If you had to budget for an upcoming expense, what would your strategy be?
Some people come up with a comprehensive savings plan, pledging to put away $100 a month for a year in order to purchase something that needs an upgrade. Others pin back on areas where they currently expend excessively, perhaps no longer buying two cups of coffee each day or by bringing lunches from home rather than eating out all the time.
Point being, normal people must have some type of strategy in place in order to account for expected costs of living and to, likewise, save up for the unexpected costs that happen without warning.
Unfortunately, as Rhode Islanders have undoubtedly noticed, the state budget does not belong in the same universe as the people whose taxes generate its funds.
Recently, Gov. Gina Raimondo released her FY2020 budget and the details contained within it help paint a picture of just how incomprehensible the state’s financial situation has become to anybody who doesn’t have either a comprehensive fiscal education or a mathematician MacGyver-like ability to cobble together different iterations of huge numbers until they precariously stay in place for a few moments in time – just long enough to pass through the General Assembly, anyways.
We’re not under the impression that any member of society should be able to piece together the complexities of an entire statewide budget using nothing more than a pocket calculator, but we also don’t think it’s unreasonable to seek a little more clarity in how exactly a nearly $10 billion budget – one that purports to have “solved” a roughly $45 million deficit for the current fiscal year in addition to a nearly $158 million gap for the next year – contains so many variables, so many hypotheticals and so many vagaries.
Let us point to a few examples. Right off the bat, the use of one-time expenditures – or call them “scoops” if you prefer – is well known at this point to be financially irresponsible at best, and yet there are $13 million in such transactions in the new proposal to help close the $45 million gap. Who knows what impact that will have on affected agencies, and the state as a whole, down the line? But that’s another problem for another year.
Grabbing attention, rightfully so, is the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana. Unfortunately, this proposal reeks of a desperate cash grab rather than a well thought out strategy. Although we see more merits in recreational legalization than potential, fear-mongering drawbacks, we don’t believe thrusting through legalization is the proper way to go about it, as Rhode Island is clearly doing here in order to generate an estimated $28.4 million over the next two years.
The state’s marijuana proposal, necessary to fill budgetary holes, relies on the state legislature being able to pass a recreational bill this session while still allowing communities the ability to hold special elections this November if they wish to have a moratorium against marijuana facilities opening in their communities. This leaves no room for setbacks, which has often occurred in state’s looking to implement legal weed.
Elsewhere, the budget makes a massive assumption that the legislature – led by Speaker Nicholas Mattiello – will approve a total redrawing of the car tax phase out that Mattiello has so vocally championed and open up $21.7 million this year. Even if Mattiello approves the change, all this does is ensure the state will encounter the same funding issue for the car tax next budget – except next year the beast will be even bigger and stronger after a year of rest while the state kicked the can.
However, the measure that most perfectly encapsulated the methodology of budget making in Rhode Island was the $10 million of unspecified savings to be found simply by appointing an “efficiency commission” to, well, go find $10 million in unspecified savings. Even the least cynical among us have to stop and ponder at such a notion, “Why haven’t we unshackled this magical efficiency commission years ago?”
It is not our goal to chastise the governor as though she is solely responsible for state budgets that have been bloated since long before she got here. She has demonstrated an ability during her time as treasurer to see the oncoming headlights of fiscal train wrecks looming in the distance before – she championed controversial pension reform that was sorely needed. All we wonder now is where that sense of urgency has gone despite the budget growing like an already dangerously filled balloon.
Normal people can’t simply move things around, force new revenue to happen where it wasn’t happening before or simply come up with savings that haven’t been identified yet. People charged with maintaining a healthy state budget shouldn’t be relying on those tactics year in and year out, either.