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Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

The following postings have been filtered by tag budget deficits. clear filter
  •  How Did You Survive The "New Realities" Of Today's Budgets?

    Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

    How did you survive the budget hearings in your jurisdiction?

    With the uncertainty at the federal level, states are bracing for a decrease in what they receive, and cities and counties are keeping a close eye on what is sure to be a cut in money from the states.

    Let us know how you approached the budget decision process by taking this simple, anonymous survey.

    Although there are only six short questions, your answers could make a difference to public servants across the nation.

    Go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/VS62KTT and we’ll post a summary of your responses.

  •  A Lesson In Cooperation And Creativity

    Tuesday, Jul. 5, 2011

    California has nothing on Minnesota when it comes to legislators at loggerheads over the state budget.

    The state shut down a variety of government services last week, and Governor Mark Dayton is now meeting with his colleagues to try to hammer out a deal to close a $5 billion gap in Minnesota’s two-year budget.

    The shutdown has had a significant impact on the day-to-day business conducted by government. For example, you can’t take your driver’s test, state parks have been closed, and some 20,000 workers have been furloughed. But as humorist and author Garrison Keillor points out in his “Prairie Home Companion” program, Minnesotans are hard-working and creative, and are not going to let the shutdown ruin their summer.

    I recently spent a few days visiting friends in the small city of Winona (population about 28,000). During my short stay I attended three free outdoor concerts, visited the county history museum, toured a refuge center for bald eagles, saw two outstanding plays staged by the Great River Shakespeare Company, enjoyed a performance at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, and even attended a political rally. None of these events would have been possible without the vision and determination of a community that comes together for events as diverse as the Winona Steamboat Days and the Frozen River Film Festival.

    Seeing the sense of civic pride, community cooperation, and a “can-do” attitude was inspiring. There are a number of empty retail buildigs downtown, and the city has suffered the downturn in the economy. So while the underwriters of the events included a few of the local banks and businesses along with Winona State University, the majority of the sponsors and volunteers were individuals, couples, and families.

    There are many services we count on our government to provide, and it is my hope that Minnesota and all the states engaged in budget battles are able to find a fair and equitable compromise on their political differences.

     Perhaps they should spend a few days in their home districts, and take some of that local  “gumption” back to the statehouse.

     

     

  •  U.S. Mayors Ask For End To War in Afghanistan

    Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2011

    Boldly moving beyond their traditional issues, the United States Conference of Mayors voted overwhelmingly to seek the end to U.S presence in Afghanistan.

    Meeting in Baltimore, the mayors were not so much making a political statement but a practical one. By bringing the troops home the mayors were asking President Obama to reinvest the billions spent on our overseas involvement to “meet vital human needs, promote job creation, rebuild our infrastructure, aid municipal and state governments, and develop a new economy based upon renewable, sustainable energy and reduce the federal debt.”

    The annual meeting is usually a time for passing resolutions on issues such as energy, transportation, education, public safety, housing, and the like. This year the mayors acknowledged the harm that will come to cities when important federal programs are cut due to budget shortfalls.

  •  "No Gimmicks" Budget Vetoed in California

    Thursday, Jun. 16, 2011

    As the Rolling Stones say, “You can’t always get what you want.”

    That is certainly the theme in Sacramento and cities across California as the state budget passed both houses by the June 15 deadline. But nobody was happy with the document, and Governor Jerry Brown promptly signed a veto.

    Arguing that there would be no gimmicks in eliminating the state deficit, Brown said the document “ continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars of new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing, and unrealistic savings. We can—and must—do better.”

    The $26 billion deficit has created friction between the Democrats and Republicans, with Governor Brown trying to reason with both sides. In the end, he criticized Republicans for refusing an important part of his plan: to let the voters have a say in how the balance will be achieved.

    Brown wanted voters to decide on extending personal income and sales tax increases, a provision the Republicans would concede only if proposals such as a spending cap were included, along with reforms in both pension and regulatory programs.

    This is the first time in 25 years the California lawmakers have been able to meet their constitutional deadline, but it may have been rushed due to a proposition passed last November that said: no budget on time, no paycheck. The voters will undoubtedly be unhappy with one concession by the governor that allows legislators to continue to be paid. Previously, State Controller John Chiang said he would permanently withhold lawmakers' pay and per diem starting June 16 if they did not pass a balanced budget.

    So for now the Golden State will have to rely on another song from the Rolling Stones that laments, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

     

    Photo by freedom to marryavailable under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial License.

  •  City Refuses To Disclose Important Financial Information

    Thursday, May. 5, 2011

    In an effort to dodge open records laws applying to employee bonuses, the city of Burbank, California has come up with an unbelievable argument: “the information would reveal private performance evaluations and erode workplace morale.”

    What about taxpayer morale?

    The senior assistant city attorney argues the public record request “falls outside established bounds for access to salary and other compensation information for government employees.” Rather than sharing information about individual bonuses, the city provided an aggregate amount--$1 million for the last fiscal year.

    Putting aside the discussion of whether or not city employees should receive bonuses at all, the idea that giving the public important financial data would “create embarrassment, morale disruptions and personal dissension in the workplace” is certainly no basis for hiding these numbers. In fact, the city's position raises red flags about possible favoritism or nepotism.

    Burbank is facing an estimated $8.7 million budget gap for the next fiscal year. The public has a right to know where every penny is being spent.

  •  The Cost Of Ethics Reform

    Monday, Apr. 11, 2011

    What’s the point in having an ethics requirement if there is no money to support oversight and enforcement?

    On July 1, the city of Philadelphia will require lobbyists to register and provide details on their clients and expenditures. The effort is part of the reform promised by Mayor Michael Nutter and the city council to bring greater transparency to city government. But that transparency has a price tag: $130,00 more than has been budgeted. The funds would be used to pay for additional staff to handle the anticipated flood of paperwork.

    The proposed increase comes at a time when other city departments are suffering budget cuts. Taking that into account, there is still a strong case for supporting this request. A recent piece in The Inquirer said, “While there are departments across city government that could do more with less, according to Nutter's directive this year, the Ethics Board already runs a lean operation. What's more, its beefed-up role in tracking lobbyists and the influence they might wield on city policy is critical to advancing the mayor's reform-minded agenda.”

    This is a case of “putting your money where your mouth is.” Just talking about ethics reform is not enough. There must be sufficient resources to do the job, and do it well.

  •  What Should Be Done When A City Is Bankrupt?

    Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

     

    The prospect of cities declaring bankruptcy has governors and legislators looking for solutions to rescue insolvent municipalities. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the answer was to demote the mayor to an advisor, and put a state-appointed receiver in charge of the city. The state now has authority for unlimited oversight.
    Last July Mayor Charles D. Moreau was forced to turn in his city car, cell phone, and keys to city hall. His salary went from $71,736 to $26,000, although he has yet to be called for advice. His problems did not begin with the bankruptcy, however. Moreau  is currently under investigation on state and federal corruption charges, but has refused calls for his resignation, insisting he is planning his 2013 re-election campagn.
     A retired state judge is serving as receiver, trying to get the city financially on track. Cedar Falls was the first city in the state to declare insolvency, leaving both a deficit and unfunded retiree benefits. The action caused the city’s debt to plummet to junk bond status, and raised alarm in the town of 19,000.
    Cedar Falls is one of thousands of small towns that might be a good candidate for consolidation. While pooling resources and sharing revenues is not always an easy transition, it seems to make sense in a city of only 1.29 square miles.

     

  •  Budget Woes Don't Excuse Unethical Behavior

    Friday, Feb. 11, 2011

    When the mayor of Calgary took a flight to Toronto recently, a firm doing business with the city paid the $721.50 airfare.  He says he took the free flight to save the city money.  And despite public criticism over the Toronto trip, he’s flying to Vancouver next week, using a $659.14 ticket paid for by a leadership academy.

    Expect to see more of these kinds of justifications for accepting gifts of travel. A municipal budgets are reduced to addressing basic services, travel has been all but eliminated in some cities. But this justification doesn’t pass the ethics test, regardless of Calgary’s financial constraints.

    Allowing a contractor or vendor to pay for gifts of travel can compromise the independent and objective relationship needed for fair and good government. Gifts such as this can be seen as a quid pro quo or a reward for a contract. Accepting such freebies can also lead to the “slippery slope” where legitimate business trips merge with personal travel.

    Fortunately the city is considering hiring ethics experts to provide guidelines for council travel, gifts, and campaign donations. Replacing the informal, unwritten policies is overdue.

     

     

     

  •  Surprising Data On State Salaries

    Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011

     

    Could you live on $10 a day? If you are a state legislator in Alabama that is your salary. You’ll also get about $4,000 a month and $50 a day for three days each week that the legislature meets in session.
     
    The Web site Ballotpedia gives salary, per diem, and other information about state government. You may find the information surprising.
     
     Not all legislatures are full time or meet year round, but it looks like the elected officials in New Hampshire are elected volunteers: they are paid $200 for a two-year term and have no per diem. And if you are elected to state office in New Mexico you receive no salary – just  $159 per diem (tied to the federal rate).
     
    Much focus has been placed on exorbitant salaries going to public employees, but with the exception of the full-time California legislature ($95,219 a year) most of the men and women at the state capitols are modestly paid.
     
    The ongoing debate about compensating elected officials is sure to heat up again as state budgets continue to shrink. Do you think your legislator is paid a fair salary? Should he or she be given a raise, or asked to take a cut in pay to help balance the budget?
     

     

  •  Saving For A Snowy Day : Chilling Facts About The Cost of Winter Storms

    Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

     

     
    Hurricanes, floods, and tornados – all take a toll on local government. But the recent blizzards in the mid-west and on the east coast serve as a reminder that there is a high cost for keeping a city functioning when you run out of money.
     
    Some recent examples:
    • New Jersey spent its entire snow removal budget of $20 million before the storm last week. Money is being borrowed from other accounts, but the state is hoping to receive more than $50 million in aid from the federal government.
    • In New York City, $38.8 million was spent on the 20 inches of snow that fell in December—the full amount of funds set aside for this purpose. This does not cover the 36 inches that fell in January, or the cost of the current storm.
    • Westport, Connecticut had to move 38 inches of snow from the roads, depleting not only the $400,000 budget but also exhausting city employees who have had to work round-the clock to clear streets.
    • The city of Northampton, Massachusetts used to purchase snow removal insurance, but when the premiums became too expensive the city cancelled.
    So while budget talks across the country will continue to focus on “essential” services such as police, fire, and education, there are many cities that will be forced to make even more difficult funding decisions in light of the unexpected and unfunded weather conditions.
     

     

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