Our tour of the state budget documents continues. We leave the Executive Summary for the time being (we’ll be back for the all-important schedules and for the invaluable predictions of the future), and move into Volume I.
Volume I covers “General Government”, which includes the offices of all the elected officials, and the departments of Revenue, Business Regulation, and Labor and Training. Plus the Department of Administration which holds all the central functions. It’s also got all the quasi-public agencies like the Economic Development Corporation, RIPTA, the Airport Corporation, and Resource Recovery, who runs the state Central Landfill. For each department and agency, there is a summary page, and then a page for each of the major divisions. This is the part of the tour where the guide is supposed to tell funny jokes to fill up the travel time as you cruise from one interesting locale to the next.
The legislature’s budget is in this volume, so let’s look there first. The overall budget for the Assembly is about $41 million this year, and the Governor is proposing to cut it by a little more than $1 million, about half from supplies and expenses and the rest from the grants budget. There’s no change in the number of personnel, and it looks like they’re anticipating a 3% raise for most everyone, and — what’s this? — it’s the rising cost of health care, just like everywhere else. Remember, no matter what you’ve been told, it’s rising health care costs that are pushing up the cost of your government more than anything else.
Oh, wait, did you want to hear about the infamous grants budget? This is the source of the legislative grants, random bits of money awarded by the leadership to reward this or that legislator for helping out around the place. It mostly goes to non-profits in the legislator’s home district, like say, Dan Doyle’s Institute for International Sport that we’re hearing so much about these days. They apparently got $575,000 in 2007 for a fabulous building on the URI campus that remains unfinished today.
There are also plenty of excellent, well-run non-profits who get support this way. The problem is that the way these grants are awarded has a lot to do with ring-kissing and begging and maybe not so much to do with merit. Lots of ring-kissers have other merits, but when merit isn’t the main criteria, you’ll undoubtedly get some who are better at the kissing than the service. (This makes the occasional screw-up like the Institute into the fault of some specific person, though no one seems to be saying who just yet.)
How much does it cost? On paper, you’ll see a grant budget line item of $2.8 million in the current year, and the Governor is proposing to cut it back to $2.3 million. The way the system works, though, there is much more than that available. The way it works is that lots of the dollars will wind up as line items on the budget of some agency whose mission is vaguely related to the non-profit’s. So a theatre might get a grant and it would come directly from the RISCA budget, not from this line item. This is a problem both because it provides less money for the agency mission, something that you can’t see from the budget documents, and because counting all those grants isn’t possible from the outside.
What else? One can’t help but notice that despite the modest cut Governor Chafee has proposed, the legislature’s budget is up a healthy 42% in ten years, 2003-2012, about 3.5% per year. This is somewhat less than overall state expenses, which are up 48%, but it’s embarrassingly close to the 42% rise over that time in the statewide property tax levy. One thing you’ll hear if you wander around the halls of the State House and talk to legislators is complaints about out-of-control municipal budgets. What those legislators don’t seem to understand is that the town councils and mayors are doing pretty much as good a job as the legislators.
It’s easy to understand legislators not noticing this. What’s less forgivable is the way they keep voting to cut taxes without cutting their own budget. Over that decade 2003-2012, we saw a capital gains tax cut, an income tax cut for rich people, and several high-profile tax credits pass the Assembly. At none of those times did anyone propose a proportional cut in the Assembly’s own budget. Cuts for thee and not for me. If you care about controlling costs in government, this is the kind of behavior that has to be rendered embarrassing (or at least politically dangerous) for elected officials.
Time to move on. Next stop: DMV!
Read the previous posts in this series.