“It would be impossible, therefore, to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this-the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.”- Frederic Bastiat, The Law
As a soon-to-retire legislator, having served six years in the Wyoming House of Representatives and on both the Revenue and Appropriations Committees, I have learned quite a lot about budgeting in Wyoming. Building a state budget is all about prioritizing the functions of government while keeping a close eye on revenue vs. expenditures. But when lawmakers lose sight of this, building the budget can become a free-for-all smorgasbord of non-essential projects and feel-good spending boondoggles that are disconnected from revenue reality. Sadly, this was my experience.
Examples of a few of Wyoming’s boondoggles can be found on the Wyoming Liberty Group website under Key Liberty Votes, and include 2011 Senate File 47, Film Industry Financial Incentives and 2012 Senate File 36 State Parks – acquisition of LX Bar Ranch. The result has been budgets filled with expenses that go way beyond the cost of essential functions, leaving lawmakers searching for funds to cover much needed expenditures.
Case in point, the recent move by some Wyoming lawmakers to bring a bill in the 2013 General Session that will increase Wyoming’s gasoline tax by ten cents per gallon, a move lawmakers say is needed to help pay for the ever increasing cost of Wyoming’s roads.
But is it really needed? I don’t think so.
Why? Because over the past decade, Wyoming has been spending lots of money on non-essential projects and feel-good spending boondoggles, leaving the state’s dollar stretched too far to pay for the maintenance of our roads. And rather than facing and fixing this problem, lawmakers are thinking about taking that mismanagement and letting Wyoming taxpayers pay the bill in the form of a tax increase; a decision that if implemented, will have lasting impacts at the pump and the ballot box.
While it’s tempting to dig into Wyoming’s biennial budget and start searching for the big ticket items – and there are many – to prove the point of longstanding overspending, this method will fall short of holistically diagnosing what is really happening to the state’s dollars. In my experience, budgeting in Wyoming has been suffering from a long-term systemic problem that involves a combination of several things, including vanishing focus and single-project afflictions.
Too many Wyoming lawmakers have lost focus on the need to prioritize the expenditure of dollars to keep government efficient and limited, while some have simply embraced a progressive ideology that suggests expanding, overreaching and overspending is the proper and fundamental responsibility of government. This has led to a consistent, steep growth in government, to the detriment of a sustainable state budget and Wyoming’s private sector.
It is also too easy for lawmakers to become separated from the “bottom-line” of budget reality and instead become caught up in the dazzling attraction of single projects. In my experience in the legislature, every project was presented as beneficial and necessary, with a compelling argument for funding. This made it difficult to say no. And because projects presented outside the budget bill are disconnected from the overall fiscal reality, it is easier still to allow the emotional argument to compel lawmakers to make an imprudent and fiscally uninformed decision. These problems have added to the specter of less money in the pockets of Wyoming taxpayers thanks to a proposed gas tax increase in 2013
Wyoming lawmakers need to go back to basics and rediscover the benefits of prioritizing government functions and staying focused. They also need to reconnect with bottom line budget reality as each new enticing project is passed under their noses. And they need to reject the idea that more money has to be stripped from the taxpayers’ pockets to pay for roads. Clear common sense thinking will lead legislators down the right road; a road that rejects this muddled-thinking tax increase and transports them back to the prosperous reality of a limited, efficient government.