12/28/10 — Basic budgeting: State lawmakers forced to make kinds of choices families face all the time

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Basic budgeting: State lawmakers forced to make kinds of choices families face all the time

There are certain realities that regular people have to deal with that government often seems to ignore.

First, you can only spend what you have, or scrimp and save to have, and second, having a budget means giving up some of the things you wish you had to make sure you have the things you need.

Well, this year, North Carolina is about to get a dose of the real world -- and the reality of what happens when you do not have the revenues to cover the expenses.

The $3.7 billion shortfall is a big deal for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that state officials have little choice but to cut -- unless the budget fairy comes along with some fairy dust no one has thought of yet.

So that means that most, if not all, government departments will see the budget ax and that, either through layoffs or attrition, certain bureaucracies will have fewer people in them.

And that is mostly because all the easy stuff has already been cut.

In the next few months, state officials are going to have to look hard for areas where there are too many people doing the same job, where there are departments that could be handling more and where the expenses for the work produced are simply too high.

They need to look for chief-heavy agencies and at promotions that were made to increase salaries, not because there was a need, and to search for and eliminate any other empty job titles.

Consultants are going to have to be looked at carefully, too. The state is going to really need to measure outcomes against cost -- and look to see if perhaps there is a more efficient way to get the same information.

And when they find those leaks, state leaders need to plug them, before they cut into areas that need more, not less, funding, and that are a priority for state residents.

Now, the reality is that this is what businesses must do every day. Families also have to cull waste out of their budgets if they want to stay in the black.

But don't think this is going to be easy for state lawmakers. They are used to protecting turf and making constituents happy, not deliberately angering powerful lobbying groups like the state employees union.

They will not want to impact services that affect their communities, nor will they want to stop projects that will benefit their hometowns and that will eventually make them look like heroes to voters.

Cutting this budget is going to take some gumption from both parties.

The budget debacle has been made worse this year because of the state's acceptance of more than $1.5 billion in federal bailout money that is unlikely to have a repeat performance this year, and it is a lesson as to why you should not manage budgets that are in the red by more federal spending. In the end, you have the same problem you started with -- the budget is still not balanced and you still have not addressed the problem of having more expenses than you can pay for.

There might not be a knight on a white charger to bail anyone out this year -- and perhaps that is a good thing.

So this year, North Carolina is faced with tough choices and some priorities to set.

Let's hope the new round of leaders has the fortitude to make the right ones.

Published in Editorials on December 28, 2010 10:42 AM