Opinion: Daily Journal

Not Serious on Budget

At a dramatic press conference yesterday, Gov. Mike Easley announced that the state’s budget deficit was edging closer to $1 billion (true) and that a state lottery was needed to fix the problem (untrue, since it couldn’t be put in place in time and wouldn’t generate nearly enough revenue).

I zeroed in on something Easley said that was arguably even worse than his shopworn lottery pitch. Responding to a question about the potential impact of budget efficiencies on state employees, the governor said that laying off a significant number of government workers wasn’t in the cards because, given the fact that there’s only five months left in the fiscal year, it wouldn’t save much money.

Huh? Anything you do — trimming Medicaid, raising taxes, creating a state lottery through executive order, etc. — faces the same time constraint. Each item can generate budget savings or higher revenues for only a few months. It is particularly silly to say that eliminating state positions wouldn’t save much money, as the exact opposite is true.

The vast majority of state expenditures go to paying people’s salary, be they teachers, mental-health workers, tax collectors, or paper-pushers. If you want to make significant reductions in the growth of state spending, it will hit someone in the wallet. Both Democrats and Republicans deny this fact, the latter talking frequently about eliminating “vacant” positions as a painless way to go, despite the fact that no money is ever spent on vacancies. Funds from lapsed salaries are spent on other items, such as capital expenditures and grants, that support positions in the public or private sectors.

Up in New York, Gov. George Pataki is facing a big budget deficit of his own, and has just announced that cutting 5,000 government jobs in the state over the next 12 months will be part of his strategy to close the gap. The New York news media aren’t so much lambasting him for his heartlessness as they are questioning whether the action is sufficiently serious. After all, Pataki reduced state employment in 1995 and 1996 by 20,000 positions to help close a multi-billion-dollar deficit. His current plan is comparatively mild.

North Carolina’s Easley, on the other hand, does not seem interested in pursuing efficiency measures that would have any appreciable impact on the ranks of state employment. In that, he is demonstrating a lack of seriousness. He’s lucky to be in Raleigh rather than Albany, where the press would rake him over the coals for it.