“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”
More than 50 years after Ronald Reagan made this statement, government at all levels continues to grow. Georgia is under particular pressure this year to fund legitimate programs that have fallen behind such as transportation and trauma care, even as economists forecast lower revenues due to an unstable economy. Before we create new spending programs, Georgia needs to increase scrutiny of its existing spending.
Georgia Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson is on the right track with his recent announcement that the House will apply zero-based budgeting to two state agencies in 2008. A zero-based approach has the advantage of not just examining new program requests from each agency but also taking a hard look at all existing programs. The first question of every program should be, “Is this a core function of state government?” If the answer is no, then that program ought to be phased out.
With today’s technology, there’s no excuse why taxpayers shouldn’t be able to find out where their tax dollars are being spent. A bill by Rep. Jill Chambers that would have made this information available to legislators passed the General Assembly by unanimous vote last year. Governor Perdue vetoed the bill due to technical concerns, but supports the concept. A similar bill by Senators Chip Rogers and Chip Pearson would place non-confidential spending information on a public, searchable database. Eight states and the federal government have already enacted transparency legislation. The bipartisan support for such legislation is evident; even Illinois Democrat Barack Obama and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn agree on it. Imagine the scrutiny that thousands of bloggers could provide if given easy access to this information.
If eliminating spending programs is not an option, then the best option is to limit their growth. The Founding Fathers believed in limiting government because they understood its propensity to grow. Georgia particularly needs spending limits because, in a growing state, government can increase in size without even needing to raise tax rates. Governor Roy Barnes implemented the Taxpayer Bill of Rights in 1999 to combat “stealth tax increases” that rising property assessments produced. This law could be improved, but a more comprehensive approach would be to address overall spending. A taxpayer protection law would require special approval for spending over and above a certain benchmark, such as population and inflation. This would provide transparency and a “speed bump” on spending at both the state and local levels.
It’s also important to enforce existing laws. In 2005, the General Assembly required every local school system to report budget information “for each school site.” Today, two years later, this information is nowhere to be found.
The public and its elected representatives must constantly fight for limited and open government by asking tough questions. For example, why does Georgia spend 10 percent more per student on education than Florida and North Carolina, yet student achievement is higher in those states? Why does Georgia’s Medicaid program spend 7 percent more per child and 39 percent more per adult than Florida? Why hasn’t Georgia reformed its health care plan for current and retired state employees when, according to expert estimates, that could save more than $4 billion over five years?
Some questions can be quite simple: Why doesn’t the Senate follow the lead of the House and provide video coverage of committee meetings? Why are local assistance grants often slipped into the budget in the final hours of the session without any public scrutiny? Why do state agencies and local governments employ so many lobbyists? Why is the state still subsidizing golf courses?
The Internet has the capability of bringing government much closer to the people. Government should welcome the extra scrutiny, not resist it. Elected officials must remember that every dollar spent by government is a dollar taken from someone; a dollar that a family no longer has to spend on its needs and priorities. Georgia’s legislators face difficult budget decisions when they enter the Gold Dome in January. As they do, disclosure and transparency should be at the top of their list.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.