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August 04, 2003
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A Sad "State" of Affairs

’Tis the season for the state budget follies to take place around the country! The states have increasing difficulties in creating balanced budgets without rancor and without inflicting pain and suffering on local governments. It was always a matter of pride in public administration that the states and local agencies, unlike the federal government, could not solve budget problems by increasing the speed of the money printing presses. These budgets had to be balanced as a sign of responsible government administration. Yet a combination of factors seem to be merging to make this process more difficult than ever before, just when it needs to be more stable than ever before, in order to provide the services required by law or public demand.

Paul McIntosh, chief administrative officer of Butte County in California has identified the three components of what he describes as "the perfect storm" going on in his state’s budget follies. The three ingredients are coming together in a way which creates destructive forces that hurt the credibility of the state, and harms schools and community college districts as well as counties and cities, which depend on the state for their own abilities to deliver services.

The first of the perfect storm components is term limits, which serve to remove from the legislature the wealth of experience and process knowledge that help make creative compromises possible on disruptive issues. Compromise was the method of solving interpersonal disputes, which made the United States possible in the first place. It has kept the country nimble in being able to create public laws capable of meeting social changes. Our ability to compromise needs to be enhanced, not restricted.

It is America’s historic ability to constructively engage in debate, but come away at the end with a basic consensus that separates the United States from many of the places in the world where narrower loyalties and unwillingness to see a situation from the viewpoint of others leads to paralysis, violence, and tribal or religious wars.

Part of the unintended consequence of term limits is the fact that the candidates for legislative office are in a constant state of running for re-election. This includes not only re-election to their last term of office before the limit sets in, but also running for whatever future they may seek outside of the legislative service when they are no longer able to serve another term.

This constant focus on running for something includes a constant search for cash to finance campaigns. It also includes full employment opportunities for lobbyists to work even harder than they may otherwise have done to seek legislative favor.

The second element of the perfect storm is legislative re-apportionment, that leads to battles to create districts that are safe for those who would represent a particular constituency or a particular political philosophy. The search for a safe haven for a Democrat, a Republican, a conservative, a liberal, or an ethnic group member combines with term limits to create districts, which tend to be more focused and more zealous in support of one philosophy over another. The result, over time, is a polarizing of attitudes and a further reduction of our ability to compromise with one another.

In this situation, it becomes more difficult to adopt a budget or adopt a broad view of the public interest on any subject. Even the exalted power of the speaker or president of one of the houses of the legislature to "stop the clock" during a debate fails to inject compromise when positions are frozen by ideology. The common good suffers and the tens of millions of people figuratively listening in outside the doorway of the state legislature don’t see progress.

The third element in McIntosh’s analysis is, at first glance, more specific to California’s current trauma — the recall effort against the incumbent governor. However, in reality, the "rule by voter initiative" movement, which received a strong boost in California with the passage of Proposition 13 two decades ago, is another sign of state governments’ increasing problems.

I recall, if you will pardon the expression, that during my service as a county chief administrative officer in a California county hit hard by Proposition 13, I was visited by executives from a "start up" company that guaranteed, for a large fee – of course – that they could qualify any measure imaginable for a general election ballot.

Now with experience in Florida and its recently adopted constitutional amendment mandating protection for pregnant pigs, I can see that these marketers of "designer" politics were correct. While the HR Doctor, not to mention the HR Dog Kamala, abhors animal abuse, Constitution abuse may be even more dangerous in the long run for the society.

This combination of factors is not good for any program that depends on the state government for its survival. It’s not good for the human beings who are behind each of those programs to receive health service, social services, and education, nor is it good for the local government or state employees who make the programs come to life. In the long run, the viability of state governments in America will be harmed, the HR Doctor predicts.

What I mean is that the role and contribution of state governments in the federal system deserves to be looked at with increasing scrutiny. The states haven’t quite figured out what they want to be when they grow up.

In the past, the states served critical roles in setting and regulating public policy. But, as technology, mobility, and a worldwide scope of doing business kick in (i.e., central features of the modern world), states find themselves too small to manage the large issues in the world, and too big to effectively deal with the problems of an individual in a particular neighborhood.

They are becoming, in effect, "middle-men" between local governments whose service is direct and close to people, and federal and worldwide forces, which increasingly occupy our attention in matters of public safety and security, such as counterterrorism, public health (SARS being only the most recent example) and worldwide forces involving the Internet, global markets, or the mass media. Certainly, the appearance of inept, shortsighted budget follies each year cannot help but hasten the debate over a diminished future role for states, and a necessarily increased role for local government and private corporations.

This could portend a future in which local governments impose unfunded mandates on the states! That would be a most interesting turnaround!

(The HR Doctor hopes you and your budgets stay in balance!)

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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