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Miller: Budget cuts and boondoggles

Alex Miller

It can’t be a good sign that we live in a country that appears to be in the process of downsizing itself. Some would say all this budget cutting going on at the local, state and federal levels is a wonderful thing, since all these damned governments have been spending money like so many drunken sailors for far too long.

Of course, opinions may change for budget-cutting champions when they hit that pothole that destroys the front end of their car, or they encounter longer lines at some government service desk due to staff layoffs. Or, heaven forbid, they have to drive to Breckenridge to get a license plate renewed.

It’s always interesting to watch the various factions demonize the others because their spending priorities don’t jibe with one another. I’d happily see a good quarter of U.S. defense spending redirected to health and education programs, but I know there’s a guy somewhere whose livelihood depends on making some widget for the latest stupid weapon the Pentagon wants. When and where the rubber meets the road and some program to help starving kids gets cut while aforementioned widget gets the green light, well, that’s where decisions are made concerning our left-right paths politically.

But I don’t buy the notion that all liberals only want to “tax and spend” to support welfare queens or spotted-owl projects to the detriment of all else. Nor do I think all conservatives only wish to strangle government and throw orphans out on the street to pad the coffers of the corporate elite. But the way Washington is running nowadays, we might be forgiven for believing such because senators and congressman are so divided along partisan lines that any whiff of moderation is seen as weakness, concession.

It’s a terrible way to go about the serious business of governing a country.

On the bright side, our own Mark Udall has emerged as a voice of reason in the Senate. He’s introduced legislation with Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to form a bipartisan committee to take a hard look at non-essential, under-performing and/or duplicative federal programs – something the General Accounting Office says could slash billions from the budget. The GAO reports the federal government has no less than 80 economic development programs, 44 different employment and training programs and that the Dept. of Transportation has five different agencies that operate 100 surface transportation projects.

Kudos to Udall and Hatch, who obviously see that one way around partisan gridlock is to find cuts imbued with some modicum of unassailable logic: We need not take food from the mouths of babes to balance a budget; just look at the real waste and duplication.

Closer to home, take heart at some of the wise financial decisions made right here in Summit County: Despite some unfortunate cuts in staff and expenses, our Summit County commissioners and county manager have done an admirable job girding for the looming property tax shortfall in 2012. Things will be tight for many years to come (thanks again, TABOR), but due to proactive planning, they shouldn’t devolve into the disasters we’re seeing elsewhere around the country. Who knew a trio of Democrats could be so financially prudent?

And for anyone who doubted the wisdom of the modest property tax bump voters approved for our school district last fall, just take a look at nearby school districts that didn’t take such a step: Eagle County School District is eyeing a $6.5 million budget shortfall next school year, with significant staff cuts now on the table. The Roaring Fork School District is facing a $3.5 million shortfall. Both districts are looking at painful cuts and mill levy questions to make up the difference, but our school district took the longer view last fall and is in much better shape heading into next school year.

Cutting is no fun, and there will always be losers when money is taken away. But compared to what’s happening in Congress – where politics and ideology often trump practicality – we can work a lot smarter on the local level to remain solvent while hanging onto the things we believe are most important.

Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at amiller@summitdaily.com or (970) 668-4618.


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