We know how tough times are for cities, counties and states. And we sympathize with the seemingly impossible choices many have — particularly since the federal stimulus money isn't there to cushion things the way it has in the past couple of years. Still, we have the impression that the general press is making things seem even worse than they are. Recently, for example, a Wall Street Journal piece indicated that "many states have record budget gaps due to decreases in tax collections and pension obligations they can't meet." A few problems: The budget gaps for coming fiscal years aren't records. They're bad, but they were worse in 2010 and 2011, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Though spending demands are high, many states are experiencing revenue growth. And pension obligations only minimally contribute to current budget problems.
It doesn't really alarm us if a newspaper — even a hugely respected one like the WSJ — prints some inaccuracies in an article. That's inevitable. But we see alarmism to the left and the right of us, and we hardly ever see the general press overplaying good news for cities and states.
This may be the funniest transcript we've ever seen out of a court proceeding. It comes from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and it concerns the concept of the term "photocopy" in a county office. There are a few broader points we could draw from this material, but we won't bother. We think you'll laugh when you read it, and then you can draw your own conclusions.
Furloughs have been the subject of a lot of discussions over the past few years. But here's an expensive wrinkle we just came across. In California, furloughs of state employees included prison guards. But prisons need their full complement of guards at all times, and there was already a shortage of them before the furloughs took place. As a result, guards had to come in on their furlough days. Of course there was no money in the budget to pay them, which "adds up to a $1 billion liability for taxpayers of the deficit-plagued state," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Lesson: Next time a city or state announces dramatic cost cuts, make sure they're not just borrowing from the future in disguise.
On the swag beat: A few weeks ago, we promised to provide a good sampling of reader comments about the use of so-called swag by cities, counties or states. These are the coffee cups, t-shirts, engraved pencils and so on that many governments hand out at a variety of functions. True to our word, here it is.
Is your workplace festooned with pictures drawn by employees' children, cute notes, and an occasional bunch of posies? This kind of personalization of an office space has increasingly fallen out of favor in both public- and private-sector entities applying so-called "principles of lean management." But we just came across a study arguing that office space minimalism may not be such a great idea. It comes from the Journal of Experimental Psychology and was mentioned in the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. According to the study, such controls may disempower workers and lead to inferior work.
A quote that needs no context: "Information is the currency of democracy." — Thomas Jefferson
Call it a "distaste for the unknown." Repeatedly, we've come across instances in which citizens are polled about the quality of services, the caliber of public officials and so on. In a remarkably high number of cases, they seem to think that their own personal service or representative is doing a lot better than everyone else's. The latest example, from the Public Policy Institute of California: Only 16 percent of likely voters think that the California legislature is doing a good job. At the same time, more than twice as many, 34 percent, think their individual state legislator is doing well. Obviously, both can't be true (though both numbers are pretty dismal).
We don't have a handy explanation for this kind of thing. But we do think that this disconnect is worth considering the next time you hear about what people think about anything government does — unless it gets down to the close and personal level.
We've been frustrated by the tendency in a number of media outlets to talk about "states" as a monolithic group. For example, a Feb. 13 article in the New York Times about retiree health care made the point that the states face a huge problem with this obligation and want to cut back. Nowhere in the article did the reader get any sense of the fact that there's huge variation among the states. This kind of thing, we believe, can lead readers to false impressions when they assume that anything that's happening in "the states" is also happening in their state.
The Council of State Governments recently published a list of the five biggest topics in health care, based on efforts to predict what legislators will be worried about. Here's are the issues the CSG predicted are on the front burner:
- Health Insurance Exchange Enabling Legislation
- State regulation of the Health Insurance Industry
- Health information technology
- Health Policy Innovation
Following the leader? A couple of weeks ago, we asked B&G Readers how important it was for elected officials to lead by example — for instance, taking public transportation in order to encourage citizens to do so. Your responses almost uniformly agreed with the idea that mayors, council members, legislators and so on should do just those kinds of things. As one email read, "People do watch to see if their city and state leaders 'walk the walk' or 'talk the talk.' If our leaders 'walk the walk,' then perhaps they do have a understanding of the problems every day citizens face. This can only help to inspire trust in our public officials which is something that seems to be sorely lacking these days."
A few respondents did take note that there might be instances in which it wasn't entirely practical for civic leaders to play Public Citizen No. 1. "I know that there were a couple of Detroit City Council members that had their kids enrolled in suburban Detroit schools when I lived in Michigan last year," emailed one reader. "I don't blame them: Detroit schools are pretty scary, but they (council members) have to live in the City."