How To Cut Expenses (Virginia Style)
If you had any money, you have a lot less now. If you didn't--and here's the gratingly unfair part--you'll probably get less going forward anyway. I've been scouring my expenses and generally making everyone in my household miserable about spending any money at all, so I was especially curious to take a close look at how Mr. Tim Kaine has gone about slashing $279 million from the commonwealth of Virginia's budget.
The governor announced last week that he is laying off about 600 state workers, closing some prisons and shortening hours at museums, and slicing six percent off the budget of the state's colleges. It takes 63 pages to lay out exactly how the state will save all that money, and hidden in the details are some examples of spending that it's hard to imagine ever got in the budget in the first place.
(But of course that's true for my budget, too: Did we really ever need Netflix when no one in the house has watched a movie in two months? Why do we still have a landline? And this is a battle that will continue to our deaths, but after 643 conversations about it, I still don't get why anyone needs more than three pairs of shoes.)
Anyway, the governor managed to find $25,000 in cell phone savings in his office alone (and you thought the cell companies were bleeding you dry). But the cuts quickly get much bigger. The state is slicing 5 percent, or $318,000, off its grants to public radio and TV stations. Which means that millions are still flowing to those stations--why? What possible justification is there for government support for public TV in an era when commercial cable channels do a better job of producing most of the kinds of programming seen on public TV, and when public TV has so dumbed down its offerings that any claim it once had on tax dollars has long since vanished?
Over at the state Agriculture Department, it's not clear why it takes an emergency budget cut to achieve this level of honesty, but they're admitting that Virginia's dairy industry is shrinking and that it is therefore possible to eliminate a supervisor and an inspector for a savings of about $125,000. They also zeroed out five positions in the office that regulates charitable gaming--bingo (a savings of $390,000.) I know it brings me great inner peace to know that Virginia had a whole crew of workers assuring that church bingo games were on the up and up. (Your state government actually trains bingo callers--I kid you not.)
Why does it take a crisis to get rid of perks that should never have existed in the first place? The Forestry Department is stripping 140 of its workers of the right to take state-owned cars home with them every day; from now on, those first responders will only be allowed to commute to work in state vehicles during fire season or when wildfires are likely to occur. Savings: $60,000.
Virginia has $7.4 million available each year to help folks who don't have indoor plumbing in their homes; most of that is federal money, but even after the state cuts out $1.6 million of its own contribution, it will still be pumping $2.9 million from state taxpayers into this effort. If there are really that many people without indoor plumbing, this is a fine public objective, but how widespread is that problem? Sounds like a fertile field for an enterprising reporter. (See budget cuts, news industry.)
In education, I'm sorry to see the Civics Education Commission eliminated (savings: $81,000.) I can't vouch for the efficacy of their work, but it was nice to think that at least someone was trying to do something about the woeful lack of teaching about our system of government and politics in too many schools. But the governor really socked it to the state's colleges, forcing them to chop out between five and seven percent of their budgets, even as the same schools face parents and students who are begging for relief from steep annual tuition hikes. Already reeling from huge increases in their energy bills and losses in their investments and potential donations, colleges and universities nonetheless are being held up for a whopping grand total of $80 million in cuts, almost 30 percent of the Kaine cut package.
In a government jam-packed with unnecessary programs and foolhardy supports for businesses that can't seem to make it on their own, the state chooses instead to take out its budget woes on children, who, of course, can't vote. So despite all the rhetoric about how schools still care about teaching kids how to learn and how to love learning, the grim focus on rote basics continues apace, as Virginia eliminates its grants for art education for public schools (savings: $90,000), savages arts organizations with an 85 percent cut in second-quarter grant awards (savings: $604,000), and eliminates financial assistance for programming by local arts coalitions (savings: $114,000.)
The decision to put the brunt of the cuts on education extends to basic scientific research, the kind of work that is essential to positioning this country to compete in a world economy where our only long-term advantage is our knowledge, intellectual exploration and our embrace of innovation. Virginia is cutting 10 percent out of its Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, which was created to move Southside Virginia from a reliance on tobacco farming to an information-based economy (savings: $624,000), and is rolling back the experiments conducted by Jefferson Science Associates, a public-private partnership that pushes the frontiers of nuclear physics and works with Virginia's top universities on the Free Electron Laser, based in Newport News, which could help develop new ways of manufacturing recyclable packaging and new lines of products in nano- and microtechnologies (savings: $225,000).
In the how-soon-they-forget category, the budget cuts slash $12.4 million from the state's aid to local Community Service Boards, the very same mental health providers that every single study following the Virginia Tech shootings said desperately needed more resources. It was just last December that Gov. Kaine announced he would seek to add 40 new clinicians to those same Community Service Boards, which he called one of "the state's most critical funding commitments." (In 2005, before the Virginia Tech shootings, community service boards saw 115,000 mentally ill people statewide, at a cost of $127 million.)
There are hundreds of little cuts throughout the state's budget, from eliminating the rabies awareness campaign (savings: $5,500) to reducing the frequency of visitor surveys in state parks from four times a year to annually (savings: $15,000) to cutting back on advertising for state parks (savings: $50,000.) (Overall, parks are getting hit disproportionately hard, with a cut of about 12 percent.) Who could object to cutting the washing of state troopers' patrol cars from once a month to once a quarter (savings: $100,000)?
Sprinkled throughout the budget are cuts that will make a real difference: to save $781,000, the state will stop giving incentive payments to new doctors who commit to spending two years in underserved rural and impoverished communities. And to save $132,000, the Better Beginnings program that pays outside groups to promote teenage pregnancy prevention will be eliminated. For $202,000 in savings, does it really make sense to close Camp New Hope, a juvenile justice program in a national forest near Natural Bridge that was built entirely by inmates and staffers in 1972 and that is used to foster achievement and development among juvenile offenders? (For that matter, is juvenile justice the right area in which to make a 10 percent cut from the available general fund spending?)
Many of the cuts in corrections seem smart--for example, closing underused detention facilities. Others may come back to bite us all in the form of higher crime: By cutting back on the number of counselors at every correctional center and reducing funding for substance abuse treatment (total savings: $464,000), the state makes it more likely that addicts and disturbed inmates will return to crime on their next visit to the outside world.
Coming up today at noon on Raw Fisher Radio: A discussion of Maryland's slots referendum with opposing views from Montgomery County, today at noon at washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio
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