Thursday, April 30, 2015
Browning: How to Stop Deficit Spending in County Government
Pick a county. Any county. Most of them engage in the same deficit spending that we see in Washington. But unlike the Beltway Boyz, they can't print money. Eventually, they run out of it and have to impose a tax increase. That builds up the fund balance, opening up the door to more deficit spending. This has happened in both Lehigh and Northampton County in what can only be regarded as a bipartisan failure. It makes no difference who's in charge. It's just too tempting to spend down reserves instead of imposing a modest tax hike when it is needed. Dean Browning, a former Lehigh County Commissioner who is running again, has a plan to put both counties back on a firm financial footing - a true balanced budget amendment to both Home Rule Charters.
Though both counties require a balanced budget, what is created is a fiction. The spending is almost always greater than the revenues, so counties use cash reserves to plug the gap.
Over the past dozen years, lehigh County has had two tax increases. Northampton County has had three. Browning explained his proposals to Lehigh County Commissioners at the March 11 meeting.
"[B]udget deficits are caused by elected officials approving budgets that put in place a plan to overspend. Approving budgets where you plan to spend more than you take in and then hoping for the best is not sound fiscal policy.
"Families don't budget that way, at least not if they want to stay out of bankruptcy. Businesses don't budget that way, at least not successful ones. And Lehigh County shouldn't budget that way. Otherwise we are no better fiscal stewards than those in Washington - and In Lehigh County taxpayers deserve better."
Northampton County's Home Rule Charter considers the budget balanced so long as the proposed expenditures do not exceed the amount of funds available. [Section 703(b)]. Similarly, Lehigh County's Home Rule Charter allows the "balancing" to be accomplished by using "the total of estimated income AND cash reserves."
Brown insists this has to change. He is suggesting a "balanced budget amendment" to the Home Rule Charter in Lehigh "that would prohibit the use of cash reserves as a means to balance the budget." There would be exceptions for emergencies or to give a credit to taxpayers when the underlying budget is still balanced, but that would need six votes.
Of course, Browning was politely ignored. But people might start paying attention of he gets the Republican nomination. He's running against a group of four other candidates - Amanda Holt Vic Mazziotti, Brad Osborne and Marty Nothstein - who have already run disappointing robo calls attacking Browning. He'll have to respond, and the result will be an ugly slog in which no one, least of all the people, benefit.
Browning's balanced budget amendment is a good idea, and he should be given the opportunity to implement it. Someone should pick up on this idea in the People's Republic of Northampton County, too.