Unfettered by the need to win votes from voters, interim King County Executive Kurt Triplett is making the tough budget cutting choices, choices that are unlikely to win him many friends outside of the local politicians who are currently using him as a human shield. Yet the toughest choice of all — what to do about the county’s chronic long term revenue deficit — well that, nobody’s allowed to even talk about, especially not during an election season.
Slashing budgets is hard, but not impossible, because unlike most tax increases, budget cuts don’t require the prior approval of voters, and there’s no automatic mechanism for vetoing them via ballot referendum. Sure, plenty of voters will be plenty pissed off by shuttering parks, eliminating animal control and raising Metro fares countywide, but there’s nothing any of us can do about any of it… at least not directly, and certainly not directly against Triplett. So with nearly three quarters of the county’s general fund dedicated to criminal justice, so-called “non-essential” services must necessarily bear the brunt of this year’s cuts.
And next year…?
The cuts would come on top of several years of cost-cutting. For 2009, the county executive had to close a $93 million general-fund deficit, and between 2002 and 2005 $137 million in deficits had to be bridged.
Without new sources of revenue, Triplett forecast general-fund deficits of $54.2 million in 2011 and $88.2 million in 2012.
“There’s nothing left to spare,” he said. “Counties have to be funded differently.”
Yeah, well, Triplett can say that, because he’s not running for office. But as for the rest of the county’s political and media elite…? Shhhhh… voters might hear you.
So if we’re not going to fix a revenue system that has been intentionally monkey-wrenched to prevent county revenues from growing as fast as even population-plus-inflation, let alone growth in demand for public services, what’s the solution?
Republican executive candidate Susan Hutchison is running on the tried and true “waste, fraud and abuse” platform, claiming she can save popular services simply by wringing greater efficiencies from bloated government bureaucracy, mostly at the expense of the evil unions. Whether she really believes this or not, I don’t know, because like most other issues, she’s not sayin’. But the point is it can’t be done, at least not to the extent necessary to keep county services anywhere near their current level.
It’s not that there aren’t inefficiencies in county government, and it’s not like our bureaucracies don’t need to be scrutinized, squeezed and reformed from time to time; that’s the nature of bureaucracies, both public and private sector. It’s just that, as I’ve pointed out before, expecting to address long term structural deficits via productivity gains is a losing and illusory proposition:
But researchers long have recognized that the services provided in the public sector, such as education, health care, and law enforcement, tend to rise in cost faster than many other goods and services in the economy in general. This analysis was first put forward by economist William Baumol, who pointed out that technology and productivity gains may make goods cheaper to produce, but the services that government provides are different. Baumol said public services typically rely heavily on well-trained professionals — teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses, and so on — and technology gains do not make these services cheaper to provide. It may take far fewer workers to build an automobile than it did 30 years ago, but it still takes one teacher to lead a classroom of children.
The problem facing county governments statewide is simple: they have been forced to rely on a tax structure that over the long run guarantees that revenue will grow at a slower pace than the economy as whole, at the same time that the cost of providing government services is virtually assured to rise faster than the cost of most other goods and services in the economy. No doubt there are some productivity gains to be had, and we should attempt to squeeze them out where they make sense, especially in these trying economic times. But relying on productivity to address our long term deficit is wishful thinking.
Since we can’t actually outsource parks, animal control, Metro buses and other services to China, that leaves budget writers with only two real options: cut services and or raise revenues, neither of which is particularly popular, but only one of which appears to be even possible given the revenue constraints placed on the counties by the Legislature, and of course, our friend Tim Eyman. Timmy and the rest of the anti-government crowd don’t really mind watching local governments slowly drowned in a bath tub… indeed, that’s their goal. But the majority of voters — you know, those of us who actually use and rely on these services (and admit it) — we’re going to be sorely disappointed if the budget debate continues to focus on spending priorities to the exclusion of tax reform.
County government simply isn’t sustainable, anywhere in the state, and no amount of focus on budget priorities is going to fix this over the long term. At some point, voters are going to have to accept that the level of revenue they are providing simply isn’t sufficient to support the level of services they’ve come to want and expect. But we’ll never have that painful conversation until our elected officials are willing to start it.