Thursday, May 01, 2008


What firefighters can teach us about budgeting

Recently, Sprint began running a TV commercial entitled “What if firefighters ran the world?” It shows a legislature composed of firefighters in full turn-out gear using their cell phones’ push-to-talk features to solve the country’s problems. What do the firefighters do? They balance the budget, cut taxes, and increase spending on roads and water treatment.

If only it were that simple. Obviously, being a policymaker is more difficult than portrayed in the advertisement, as is being a firefighter. (How many of us would run into a burning building?) Elected officials must attempt to balance competing interests and conflicting priorities. They hear from advocates, lobbyists, constituents, caucuses, and other Members, on the entire gamut of possible issues. Good policymakers attempt to see into the future to try to anticipate consequences, and even the very best sometimes make mistakes. On the other hand, the firefighters are the epitome of decisiveness and consensus, two things we would sometimes like our legislators to display more frequently.

The problem is that the type of faulty reasoning – that we can lower taxes while increasing spending and have a balanced budget – used for comical effect in the commercial sometimes works its way into real-world policy debates. As a recent New York Times editorial pointed out, “To restore the health of the budget, let alone keep ambitious campaign pledges for spending more money, the next president, regardless of which party wins, will have to tax the American people more than any of the candidates has been willing to admit.”

It is not just the federal level where policymakers are up against difficult budget realities. Our state is facing a budget shortfall, and it would be a shame to see the significant progress on health and human service programs made in the SFY 2008-2009 budget erased due to economic downturn and a resistance to exploring additional revenues. There are options to meet this challenge, but few are politically popular. Unlike firefighters in a Sprint commercial, we can’t have it all. Correcting Ohio’s budget shortfalls will mean either a reduction in services or an increase in revenues, or both. These are real issues that require real discussion. Unfortunately, outfitting the General Assembly with push-to-talk mobile phones probably won’t help.

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