Legislature suffers from shortsightedness

It seems to see only as far as the end of the budget cycle, thinking the future will take care of itself.

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It doesn't take much observation to see that the Legislature suffers from an acute case of shortsightedness.

It seems the members can't see farther than the end of the current budget biennium. How else can you explain year after year of adding expensive programs and pouring more money into already existing programs? This has been done with the full knowledge it will produce what in budgetary parlance is called a "bow wave."

What that means is even though the budget appears to be able to handle the additional expenditures in the current biennium, it will be swamped with red ink when the new budget cycle begins.

Legislators bank on a solidly expanding economy to keep things afloat. When that doesn't happen they begin bailing like crazy.

Unfortunately, they still have their eyes focused only on making ends meet for the current budget. They seem to believe the future will take care of itself.

Welcome to the future.

The Legislature had more money this year than it had last year, but it was still forced to cut because it refused to simply freeze spending.

Real budget cuts can be a valuable exercise. It makes lawmakers and the public clarify what is important and what is "nice to have."

An example of the penny-wise pound-foolish decision is a voucher program in which the state will pay up to $500 a month for three months for rent subsidies for inmates eligible for early release, but who don't have a home or rent money.

While we support early release for the inmates who have a place to go, it makes no sense to dump those who can't even come up with a plan onto the streets, where many likely would end up back in prison.

But the number-crunchers see a savings of about $1.5 million in the budget cycle if 700 inmates are released. Obviously, $500 per person for three months is cheaper than continued incarceration.

And, gee, with 700 fewer inmates we will need fewer correctional officers. The savings will just pour in, bean counters say.

They need to add again. What happens to these inmates when the three months are up? Will they suddenly have jobs and be productive members of society? Odds are many of them will end up back where they started.

And what about the laid-off correctional officers? Once they were contributors to the state's revenue as tax-paying citizens. Under this scenario they will be a drain on revenues as they dip into unemployment. Some of them may have to leave the state to find work.

When the situation finally shakes out, the state will have spent money for rent for 700 inmates, many of whom return to prison after costing taxpayers for another trial. As the prisons fill back up, more correctional officers will be needed, but because some of the former employees have left the state, new people will have to undergo costly training.

This program is like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. It hides the injury and looks pretty, but it doesn't stop the bleeding. But that's a problem for the next budget biennium.

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