What is the proper role of government? Some people believe that government must continue to grow and to increase its funding of health care, education, housing, food, cell phones and nearly every other thing people might use or consume over the course of their lives. For some, government subsidies are just never large enough.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, had a different view, saying, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Can you imagine a president or congressman taking such a position today?
Under Gov. Little’s budget proposal for the 2020 legislative session, Idaho’s state budget will increase by 3.75 percent for fiscal 2021. While that increase is indeed lower than in many previous years, it is still a larger increase than the growth of wages or the economy as a whole.
Mercer’s U.S. Compensation Planning Survey finds that the average salary increase budgets are projected to be 3 percent for 2020. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance expects overall economic growth in the U.S. of 1.8 percent in 2020, compared with an expected 2.3 percent in 2019 and 2.9 percent in 2018. The Federal Open Market Committee believes that U.S. GDP growth will slow to 2 percent in 2020 from 2.2 percent in 2019. It is expected to be 1.9 percent in 2021 and 1.8 percent in 2022.
Whatever statistics you use, the fact remains that government spending—even in conservative Idaho—is growing faster than the economy and thus the share of the economy represented by government spending is also increasing.
Critics of the governor’s budget proposal have claimed that he is manufacturing a fiscal crisis and underfunding public services and programs. They say that a smaller budget will have a dangerous impact on the lives of Idahoans and that it will shut down important public services and endanger public health and safety. They have even claimed that small agencies will be crushed if their budgets are reduced by just 1 or 2 percent.
Could anything be more absurd? The truth is that the governor has recommended a nearly $100 million increase in our state’s budget.
One important thing to remember is that, unlike the federal government, Idaho has a constitutional mandate to balance its budget, so increasing spending requires a corresponding increase in revenue. That could require raising taxes or, at a minimum, preclude any sort of tax relief such as the grocery tax relief endorsed by the governor.
We also know from past experience that revenue forecasts often fall short. By taking a conservative approach to budgeting, we protect ourselves from the negative impacts when revenues do not meet expectations.
Make no mistake, we are still growing government, but we are just doing so at a lower rate than some people desire. By constraining the rate of increase, we avoid having to raise taxes and instead provide ourselves with an opportunity to address problems such as the rapid escalation of property taxes, which is causing so much hardship to our citizens.
For the last year, I have chaired the Regional Government Efficiency Working Group, which is working to find ways to make Idaho’s government agencies more efficient. One of our recommendations that the governor has endorsed is moving to enhanced fleet management. For pooled vehicles with limited use, rather than purchasing a new car as a replacement, moving to a rental car model will make more efficient use of state resources. That is just one example of how our state can save money without eliminating any programs or endangering public health and safety.
I am excited that Idaho continues to find ways to improve efficiencies and to make more effective use of taxpayer money. We should not think of these adjustments as a one-time exercise, however; we must continue to innovate and adapt to reduce the cost and impact of government on our lives and wallets. This is the conservative thing to do, but, even more importantly, it is the right thing to do.
Republican Janice McGeachin is Idaho’s lieutenant governor. She lives in Idaho Falls.