Op-ed column: Behind decimal points

So, Mr. Paterson goes to Washington and asks the House Ways and Means Committee to include some stat

So, Mr. Paterson goes to Washington and asks the House Ways and Means Committee to include some state aid in its economic stimulus package. Unfortunately, I doubt he’ll have the same success that Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith had in persuading the old guard to respond to his pleas.

Certainly no one knows better than a governor from New York how desperate the states are for some economic relief. South Carolina, on the other hand, apparently doesn’t need additional federal money since its governor, Mark Sanford, actually argued against adding additional state aid to a stimulus package.

I think there is a way to do both. That is, to add additional money to state and local coffers without raising taxes or adding additional federal aid to the existing bailout.

Beginning in January, the makeup of Congress will change somewhat. Gov. Paterson may have better luck convincing a larger Democratic majority in the House and President Obama of the desperate need the states have for an input of federal money. But the new look in Washington doesn’t change my perspective all that much. I believe that any real economic relief to the taxpayers has to take place primarily at the local level, rather than the state or national level, because that is where we suffer the most in impossible property and school taxes.

I support the bailout of the U.S. financial system. I don’t like it, but I believe it is necessary.

It’s mostly our money

I’m a little amused by the feigned outrage by the members of Congress as they overuse the phrase “taxpayer” money in describing this gift to Wall Street. It makes it sound like other expenditures on many items we don’t support aren’t using taxpayer money. Almost all of the money spent by Washington is taxpayer money! In fiscal year 2008, $1.6 trillion came from individual income taxes in a federal budget of $2.66 trillion. Corporate taxes were only $320 billion. Washington doesn’t have money, it essentially all comes from us. Plus this $700 billion in bailout money wasn’t just sitting around; not with the national debt at $10.2 trillion and counting. No, it’s future money, borrowed money. Washington is starting to give deficit spending a good name.

So, here is what we do: We look for decimal points in budgeted expenditures.

Yes, decimal points.

This is what I mean: If there are no decimal points in an expenditure, then I think it’s fair to assume that the number is somewhat arbitrary. It means that an accountant did not review the books, and the expenditures have not been balanced with the specific costs. When a city council approves a budget plan of $75.7 million, as has the Schenectady City Council, I respect that $.7 million part because it demonstrates that the expenditures are closely earmarked. When a federal bailout plan comes in at a clean $700 billion, then we have some wiggle room. Let’s call it $699 billion, or even $695 billion and send the rest to the municipalities.

Just $1 billion would send $1 million each to 1,000 micropolitan areas (urban areas less than 50,000 people), small towns and rural areas. Not a lot, but Schenectady could pave some roads, Rensselaer could pay its water bill and Scotia could hire a fire chief (well, that might be pushing it). And $5 billion from the $700 billion bailout would allow each state to receive $100 million in aid. Again, not a lot, but it could reduce taxes with no additional stimulus plan.

Another link

Looking at local police budgets and crime in America, there is another direct link to federal spending. Our current national budget calls for $145 billion in expenditures on global terrorism and $34 billion on homeland security.

Again, notice the lack of decimal points.

Many of us feel terrorized by factors other than global terrorism. When precious little girls are killed randomly and college students are shot dead by thrill seekers, when senior citizens are callously attacked and robbed on the streets of all the Albanys and Schenectadys in our country, then those budgets need to be directed toward our immediate fears and realities as well. A decimal point here and there could put more police on the streets and aid in crime prevention without raising local taxes. An America at peace (either with dignity or with victory) and a rising Dow are meaningless if we are imprisoned in our own homes, fearful of our lives and safety, held hostage by our own domestic terrorists.

For 2008, the current president has requested $56 billion for the Department of Education. Well, you get the point . . . er, the decimal point. And some of the requirements put on local schools by both the state and the federal government are not even funded. Unfunded mandates like No Child Left Behind have got to stop or at least be supported somewhere in that $56 billion budget.

The states do the same thing to the localities. The Land Ordinance of 1785, a precursor to the establishment of new states in the territories west of the original 13 colonies, established one tract of land to be set aside in each 36 square mile section for a public school. It did not say anything about parochial schools, charter schools, home schooling or vouchers. The founding fathers supported public schools.

Watching the budget

Our state and the federal government need to pay close heed to their wisdom. When The Daily Gazette criticizes Schenectady School Superintendent Eric Ely for his careful observation of charter school expenditures, they need to keep in mind that he is trying to protect his budget, from which charter school costs are taken. In doing so he is also being mindful of our school taxes, and I can assure you he has decimal points in his budget.

I applaud Gov. Paterson’s appeal to Congress to return some of our money back to the states. He is absolutely right.

His argument might be more convincing, however, if he can demonstrate that he doesn’t need new money. No, some of the old will do just fine. It is there, somewhere in the waste where numbers get rounded up; where public dollars just disappear in the vastness of the budgets like grains of sand on a beach.

And the numbers are large. Large enough to lower a tax, pave a street, buy a textbook or perhaps save a life.

Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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