Budget whining adds insult to injury
In the past week we’ve seen elected officials at the state and local level lamenting budget maneuvers while rejecting proposals to mitigate the effects of deteriorating revenues.
In the case of Mesa County Commissioners, they’ve repeatedly stressed that they’ve squeezed blood from turnips and collected all the low-hanging fruit possible on the way to commanding 5 percent reductions across all departments to eliminate a $2.7 million deficit.
That didn’t sit well with Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner who had already voluntarily cut her department’s spending by 8 percent to help accommodate budget increases for public safety. But when Reiner proposed a $5 in-person renewal fee Monday as an incentive to encourage people to renew their plates online, commissioners said no.
Commissioners have their reasons, as Gary Harmon reported in today’s paper. They didn’t have a problem with Reiner closing two offices and cutting four positions, but they don’t like the idea she came up with to contend with the crowds that have been funneled to central services. If that seems disingenuous, the hypocrisy at the state level is even more staggering.
As the Sentinel’ s Charles Ashby reported Sunday, some Western Slope lawmakers had the gall to grouse about the annual raid on severance taxes. The state’s proposed budget uses $45.7 million in severance taxes meant for the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Local Affairs to balance the budget, $22.8 million of which would have gone to local governments.
State budget writers wouldn’t have had to turn to severance taxes if lawmakers had considered reasonable alternatives to free money for spending. One, a bill introduced by our own Republican Rep. Dan Thurlow, would have freed up money for transportation projects without raising taxes by modernizing the formula that determines spending caps. It died in a Senate committee. Another, a proposal to convert the Hospital Provider Fee to an enterprise, has been a political nonstarter for two years — even though it would have freed up hundreds of millions in discretionary general fund spending.
The proposed budget includes a $264 million reduction of the Hospital Provider Fee to eliminate surplus taxpayer rebates and free money for spending on other budget issues. But if the budget is approved as is, some rural hospitals face dire funding situations. So lawmakers are trying to roll the HPF conversion into a convoluted bill that tries to fix the budget deficiencies that arose after legislators failed to consider the HPF as a stand-alone solution.
The point is, lawmakers are finally doing the common-sense thing and tackling the HPF, but only after it became clear that the fate of rural hospitals hung in the balance. By waiting until the 11th hour, the budget process has already diverted severance taxes meant for local communities and threatened the viability of rural hospitals.
Attempting to fix it after the fact means that a solution was there all along. So let’s not let elected officials get away with complaining about budgetary problems when they refuse to accept creative solutions — until they can’t live with the consequences of their own intractability.