If there’s anything positive to take from the coronavirus crisis, it’s that it gave many of us a chance to re-evaluate how we’ve been doing things, to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses, and to demonstrate what we’re capable of.
Once we return to what will come to be known as “normal,” we’ll see if any of those opportunities and lessons are carried forth.
That goes for us as individuals. And it goes for governments.
During the crisis, government bodies, including school districts, were forced to reckon with a new reality, particularly when it came to budgeting.
When the economy tanked due to businesses being shut down and when tax revenue that traditionally flowed into government coffers to support their spending was threatened, government bodies did what many of their constituents did — they adjusted their priorities to the new reality.
They looked at the size of their taxpayer-funded staffs to see if they really needed all those employees. They re-prioritized the services they provide.
People and tasks were separated into “essential” and “non-essential,” providing a clue that not all were truly needed.
They looked at ways to save money through employee contracts, sharing services and becoming more efficient.
But thanks to growing optimism about the end of the covid crisis and a giant economic boost from Uncle Sam through the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Act, state and local governments and school districts are seeing their bank accounts fill up again.
And with that is the temptation to go back to their old tax-and-spend ways.
Did governments learn anything during this crisis? Does it make sense, after having proven that they could make do with less taxpayer money, to abandon their forced austerity simply because they now can?
Like with the rest of us, the covid crisis provides an opportunity for governments to evaluate whether they were spending taxpayer money in the right places and whether they cut in the right places.
Did they really need all that money they had been collecting, or did the crisis show them that much of what they were doing wasn’t the best use of taxpayer dollars?
That also raises the question of what governments should do with their windfall.
Rather than return to old spending habits, some communities should put that money away in a fund balance to help offset future tax increases or use it to immediately reduce taxes.
That will help their citizens recover from the crisis and jump-start local economies.
Other communities that were struck hardest by the sudden loss of economic activity, but which will likely see a sharp rebound when the economy recovers, may be able to pay off old debt and then use the restored revenue to reduce taxes.
The covid crisis put tremendous financial stresses on our government bodies.
But it also provided them with a chance to see that they can get by with less, and to adjust their spending and taxing habits for the better. Citizens should demand that they don’t waste this rare opportunity.