington Post reports:

The Senate voted Tuesday to kill the nation’s premier fighter-jet program, embracing by a 58 to 40 margin the argument of President Obama and his top military advisers that more F-22s are not needed for the nation’s defense and would be a costly drag on the Pentagon’s budget in an era of small wars and counterinsurgency efforts.

While this vote marks a step in the right direction, the fight isn’t over. The F-22’s supporters in the House inserted additional monies in the defense authorization bill, and the differences will need to be reconciled in conference. But the vote for the Levin-McCain amendment signals that Congress will take seriously President Obama and Secretary Gates’ intent to bring some measure of rationality to defense budgeting.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag— nearly $350 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

Beyond the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, we need a renewed emphasis in military procurement on cost containment. This can only occur within an environment of shrinking defense budgets. Defense contractors who are best able to meet stringent cost and quality standards will win the privilege of providing our military with the necessary tools, but at far less expense to the taxpayers. And those who cannot will have to find other business.

The “Culture of Spending” from the Mouths of Babes

Each semester, when I speak to Cato’s new employees and interns, I give them a quick discussion of some of the reasons that government tends to grow, such as the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs and what James Payne called “the culture of spending.” In his book by that title, Payne noted:

The congressman lives in a special world, a curiously isolated world that is dominated by the advocates of government action. He is subjected to a broad chorus of persuasion that incessantly urges the virtues of spending programs. Year after year he hears how necessary government programs are.

Day after day, year after year, people come to the congressman’s office with stories about why some particular government program is needed – to help their grandfather, their brother-in-law, their community – and rarely if ever does a constituent fly to Washington to urge his congressman to vote against any particular one of the myriad programs that add up to his entire income tax bill.

The Washington Post has a great illustration of this problem in the Sunday paper. The little town of Owego, New York, was excited to hear that Lockheed Martin would build the new presidential helicopter – it’s called Marine One, though fortunately for Lockheed the government wanted 23 of them – at a plant in Owego. But as the price tag ballooned from $6.8 billion to $13 billion, even politicians began to see it as an unnecessary expense. The military canceled the program on June 1. Hundreds of jobs will be lost in Owego. And as the Post writes:

An 11-year-old Owego girl, whose parents are longtime Lockheed employees, recently hand-wrote a letter to Obama. It was published in the local newspaper and quickly became a voice for her shaken community.

“Lockheed is the main job source in Owego,” Hailey Bell, now 12, wrote. “If you shut down the program, my mom may lose her job and a lot of other people too… . Owego will be a ghost town. I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here! Please really, really think it over.”

I’m sure she loves her parents and her town. And there’s no reason to expect Hailey to understand what $13 billion means to taxpaying Americans all over the country. But this is just the kind of story that members of Congress hear all the time: save my parents’ jobs, save my community, save our farms. And it all adds up to a $4 trillion federal budget with a $1.8 trillion deficit. (And by the way, if you Google “fiscal 2009 budget,” you will quickly find the Obama administration’s budget page, which somewhat oddly does not show the actual budget totals but does invite you to “Use the map below to learn more about how the President’s 2010 Budget is restoring long-term opportunity and prosperity in your state.”)

For a more, shall we say, adult view of what it means to direct federal dollars to particular areas, we might turn to an advertisement in the Durango, Colorado, Herald in 1987, which touted the Animas-La Plata dam and irrigation project  and made explicit the usual hidden calculations of those trying to get their hands on federal dollars:

Why we should support the Animas-La Plata Project: Because someone else is paying the tab! We get the water. We get the reservoir. They get the bill.

That’s the way they tell it back home, usually without putting it in writing. In public and in Washington, they say, “Without this dam, our little town will waste away. Only you can save us, Mr. Congressman.” And it’s bankrupting us.

How Much Will Universal Coverage Cost?

President Barack Obama has declared that his goal in health care reform is “expanding coverage to all Americans.”  So what’s the price tag on universal coverage?

Some reformers are throwing around numbers like $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion.  But according to the Urban Institute, the cost would be closer to $2 trillion.

Jack Hadley and his colleagues estimate, “If all uninsured people were fully covered [in 2008], their medical spending would increase by $122.6 billion.”  If we assume that the cost of covering the uninsured will grow at the same rate the federal government assumes for all health spending growth (6.2 percent), then from 2010 through 2019, the cost of covering the uninsured would be $1.8 trillion.

That’s at a minimum.  According to Hadley et al., their estimate “is neither the cost of a specific plan nor necessarily the same as the government’s costs, which could be higher, depending on plans’ financing structures and the extent of crowd-out.”  Crowd-out is like collateral damange.  When you’re dropping money from the sky, some will inevitably strike innocent bystanders (i.e., the insured).  To ensure you hit the uninsured with $122.6 billion, you need to drop a lot more than that amount.

Thus the full cost of covering the uninsured would be closer to – and possibly well over – $2 trillion.