Anyone who’s dined out with a group of colleagues and made the mistake of agreeing beforehand to split the check evenly has experienced the sticker shock of a higher-than-expected bill.
It starts when someone who normally wouldn’t order dessert if he were paying his entire check decides to splurge, rationalizing that the additional cost – split several ways – really isn’t that high. The problem, unfortunately, is that most people in the group tend to think the same way. Pity the poor responsible fellow who still had to pay his share of the large bill but didn’t get any dessert!
That rationale explains, too, why government tends to get bigger year after year and spends more of taxpayers’ money. It’s a bigger group, a bigger bill, but some people still get more dessert than others. And nowhere is this more evident than in the “special projects” that are approved each year in the Legislature.
Consider a proposal to spend $25,000 to provide a community with lights for the local football stadium. The trick is to focus the gain (new stadium lights) and spread the pain (taxes). Representing a mere speck in the state’s $16 billion budget – .000002 percent – that little project is hard to attack as a budget buster. Besides, who wants to be accused of being “anti-football” or “anti-community”? Better to go along with the crowd and not create a fuss.
The principle sometimes works in reverse: Most people don’t notice the lower prices and new jobs generated by free trade, but the plant closing in a small town is highly visible. Often unnoticed is the great work done every day by thousands of small, community-based charities, but cut funding for a state spending program even slightly and it’s big news.
The politician’s position is understandably difficult. Highly organized special interest groups are lobbying daily for more spending, even as constituents rarely have any contact. The party leadership is urging the legislator to vote the “right” way while a potential opponent is questioning his or her “effectiveness” back home. Do you vote no on principle, or do you fight for your “fair share”?
There are clear winners and losers in this game. If you are politically connected or in the right party you win. If you aren’t, you – and your constituents – lose.
The process is self-perpetuating because everyone begins to believe they deserve “dessert” – a piece of the proverbial pie. And when one elected official votes for another’s project, he or she often expects support for a favorite project in return.
Where does it end? How does it end? It isn’t supposed to, according to tradition. “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” is the refrain at the restaurant – and in politics. It doesn’t end, unless someone has the leadership to put a stop to the way things have always been done.
Governor Sonny Perdue has chosen to take that step. Putting his foot down about what has devolved into a slush fund for political paybacks, the governor has announced the Governor’s Emergency Fund will be restricted to real emergencies. From now on, he has directed, requests for emergency funds must be made through local legislators and “should not be made to finance ongoing or non-emergency type expenditures.”
No more “emergency” band uniforms, ballet classes, sidewalks or etiquette classes. No more “emergency” funding of bike paths or maintenance of memorials and stadium seats. From now on, the Governor’s Emergency Fund will be dedicated to legitimate emergency needs such as damage caused by tornadoes, floods, storms or fires.
This, of course, won’t endear the governor to many legislators, particularly Republicans who rationalized that it’s finally their turn to dole out the pet projects. The move will cut back on politicians’ ribbon-cuttings and other media opportunities, and it’s unlikely the governor can expect many local media accolades.
Too often, politicians are judged simply based on how many programs they have created or how many bills they have passed. The natural incentives within government encourage growth. It will take firm guidance and leadership to begin to shift these priorities and educate the public. Legislators must learn, for example, not to punish money-saving managers by unreasonably reducing their budgets the following year.
This quiet step is a huge win for taxpayers; a signal to expect greater things in “a new Georgia.” If the action is representative of this administration’s attitude toward spending taxpayers’ earnings, then it bodes well for eliminating the waste in programs such as Medicaid, education and corrections that make up the majority of the state budget.
Regardless of whether the funding comes from federal, state or local government, its source is the taxpayer’s pocket. For taxpayers, there really is no such thing as a free lunch – or free stadium lights.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (July 11, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.