Caring Enough to Cut Spending Responsibly

Posted: May 24, 2010 12:01 AM

This week, our debt will pass $13 trillion. Nouriel Roubini, former Clinton White House economist, said on Fox News, "What has happened in Greece could happen in the U.S. We could have serious problems. We have the debt of the federal government. Many state and local governments are bankrupt. There are unfunded liabilities for social security. There are unfunded liabilities for state pensions." Trillion dollar deficits are not sustainable.

Politicians and government administrators talk about the pain involved in cutting government spending, and there are consequences that impact employees and those served. But, too often, they forget the pain citizens are experiencing in having to pay more fees and a variety of higher taxes. Governments don’t bear the cost of anything; their citizens do.

The late Peter Drucker was a leadership truth teller: “I think you could probably merge agriculture and commerce and have one department of the economy. Instead, my prediction is coming true. I predicted in 1960 that, by the year 2000, there would be more employees of the Department of Agriculture than American farmers…. Cutting back on any government service is still anathema to liberals…. So if you are a Democratic Party dependent on labor votes, cutting government services is not exactly popular.”

Unfortunately, too many politicians in power are more interested in being popular than responsible. They’re spending more, expanding entitlements and printing money rather than cutting budgets.

Tackling the Deficit is controversial, and it isn’t easy. Leadership never is. Ross Perot captured it best: “The deficit is like the guy that finds a rattlesnake in his pants. He knows he's got to shoot it, but he doesn't want to hit anything important.”

Both leaders and citizens would like more money to spend, but the stark economic realities are forcing all to decide where to cut? There is a sign in the CA State Finance Department that should have been put up long ago: “Nothing inspires genius like a tight budget.”

The most common mistake is organizational egalitarianism. Leaders take 10% away from everybody, instead of separating out what's core. We need leaders to embrace a scrounger mentality—you do what you have to do with what you have. Be tight where you can and spend only where it’s critical. Don’t just think more with less; do the RIGHT less with less! Mission centric services should receive priority funding. Some expenses are nice only if you can afford them, and other costs could have been cut years ago. Keep all the stakeholders focused on being responsive and working smart on real priorities that are worth doing.

Waiting for the perfect decision isn’t the answer. It’s important to get things done, and some are. Jeff Baarstad, PhD, Deputy Superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District and chair of their budget committee, has embraced the challenge: “It’s incumbent upon the leaders of public agencies to focus on providing the highest quality services possible with the tax dollars we’re provided. We must be crystal clear about the core services we’ve been commissioned to provide and place the lion’s share of our resources behind those services. That boils down to a qualified and caring teacher, in a clean, comfortable and safe classroom, with a reasonable class size, and access to the materials and supplies necessary to give students the knowledge and skills necessary for success in college and careers. That happens in a classroom on a school campus.”

Working non-stop since the spring of 2009 with parents, teachers, classified support workers, counselors and psychologists, school board members and administrators, they’ve reduced their expenses nearly 15%. Their priorities are clear—classroom instruction first, the student’s campus experience second, district support services third and central administrative office last. Dr. Barrstad warns, “We recognize the core reason we exist as a public school district. Focusing on our classroom priorities is the right way to proceed, but no one should minimize the impact that reducing non-school support services may have on classroom instruction.”

America is also attracting a new breed of candidate dissatisfied with the direction our country is going. John Davidson, running in the Republican primary for the 23rd Congressional District, brings his 25 years of business experience to his campaign priorities. He’s got his focus on smaller, not bigger government: “This out of control government spending is the first thing that must be addressed in Congress. In the business world, when you spend money you don’t have, you don’t have a business anymore. I’m running for Congress to stop the deficit spending and balance this budget, without new taxes, by cutting wasteful spending and focusing on our priorities.”

Support administrators taking on the challenge, and when you vote, send a message to Washington that we want leaders to care enough to cut budgets responsibly. We need smaller more efficient government, not more government.

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