Weekly Feature

2006-07-12 / Editorial

Fiscal excess common at all levels of government

BRIAN ACKLEY BRIAN ACKLEY NNice deficit, don't you think? Of course,

figuring out which one we're talking about is as difficult as finding Ralph "Bucky" NPhillips these days. Public officials who spend more money than they take from our pockets are as common as salt crystals on the top of a kimmeweck roll.

Most people probably never heard of Sam Ewing. Ewing was an American humorist, writing for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. For decades he spun one-liners and short stories that sagely sorted away the chaff and left exposed the obvious heart of the matter. He described such deficits as, "the difference between the amount of money the government spends and the amount it has the nerve to collect."

Pick a deficit, any deficit. Town, county, state - it doesn't really matter anymore. Is it even worth pointing out federal shortfalls? They are so enormous that even the most scholarly among us can't prophesy about them. No doubt the Kool-Aid stand down the street last weekend paid too much for its sugar - probably violating Erie County's apprenticeship law along the way and soon will be tapping into a governmental slush fund somewhere to make up its deficit, too.

What's really disingenuous is watching our leaders develop their deficit defense dances with everything from Alfred E. Newman's "What, me worry?" indifference to the why-cut-today-when-we-can-assure ourselves-re-electiontomorrow perpetual cycle, which voters make so easy to ride.

Amherst - the latest to join the cash-crunch coterie - didn't need much of a learning curve to quickly becloud the issue with the two easiest dodges: arguing that there's no sure way to know how much we overspend until we have an audit tell us how much we overspent, or the easiest of all - simply arguing over just how much taxpayers will be expected to make up. In Amherst is it $4 million or $5 million? Erie County's might be $40 million, maybe $50 million. In New York, it's $4 billion, or is it $5 billion?

While the train hurtles down the track, politicians are in their Pullman cars plotting their defense at the next whistle stop. As E.J. McMahon, director of the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy, put it recently, "State legislators effectively plunked about $1 billion worth of rum-soaked cherries on what was already a massive New York-style cheesecake of fiscal excess." The comment followed McMahon's observance of the Albany budget carnage that, with almost no questioning the fact from either side of the aisle, will blow massive holes in next year's spending.

It's not that government can't borrow at all. Often it is appropriate and necessary. But too often, and in fact it's now seemingly the rule rather than the exception, those in charge are far too eager and complicit in using borrowed bucks to meet payroll - and grass seed for their golf courses and the gasoline with which to mow it.

Sadly, it's becoming news when a public body actually manages to stay within the confines of its spending plan. Of course, shortages of one kind - foresight and fortitude come to mind, especially the latter - lead to shortages of the other.

It's not likely that Ewing had politicians and deficits in mind when he offered an observation about human nature. But his words fit perfectly in that context when he penned, "Hard work spotlights the character of people. Some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all."

It takes no effort to spend money. It takes plenty to stop. Which brings to mind another of Ewing's tidbits, which would serve as sage advice for our illustrious electeds, who, when it comes to debt, almost never take the road less traveled. "Doing nothing is the most tiresome job in the world," he wrote, "because it's not possible to stop and rest."

(Brian Ackley is a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York. WIN is a consortium of 19 community-based weekly newspapers in Erie and Niagara counties with a combined paid circulation of 75,000 homes, providing collaborative advertising and editorial support for member publications. For more information on WIN, or to provide feedback on this column, visit our Web site at www.wnynewspapers.com. Opinions expressed here are those of the author.)

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