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Billions in State Spending Excluded From Budget Process

Monday, July 09, 2012

 

Imagine if you, like so many people in these tough times, needed to sit down with your spouse and go over your household budget to find things to cut, and, when going over your expenses, you hid nearly 40% of your total spending from your spouse, rationalizing it by calling it something else.  

How well would that go over?  What if you hid 40% of your income?

How effectively would you and your spouse be able to work together to make ends meet, or plan for the future?

That's precisely the situation we have in Massachusetts with our politicians.

Each year, the politicians threaten teachers, police and firefighters with drastic cuts, but they don't tell us that of the nearly $52 billion in total state government spending, spending for these threatened groups adds up to less than 20%.  

Here are the state government's own graphs for FY2011 (the most recent available):

 

Source: Massachusetts Open Checkbook

For most people, the definitions of words and expressions we learn throughout our lives doesn't often change once we have learned them, unless we gain greater understanding of a specific subject, or come to discover that what we first learned was incorrect.

But what happens when the meanings of words are twisted and changed by "legalese?"

Unless you're a lawyer, you probably shake your head and just go along, or avoid the situation.  Or...you hire a lawyer.  When you go along, you do so with some degree of uncertainty.

What happens when words are used in ways that mean something very different from what you understand them to mean, and it's done by people you are supposed to trust?  You just accept the words at face value, believing that you understand them, with little uncertainty or doubt.  

That is what happens every year around this time when our state government approves its "budget" for the coming fiscal year.  Every year the same drama plays out in the media about there not being enough money, and taxes cannot be cut because if any cuts are made, then teachers, police and firefighters will all be out on the streets and public safety will be at risk.  We are told that roads will crumble and bridges will collapse.

Education, public safety, roads and bridges, and local aid are all very visceral issues.  When those things are threatened, logic is quickly shoved aside by emotion in driving arguments, and the first victim is the truth.

The truth is attacked by deliberately changing the meaning of the word "budget."  

In every household and business, "budget" means all of the money you bring in and spend, broken down into various categories.

When times are good, people make budget decisions that feel good, like buying something above and beyond the basic necessities.  A family might buy a new car, or go on a nice vacation, or perhaps get a recreational vehicle or boat.  A business might open a new office or issue raises, or throw a really nice party and give people some extra days off.

When times are tough, as they are now, people make tough budget decisions.  A family might forego their annual vacation, not buy new clothes, or have to sell unnecessary things they cannot afford.  A business might lay off employees, or cut salaries or close offices.

In all cases, these decisions are made with a common understanding of the word "budget."  Dealing with the budget means dealing with 100% of the money coming in and going out.

Massachusetts state government defines "budget" as just the part of spending covered by the General Appropriations Act each year.  There is roughly another $20 billion in spending and transfers that is not in the "budget" and is rarely, if ever, discussed publicly.

Before we dig into those numbers, let this new definition of "budget" sink into your head.

Spending on Education (13%), Public Safety (2%), Roads and Bridges (4%) and Local Aid (9%) add up to only 28% of total spending.  To see these details yourself, go to the state's website and click on "Total State Spending" on the right hand side of the page.

While there certainly is room to cut in that spending, for argument's sake, let's just set 100% of the money for Education, Public Safety, Roads and Bridges, and Local Aid aside, and ask what is necessary and what can be reduced in the remaining 72% of total spending.

It's time for us to call our State Representative and State Senator, and our Governor, and ask them why they hide their spending of our money by redefining "budget" to mean just the spending covered by the General Appropriations Act, and why the most important things to us are in the 28% of total spending they keep threatening, when they won't talk about the other 72% of total spending.

It's time we have an honest and open conversation about total state government spending that is nearly $1 BILLION PER WEEK, and that does not include municipal spending.  Households and businesses have had to make sacrifices in these difficult times, but our government is not sharing in these sacrifices.  The politicians are not even willing to be honest about the off‐budget spending that is nearly 40% of total spending.

 

Kamal Jain was a Republican candidate for Massachusetts State Auditor in 2010. He has been teaching people about total state government spending for over a decade, and based his 2010 campaign on a platform of "Total Transparency," and was one of the founding members of the Sunlight Foundation's Boston chapter.

 

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