Opinion

Smaller-than-hoped-for increases aren’t cuts

We often hear calls for “transparency” in government from people who want to know what’s being done. But in budgetary matters, the transparency we get is often as effective as writing in invisible ink on a clear sheet of plastic.

Instead of receiving information in an understandable format during this economic downturn, we’re offered tales of woe accompanied by various numbers purporting to represent the needed spending cuts.

Nowhere does there appear to be an explanation of the spending increases that occurred in the years leading up to the recession alongside a description of proposed funding cuts now that revenues aren’t increasing.

Without this sort of comparison, we’re left to wonder how spending grew and where it might be cut to bring it into line with revenues.

Returning to a previous spending level once revenues shrink isn’t easy, but trying to return without an understanding of what brought us to this point is even harder.

The impact of rolling back previous increases is difficult to judge without knowing what those increases were.

Those of us living within the South Kitsap School District boundaries saw that cuts in state funding resulted in our need to decide whether to increase local levy support to offset some of the cuts.

One part of state school funding that is relatively easy to track is labeled “student achievement” revenue.

It comes from Initiative 728, which took existing revenue and put it into a separate account.

Between school years 2003-04 and 2007-08, student achievement funding for SKSD grew from almost $2.4 million to $4.5 million as state revenues rebounded from the previous recession.

Then in school year 2008-09, this funding fell to a little more than $3.5 million — a cut that could either be suffered or partly offset with a higher local levy.

And, in school year 2009-10, student achievement funding was reduced to a level below what had been received in school year 2003-04 — a cut that our local levy cannot offset.

Tracking the change in this one fund indicates that we are back almost to where we started before Initiative 728 was approved by voters.

In a way, this makes sense. This one part of state funding for our schools was increased by 89 percent between 2003 and 2007 — then the recession hit and revenue disappeared.

The recent forecast of state revenues for the operating budget indicates that revenue will be $1.1 billion less in the 2009-11 biennium compared to 2005-07 before the recession, so it seems reasonable to roll back some of the spending increases.

The alternative is to raise tax rates or impose new taxes in an effort to increase revenue and avoid spending cuts.

To some extent, tax increases can make sense.

If it seems clear that spending levels shouldn’t decline any further in one program or another, then we turn to the only alternative — raising taxes.

The trouble with raising taxes is the effect on economic activity in the private sector.

Taking earnings from the private sector and putting them into the public sector can hobble an already faltering economy.

Unfortunately, we have some people in the legislature who appear to believe that all government spending stimulates growth in the private sector of the economy.

While the rest of us try to understand what absolutely needs to be done and how much it costs to do, these folks seem to focus entirely on avoiding reductions in government spending.

To make matters worse, those who want to avoid spending cuts define the elimination of a planned spending increase as a cut.

Then we hear of gazillions in needed cuts as though the planned increases had already occurred.

This is the opposite of transparency in budgeting — except to the extent that many of us have learned the trick and see right through it.

We know that a forgone increase isn’t a cut.

Knowing that a “cut” isn’t always a cut helps, but we also need to know what the spending increases were that turned out to be unsustainable — so we can support any efforts to roll them back.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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