Georgia has excellent idea for keeping state budgets lean

Georgia has excellent idea for keeping state budgets lean

January 30th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

President Ronald Reagan, who was always ready to offer a witty remark that made complicated issues easier to understand, once declared: "[G]overnment programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."

Truer words have rarely been spoken. But some lawmakers down in Georgia are proposing a sensible way to keep their state's budgets lean and to keep government programs from becoming "eternal" bureaucracies.

It is called "zero-based budgeting," and it is being championed by Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock.

Broadly speaking, zero-based budgeting means that every item in the budget must be reviewed annually to ensure that it is a reasonable and warranted use of Georgians' tax dollars. In other words, no expenditure goes on "autopilot." No bit of spending is simply assumed to be permanently justified.

The benefits of zero-based budgeting are obvious. With anything as complex as a state budget, there are hundreds if not thousands of programs, projects, agencies and services that get funding. It is all too easy for lawmakers to begin funding a program -- one that may seem perfectly worthwhile at the outset -- and then, as the years pass, more or less to forget about it even though it continues to receive tax dollars.

The trouble is, even if a program is valuable at the beginning, that is not a guarantee that it will continue to be beneficial over time. It may become little more than an entrenched bureaucracy -- with overpaid or unnecessary staff -- or it may lose sight of its original mission entirely.

Without thorough, regular review of its funding, virtually any government agency or program can become a money pit, producing little of value relative to the amount of money it is receiving year after year.

For comparison, think about your own budget. Have you ever bought a gym membership, for example, and had the payment for the membership automatically deducted from your bank account each month -- only to find after a couple of months that you're no longer going to the gym? Perhaps you have intentions of going back someday, but meanwhile, those deductions from your account continue unless you make the effort to halt the payments. If you're not careful, you can find after a number of months that you have spent a great deal of money on something that is providing you no benefit.

The principle is the same with Georgia's proposed zero-based budgeting: putting an end to automatic funding of state programs so that taxpayers get the most bang for their buck. Lawmakers would examine everything in the budget each year. Efficiently run, effective programs would continue to get funding, and might even get an increase if that is justified. But unproductive programs and agencies would face a reduction in funding or might even see their cash flow cut off altogether.

That is a reasonable budgeting approach not only for Georgia, but for any state -- and most certainly for Washington, where it seems almost impossible to halt wasteful programs and reckless spending.

Whenever taxes are levied -- whether at the local, state or national level -- taxpayers have every right to expect that money to be used in the most efficient way possible.