Opinion

Allow for common sense in local government's budgeting

If ordinary folks are going to make decisions affecting the budgets of local and state government, shouldn’t there be what could be called common sense budgeting that almost anyone can understand?

With yet more signs that the economy is stumbling, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee that tax revenues aren’t going to rise enough to satisfy government spending desires.

The alternatives in this situation seem obvious. Either cut planned spending or increase taxes in an effort to get more revenue — or both.

While it may be possible for elected representatives to increase some taxes, it seems likely that in most cases they have to turn to the voters for approval.

A major part of local government revenue comes from the property tax, which cannot be increased by more than one percent plus the amount generated by new construction without voter approval.

For South Kitsap School District, annual property tax increases are already approved by the voters for the next couple of years, but they may not be big enough to make up for reductions in state funding.

Whether it comes from an excess levy like that of the school district or a regular levy like those of other local government entities, the revenue from property taxes isn’t likely to rise enough to meet spending projections without voter approval.

At the state, county and city levels, the sales tax is the other principal source of revenue.

Sales tax revenue isn’t likely to increase any faster than the economy grows, i.e., very little for the foreseeable future.

An increase in the sales tax rate could possibly cause revenue to rise, or at least not decline along with economic activity.

But if ballot propositions were put to the voters in an attempt to gain approval for increases in either or both the property and sales taxes, what information could overcome what might be called the voters’ default position?

When there is little or no understandable information that can persuade voters to approve, most of them could be expected to stick with disapproval by default.

It’s common sense to start with “no” and wait to see if there is justification for changing to “yes.”

After all, when anyone asks for money there aren’t many who agree to hand it over without being given a reason why this is the right thing to do.

And not just any rationale will overcome this default position.  If it’s not understandable to ordinary folks, the wordiest justification of them all will get nowhere.

Since the explanation has to be understandable, it seems that ordinary folks are going to have to ask more questions in order to give the budget writers a better idea of how to get their points across.

Rather than leave it to the budget folks to make up “frequently asked questions,” ordinary folks need to ask their own questions.

If they ask their own questions, it might be easier for the people who are attempting to offer an explanation.  They might actually realize what it is that the public wants to know.

Common sense is a term that can be used to describe how most members of the voting public approach such issues, but it doesn’t necessarily describe how the budget writers approach their task.

For example, common sense would usually require placing at the forefront a concise outline of projected revenue and spending compared with current and past revenue and spending — followed by a plain statement of reasons for any spending increases.

Ordinary folks can be expected to wonder why recent spending increases aren’t examined to see what can be reduced. If we got by without that spending in the recent past, why not in the near future?

Of course, examining some of the increases may be uncomfortable for government personnel, since they involve increases in personal compensation.

But if voters are asked to give up more of their own earnings, even the issue of compensating people who do the government’s work has to be included in the explanation.

 

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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