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Kitchen-table analogy oversimplifies budgetary process

Sun., March 31, 2013

OLYMPIA – It is a rare day during the session when some legislator doesn’t offer the folksy wisdom that the state should just balance its budget like the folks back home.

Sometimes, the “folks” are mom and pop entrepreneurs on Main Street, struggling to make payroll as sales drop and the costs rise. They tighten their belts, take a smaller profit, lay off a worker or two, have a few more go to part time, maybe buy a smaller ad in the local high school yearbook.

More often, though, the folks are a family around the kitchen table, deciding how to stretch the paycheck for food, clothes, braces or the kids’ college fund after paying the mortgage and the utility bill. They make those hard choices on what to do without, a legislator will say in a floor speech. Maybe get another year out of the pickup, carpool to work, get a part-time job, put off that trip to Disneyland until next summer.

Such homey examples are designed to communicate the state’s budget situation to the folks back home. They may actually do the folks back home a disservice by oversimplifying what the state budget is.

First, there’s a difference in scale. The state’s general fund budget is about $30.5 billion for the last two years, which makes it about 305,000 times larger than the median household income in Spokane for that period.

There’s also the complexity, which these bromides overlook. A family may have a couple of incomes, a checking account, a savings account, maybe a 401(k) and a few credit cards. The state has more than 400 different accounts, gets money from dozens of different sources and pays it out to hundreds of different programs, with tens of thousands of employees who do the work we collectively hired them to do.

It is possible to reduce or eliminate some programs. But that is not as simple as folks around the kitchen table deciding to buy cheaper cuts of meat, skip the afternoon latte, go to community college rather than the university and cancel premium cable. Under the kitchen table analogy, the people making the budget decisions would be vegans who already graduated, don’t drink lattes or watch television.

The state does many things with that $30.5 billion; some it absolutely must do, like locking up dangerous criminals and making sure kids learn to read and write. It does things that it really should do, like take care of the old, the sick and some people who can’t take care of themselves or have good colleges. It does things that some of us don’t think is necessary, but some of us do, like enforcing environmental rules, checking for safe workplaces or helping some businesses by marketing their products in China.

Unlike the family sitting around the table staring at the checkbook balance, the Legislature decides how much to spend on thousands of things over the next two years with money it doesn’t have. Economists guess how much the state will bring in over the next two years, which during the recession was just slightly better than a television weatherman predicting today how much snow will be on the ground at Christmas.

When that guess was released about 10 days ago, it wasn’t much different than last November’s forecast and about $2 billion more than what the state had for the two years that end on June 30. The family budget is growing, legislators who love the kitchen table analogy said, so this should be a piece of cake.

Unfortunately for them, the number of kids in the house is growing faster than the paycheck. Along with all the other adjustments it needs to make like skipping lattes and nursing the pickup, the family has been ordered to keep the kids from flunking out of school and living the rest of their lives in the basement. And Grandma’s not getting any younger, so she might have to come live with them.

This week the Senate will release its plan to balance the books. Imagine that the Senate is Mom, who decides what to cut, which tutors to hire for the kids and how to remodel the guest room for Grandma. Then Dad, in the form of the House of Representatives, comes along and says we’re sending the kids to after-school programs, building an apartment over the garage for Grandma, borrowing from the 401(k) and selling the silverware on Craigslist to raise more money.

Oh no, Mom says. We’re not borrowing from the 401(k) or selling the silverware. We’ll get by on what we have, and some of the kids will have to make do with less, preferably the ones you drive to school so I don’t have to listen to them complain.

If anyone’s going to take it in the shorts, Dad says, it should be the ones you’ve been coddling …

If you’ve ever had a knock-down budget fight at your kitchen table, multiply it by 147, which is the number of “parents” in the Legislature. Then maybe a kitchen table analogy starts to give a bit of a feel for how hard the budget is to resolve here.

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