Shutdown? Not really; Spending is on autopilot

A new session of the Indiana General Assembly has just begun, and there’s not a news outlet in the state that hasn’t emphasized what a tight budget the state faces this year. Tragically, our legislators will just not have enough of our money for all the spending they want to do.

Here’s a typical description, from the Times of Northwest Indiana:

“The December state revenue forecast estimated that Indiana will have $828.8 million in new revenue for the two-year, roughly $32 billion budget set to be approved this session. But after covering the anticipated growth in Medicaid and Department of Child Services expenses, the remaining money won’t be enough for even an inflation-level funding boost to elementary and high school education or any meaningful expansion of pre-kindergarten availability.”

Get that? Indiana has a budget of $32 billion for the biennium — that’s $16 billion a year, which is roughly $6,400 for every household in the state. And there will be almost $1 billion in new revenue.

And it’s not enough.

Now, let’s leave that for a moment before we circle back. I notice that for the current federal budget impasse, we’ve been treated to the phrase “partial” government shutdown, which is more clarity than we’re used to in the news coverage out of Washington. But it is finally an honest description — a federal shutdown can only be partial, since so much of the government is on automatic pilot that only about 25 percent of its services are affected.

So, no matter whom we elect, regardless of whatever fiscal restraint is promised, the spending just goes on and on, and there is nothing we can do about it. Those Americans upset by such profligacy might have hoped for at least a brief respite with a Republican president and GOP control of both houses of Congress. Regrettably, it was not to be.

The U.S. national debt stood at $21.974 trillion at the end of 2018, more than $2 trillion higher than when President Donald Trump took office. I would cut the president some slack on the issue since he never exactly promised to be a small-government conservative. I notice, however, in looking through the campaign coverage that in 2016 that he promised to get rid of the national debt, telling the Washington Post he could make the U.S. debt-free “over a period of eight years.” Read his lips.

I am among that small and apparently dwindling group of Americans who really worry about out-of-control spending and unsustainable debt. And some of us have been so convinced that Washington is so unwilling, even unable, to change that the only hope we see is an Article 5 convention.

As risky as it would be to put the Constitution into the hands of state-appointed delegates (and it scares some of my fellow conservatives to death), what other choice is there? If the federal government will not tame itself, we have reasoned, the states must try to tame it.

But now I wonder if even that is possible. Would we really be better off with the states feeling more empowered?

Which brings us back to Indiana, which, don’t forget, is among the most fiscally restrained of states with a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. Yet even here, our lawmakers have created a situation in which “tight budget” is not a temporary condition but will likely be looked upon in the future as the “good old days.”

We’re not quite on automatic pilot yet, but there is less and less maneuvering room. Just four areas of the state’s budget — K-12, higher education, Medicaid and public safety — take up 84 percent of the general fund. Those are areas for which the demands will always increase and cuts will never be deemed acceptable. As with the federal government, there really isn’t a state revenue problem. There is a state spending problem.

Which will, ultimately, create that revenue problem, which can be solved only by devising new ways to separate more of us from more of our money.

And the state treasury, we should remember, has a budget surplus of about $1.8 billion, being held in reserve for emergencies. That is akin to the alcoholic who keeps a few bottles in a dusty corner of the basement just in case there is a nuclear holocaust closing all roads to the liquor store.

I know. Dead horse. Still beating it. Can’t help ranting and raving about it once in a while.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected]