In the 1979 movie, "Being There," Peter Sellers plays Chance, a simple gardener who is catapulted to fame and renown on the strength of his gardening maxims, which the world takes as wise metaphors. If Chance were to listen to the debate over balancing the 2003 Arizona budget, it is easy to imagine what he might conclude: "You should first get rid of the weeds before you trim your garden."
Unfortunately, the legislature and the governor have largely avoided the many weeds in the budget. A Goldwater Institute study released Thursday outlines over $233 million in programs in Arizona's 2003 general fund budget baseline that could be eliminated, privatized, or reduced.
Some programs are candidates for outright elimination because they do not belong in the budget in the first place. For instance, there is no role for the government to use tax money to fund special subsidies to special interests and private corporations. Thus, the study recommends the elimination of the agency responsible for most of this corporate welfare, the Department of Commerce.
Other unnecessary programs include the Commission on the Arts, the Commission on Indian Affairs, and the Governor's Office for Excellence in Government. Don't let the names fool you: a weed by any other name is still a weed.
In other cases, the programs targeted duplicate other government functions, such as the summer youth training programs and the Governor's Advisory Council on Aging.
Other budget-cutting recommendations derive savings from the privatization of important government functions. For instance, much of the money that is going to build new prison beds could be saved by contracting out the work to private prisons.
Unfortunately, the budget plans of the governor and the legislative leadership leave these programs almost entirely intact. Consequently, they end up forcing deeper across-the-board cuts than necessary to the other programs in the general fund. Chance would be appalled.
The sad reality of Arizona's current budget mess is that across-the-board cuts will have to be made to balance the budget. That is the reality imposed upon the state's politicians by their own reckless overspending during the boom of the 1990s. And in hard times, there is nothing wrong with having all government agencies make sacrifices.
However, the more waste in the budget, the deeper the required cuts. If the legislature was to balance the budget through across-the-board cuts, without resorting to gimmicks, it would need a 7 to 8 percent across-the-board cut, a return to 2000 baseline spending levels.
If the legislature were to first get rid of unnecessary programs, it would only need an across-the-board cut of 4 percent to 5 percent.
Taking a look at what we know about the budget plans, we see that actual program cuts play a small role, if any at all. The governor's plan actually includes a 1 percent increase in spending over last year's budget. Indeed, the proposed solutions are beginning to look like a carnival funhouse, complete with smoke, mirrors, and trapdoors.
The smoke and mirrors are what the budgeters call "revenue enhancements," a sneaky euphemism for transfers from off-budget funds. These transfers will eventually have to be paid back, straining future budgets, and allow the legislators to avoid tough choices.
Then there are the trap doors: "forward funding" schemes. What is really happening is that 2003 spending is being pushed into 2004, creating the illusion that costs have disappeared. Voila, no more fiscal crisis!
One of the worst things about all of these funhouse "solutions" is that they will allow Arizona's politicians to avoid making the tough choices that are the direct consequence of their past overspending. Instead, those choices may be passed on to future sessions and future legislatures.
If our legislators change their minds and decide to act responsibly, they will look for long-term, sustainable, and responsible solutions to Arizona's budget problem. Among these solutions is zero-based budgeting, which would halt automatic budget growth, and implementation of a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which would put a meaningful cap on spending.
Such reforms will lead to the creation of a healthier fiscal garden. But legislators should begin now by cutting the weeds.
Stephen Slivinski is Director of Tax and Budget Studies at the Goldwater Institute.