Gov. Kate Brown wants all state agencies to submit plans for 8.5 percent cuts in their general fund dollars for the two-year budget cycle because of the expected impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What a complete waste of time.
A smarter, bolder governor would abjure equal across-the-board cuts in favor of cuts targeted at lower priority, low-quality or ineffective programs.
The order for across-the-board budget cut scenarios is a lazy cop-out that substitutes simple, seemingly fair cuts for hard decisions that might raise political hackles.
If all programs are kept in place and just reduced in size and scope, opportunities to eliminate waste are lost and saved but ineffective programs tend to grow again when higher state revenues return.
As George W. Bush said, “There comes a time when every program must be judged either a success or a failure. Where we find success, we should reward it, repeat it, make it the standard. And where we find failure, we must call it by its name. Government action that fails in its purpose must be reformed or ended.”
Indiscriminate equal across-the-board cuts also ignore differential effectiveness between state government programs and differences in policy priorities. They are agnostic as to what the state should really be doing with its revenue and lock in current policy priorities. They also penalize the leanest and most efficient agencies that have less fat to cut.
Some programs may also be able to sustain their core functions with a specific percentage cut, while others can’t. You can’t, for example, cut the length of a bridge by 8.5 percent.
Uniform 8.5 percent cuts will mean that valuable, impactful projects and investments will be cut as much as in equal measure with bloated, duplicative projects and state employees doing great work will be cut along with those doing shoddy work.
In addition, although government frequently tries to cloak all spending in the “investment” bucket, it is true that some spending is intended to be more an investment in the future than a short-term outlay. An across-the-board spending cut that applies to even productive public investments may reduce current spending, but make future budget problems worse.
“At this point, the reduction plans are a planning exercise that will give the Governor a series of options to consider,” Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for Gov. Brown, said to OPB.
Exercise is right, as in performance without a purpose.