Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Two Views of a Budget Crisis

By Judy Nadler

The Majority and Minority leadership of the state House and Senate convened for breakfast to discuss a solution to the absolute impasse which had developed in the state budget process.

Coming to agreement on the budget has never been easy, but this year was proving to be impossible. The two legislators leading the debate had very different views of how to close the state's $5 billion gap.

Key areas of concern included:

  • a state retirement system that is under-funded;
  • insufficient highway funds to cover improvements to roads
    and bridges;
  • crumbling public buildings due to delayed maintenance;
  • funding shortfalls for mandated education programs;
  • higher costs for social services; and
  • a burgeoning prison population.

    While the governor encouraged compromise and collaboration, roughly equal numbers of legislators were lining up to support the proposals made by either Senator Margie Jones or Representative Curt Mayer.

    Senator Jones, a former county finance director with strong ties to local government, was concerned about the impact of the proposed cuts in services in combination with various unfunded state mandates. Her financial background also made her wary of the long-term impact of the debt and the state IOU's, arguing the state could not afford to risk its bond ratings.

    Her objections to many of the ideas for balancing the budget were that they afford a "one-time fix" that will only force the debt onto future generations. "Without real fiscal reform, we will continue to leave the bill to our children or to turn to the state lottery and gaming casinos to get us out of this mess. We might as well run a bake sale. We need to fix the broken system, and that will include raising taxes as well as monitoring spending."

    Arguing the alternate view was Representative Mayer, who owned several car dealerships before his election. "I ran on fiscal responsibility, and that is what the voters want," he said in a letter to the editor. "The citizens have no stomach for more taxes. Individuals in our state have learned to cut back their expenses, and it's time for the government to do the same."

    While both agreed there might be some savings found by consolidating state agencies and putting a freeze on new hires, their approaches were quite different. "Raising taxes will drive away business and stifle economic development," said Representative Mayer. "The wide range of services we offer the public cannot continue, and each one of us will have to tighten our belt." Senator Jones, on the other hand, was adamant that the social service safety net remain in place, noting "We've already cut some programs to the bone, and I believe the public is willing to pay more to support those in need."

    The labor unions, consumer groups, teachers' federation, medical care employees, prison guards, and lobbyists representing key industries in the state were weighing in, but no one seemed willing to offer a compromise. To make matters worse, the Democrats and Republicans were gearing up for an election that would determine the legislative majority, so collaboration across the aisle wasn't likely. Potential "defectors" within each party had been instructed to follow the party line.

    Discussion questions:
    1. What responsibility does the leadership have to resolve a stalemate?
    2. How does a legislative leader balance his or her responsibilities to the district's constituents, to all the citizens of the state, to the members of the legislature as a whole, and to the members of his or her own party?
    3. If the budget is a values statement, how should a legislator vote? Does your vote reflect your values or those of your constituents?
    4. Is it important to consider the impact of the fiscal decisions made today on the future generation? When is it appropriate to ask the next generation to pay the bills we incur today?
    5. What issues or values should you be willing to "trade off" in order to come to agreement on the budget?
    6. In this era in which the media remind you of every promise you ever made, how can a legislator respond to a changed economy or changed statewide needs?
    7. What values help you decide between competing and compelling needs? Between providing health care for uninsured children or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs? Between neonatal care and end-of-life care?
    8. When should you be willing to risk the support of your constituents and your contributors and perhaps the wrath of the local editorial board by taking an unpopular position?
    9. When should a legislator cross party lines to resolve an impasse and enable legislative action?

    Judy Nadler is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

    September 2009


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