Montana Viewpoint

March 7, 2005

In 1981 a bill defining the limits of state spending was enacted, and then ignored for 24 years—until now. It’s a good thing, too, because no one today can figure out exactly what it requires, and it’s doubtful that they could have in the past.

In general terms it limits the increase in spending from one budget cycle to the next to the rate of growth of personal income. That seems straightforward enough, except it’s proved difficult for the Legislative Fiscal Analyst’s office to decide what that amount should be for this budget, and confusion reigns.

There’s no confusion as to the politics of the issue, though. Republicans—who ignored the law for the past five budget cycles they were in power—have leapt at the chance to use it as a political issue should the ruling Democrats exceed what is now called “the budget cap.” Democrats, not to be out fiscal-responsibilitied, are working hard to do what the Republicans want.

Actually, that’s not quite right. What Republicans really want is for the Democrats to overspend so the big spender flag can be raised in the next election. Therefore, by staying within the cap, Democrats are simultaneously not doing what both the Republicans and the Democratic voters want, if you get my drift.

Most Democratic candidates, me included, ran on the platform of correcting the rightward philosophic drift of public spending policy by promising to fund education and health care adequately. There was really no caveat added saying, “but don’t spend any more money doing it.”

Frankly, I find the budget cap issue absurd, not to mention superfluous. We already have a perfectly good mechanism in law that limits spending on public services. It is called an election; either those who spend too much money for the public taste get the boot, or, as in the last election, those who spend too little.

Public need and approval is the tool that should determine how much we spend on ourselves—if I can make the bold assertion that the government is us. For the past few decades, however, that part of the political spectrum that wants to do away with most functions of government has convinced the American people that government spending is a bad thing, even when it’s spent on providing exactly what those same people demand in services.

Rather than trying to frame an argument in favor of public spending on public needs, Democrats have re-invented themselves as Republican lite.

In my view, Montana citizens are not asking less of their elected government, they are asking more. No one in my campaign asked me to cut their government services, quite the contrary. They asked for better educational opportunities, help in finding medical care, money to eradicate meth labs, and last and loudest, rural drivers’ license stations that were open more than six hours a week.

Many of them, it is true, asked me to cut or eliminate wasteful programs, which essentially meant services that they personally did not use. The problem is, since most everyone had a different viewpoint on what that was, the result would have been the elimination of everyone’s services.

So, what is the purpose of government? I have a fondness for believing that the purpose of government is to accomplish for us all those things that we as individuals cannot accomplish alone. That would include public safety, education, health care, and national defense, to name a few.

Americans—and Montanans in particular—are not mean, stingy people. We have always lent a helping hand to those who need one. If we as individuals will empty our pockets to help a neighbor, why shouldn’t we as a society want to help our collective neighbors? We did once, and willingly, but the further we get from those great times of American suffering and sacrifice, the Great Depression and World War II, the less we remember why.

We provide health care, public safety and education because they are good for all of us, and it is foolish to think we won’t have to pay for them. If we want to return to a time when old people starved to death and millions of Americans went without medical care or a good education, we can. In fact, that is exactly the direction we are heading, and it is a bad direction.

Remember: “History teaches nothing, but only punishes for not learning its lessons.”

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620