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  • Last modified 303 days ago (July 19, 2023)

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. . . and how they spend our money

Rejecting revenue-neutral rates isn’t the only way governments behave in a less-than-frugal manner when talking about budgets.

Many speak about setting a “mill levy.” Truth is, the only thing any government can do at this time of year is set the “levy” portion of a tax bill — the total amount of money it wants its taxpayers to pay.

The “mill” part — the actual tax rate — isn’t set until fall, when final valuation figures are in. Mill rates typically increase from summer estimates to actual fall rates, so a “no tax increase” budget in summer often ends up increasing the mill levy by the time fall rolls around.

How governments budget also is confusing.

For most of us, we figure out how much money we are likely to have coming in from work, benefits, or investments, then determined how we will spend it.

That’s the way governments tend to work, too. But they shouldn’t. Government isn’t supposed to be in the business of figuring out how much money it can generate and then determining what to spend it on. It should be assessing what the community needs, what that will cost, and only then figuring out how much taxes it will need to pay for that.

Policy wonks call this zero-based budgeting. It means annually re-examining everything government does, seeing whether it’s still needed, and determining whether it can be done more efficiently, at a lower cost, rather than just automatically locking in whatever was spent in the previous year, plus whatever inflation and new projects and new revenue sources would allow the government to spend in the coming year.

If we really want to control government spending and reduce taxes, this is the only way to go. Otherwise, governmental spending becomes a bit like winning the lottery. However much money government finds out it can generate without seeming to increase taxes, it will spend. And if that doesn’t accomplish what government wants, it will saddle future taxpayers with huge amounts of debt in the form of bonds, lease-purchase agreements, or other financial sleights-of-hand that aren’t much different from Popeye’s Wimpy gladly paying tomorrow for a hamburger today.

Truth is, government spending probably should increase in some areas. Many problems we see in our communities could benefit from increased spending, and as voters we need to be open to the idea of actually increasing taxes in some situations.

But we also need to demand that, before that happens, all current government spending is re-examined to see whether it truly is necessary.

That’s what budgeting season is supposed to be about rather than a series of lies about keeping mill levies the same and then figuring out how to spend ever last cent generated from reappraisals and new construction.

With a few notable exceptions, most politicians have proved themselves incapable of bringing government spending under control and targeting spending on the projects that we the people need most.

So it’s up to us to show up at budget hearings, not worry about whether we don’t completely understand all the nuances, and demand explanations and answer until we do.

Otherwise, like a goose being fattened for the kill, we’ll simply accept whatever taxes are being shoved down our throats. And in that case, we probably shouldn’t go to the polls to vote, either.

Citizenship isn’t passive. It needs to be active for democracy to work.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 19, 2023

 

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