Editorial: Budget arithmetic for adults
Politics is rhetoric: the art of convincing people to give power and trust to an individual or party. But budget-writing is arithmetic. No amount of fancy words, popular emotion or votes at the ballot box can make 2 plus 2 add up to anything but 4.
Here's the arithmetic, simplified for purposes of discussion: In fiscal 2008, state taxes brought in $20.9 billion to pay for government services. Revenue for fiscal 2009, which ends June 30, is forecast to be around $18.5 billion. The revenue forecast for fiscal 2010 is $17.8 billion.
So in two years, the main pool of money available to spend on state government, including aid to cities, towns and school districts, has fallen by $3.1 billion, or about 15 percent. And the price of nearly everything government buys, from gas for school buses to contracted raises for prison guards, has gone up.
Unlike the federal government, the state must balance its budget, so the analogy to a household or business budget is apt. If your family faced a 15 percent cut in pay or your business faced a 15 percent reduction in sales, you might well vent a little. But soon, the venting must give way to decision-making. First, you'd look to cut waste, then non-essential spending, then less-essential spending. Then, you'd look at the revenue side: Sell something, get another job or, for a business, raise prices.
The bottom line is that, unlike most years, the question isn't how much the state budget will grow, but how much it will shrink - and how the pain will be distributed. How much will come from human services? How much should be cut from colleges, prisons, transportation and other state services? How much pain will be passed on to cities, towns and schools through reduced local aid? How much should taxes and fees go up?
Our point here isn't to offer the answers, but to plead for an adult discussion. Just saying "no" - don't cut my program, don't raise my taxes, don't reduce local aid - doesn't qualify as adult. Gov. Deval Patrick, who has been criss-crossing the state holding community forums on these issues, challenges his audiences: Don't tell me what not to cut, he says, unless you can suggest what should be cut to pay for it.
In their budget debates, state legislators have been wrestling with the arithmetic - though too often in private, and too little-noticed when they discuss it in public. They have concluded the sacrifice must be shared by taxpayers, municipalities and those who provide and benefit from state services. With the House and Senate budgets now headed to a conference committee, the negotiation of details continues.
Outrage is often the dominant currency in Massachusetts' political exchange, and there's always something to be outraged about. Reform is on the agenda as well, though most of the reforms currently under discussion won't produce savings in time to help much with next year's budget.
But outrage won't balance the books, nor is this the season for political rhetoric or retribution. There will be time for that next year. Now is the time for serious talk about the unpleasant choices and unyielding arithmetic.
The MetroWest Daily News