Conroe and Washington, D.C., March 19 – The moral problems that President Donald Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 Budget has for his vision for the federal government should teach those supporting substantial spending reductions in Montgomery County an important lesson: you must cut spending with moral authority.
When it comes to spending reductions and budget-cutting, what does “moral authority” mean? It means that you must make cuts that hurt you in addition to the ones that seem like remote spending programs that only benefit special groups.
President Trump’s Budget
The Fiscal Year 2017 Federal Budget, which covers the period from October 1, 2016, through September 30, 2017, includes expenditures of approximately $4.2 trillion, an amount which is obscene. Sadly, this Budget is only an “approximate” amount, because Congress never passed a budget resolution during the 114th Congress. Rather, there were three separate supplemental budgets, the last of which Congress passed in January, 2017, in the middle of fiscal year.
Mr. Trump has made clear that he does not intend to reduce spending in the nation’s core entitlement programs: Social Security and Medicare. Instead, he has focused on the discretionary spending programs, which include non-entitlement programs. His budget does not reduce spending in total. In fact, President Trump’s proposal would seem to increase discretionary spending by approximately $1 billion. The current Obama budget includes a $443 billion deficit (i.e., where tax and other receipts are less than the government’s expenditures). President Trump’s budget proposal does nothing to reduce the budget deficit. Under his proposal, the deficit will increase substantially to well over $450 billion, due to increases in entitlement programs and payments on the national debt.
Besides failing to address overall spending and deficit reduction, President Trump’s proposed budget overemphasizes what is the tough item – national defense – and cuts spending on popular programs.
Let’s be candid. We need a strong national defense. Nevertheless, strategic wizards have argued for years that the United States Department of Defense has much waste within it. It’s got a gigantic civilian bureaucracy. It’s got many wasteful programs of which the F-35 Strike Fighter program is likely the poster child, because the plane is likely already tactically obsolete. For three decades, Pentagon insiders, such as Andrew Marshall, and outsiders, such as Victor Davis Hanson, have argued that the Defense Department could save as much as $100 billion annually by transforming its force to fit more modern methods of warfare. For example, there is substantial overlap and duplication between the Air Force and the Navy. James Mattis, the Marine General who now serves as Secretary of Defense, has argued for these major efficiencies for many years.
President Trump’s proposed budget looks tough militarily but fails to give him the moral authority which he would have if he and Secretary Mattis had finally tackled the tough organizational issues facing our military.
In reality, President Trump’s proposals to trim the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department, Agriculture Department, Labor, Commerce, Education, and Energy don’t go far enough. With the development of private space exploration companies, one questions whether NASA should be anything more than a space version of the Federal Aviation Agency, in other words a regulatory body and nothing more.
Conservatives are breathing a sigh of relief that President Trump is the first in recent memory to propose cutting the United States contribution to the United Nations.
There’s actually a lot of non-factual garbage about the proposed Trump budget. For example, President Trump has not proposed cutting the Meals on Wheels program. Meals on Wheels gets funding from many different sources. Some of those programs receive state funding through federal block grants. Many of those programs receive funding from the Administration for Community Living, an agency within the Health and Human Services Department, which will still receive its $227 million line item for “home-delivered nutrition services.” Similarly, the Trump proposal does not directly cut any school lunch funding programs, but it does eliminate the Wings for Kids program which is an after-school program for inner-city children that also provides some nutritional assistance.
Fundamentally, the problem with President Trump’s proposed budget is that it lacks a philosophical basis other than wanting to support greater funding for veterans services, building a wall, and a strong national defense. The vast majority of Americans support those directions for those programs.
The Trump budget proposal, however, lacks moral authority because, overall, he failed to achieve meaningful overall spending reductions, has allowed the liberal media to heist the budget debate, and has failed to take long-term actions to reduce the national debt.
Montgomery County’s Budget
Clearly, the “tough” programs in the sense of where Montgomery County does and needs to protect its citizens are in the law enforcement budgets of the Sheriff’s Department, the Constable Departments, the probation departments, and the District Attorney. In actuality, as District Attorney Brett Ligon has noted on several occasions, our law enforcement budgets are below the funding levels necessary for a community of this size.
It’s in the non-law enforcement budgets, however, where the Montgomery County government has experienced the greatest growth. County Judge Craig Doyal and Commissioners Mike Meador and Charlie Riley always want to scare away proposals for budget-cutting with threats that those proposals would pare down law enforcement and road and bridge capital improvements and maintenance.
Let’s look at the real numbers, however. First, Montgomery County’s $377 million budget consists of $153.8 million spent on “administration.” That’s slightly more than 40 % of the entire budget going to paper pushing. County services comprise about $41.7 million of the annual budget, or only 11%.
Since 2000, County spending has grown from $89 million annually to $377 million annual, or a 424% increase. Population growth during the same time period has been 84% approximately. Meanwhile, the federal government at which Doyal and his County colleagues always want to point the finger of blame has experienced a growth of 233% during the same time period.
In other words, Montgomery County’s expenditures have quadrupled during the same time period when the out-of-control federal budget has doubled. Who really looks more out of control now?
The members of the Citizens Budget Committee, who are quietly doing their work going line-by-line through the entire County Budget with the goal of proposing a full several-hundred page budget document to the County Commissioners Court at the first Court meeting in June, are hoping to find $100 million in spending reductions with $40 million in spending increases (mostly law enforcement but also for road capital improvements), for a net spending reduction of $60 million.
The Budget Committee has already determined that there are certain programs that are “off-limits” for spending reductions. For example, there is a tiny County Veterans Services Department, consisting of three employees who provide ombudsman services to local veterans. Their annual budget is $242,633. There are other programs that would seem morally “off-limits” such as children’s programs in the public libraries. While the County’s Library Department certain invites review, only the most insensitive people would want to harm those children’s programs.
Spending reductions are absolutely critical. Some departments, such as the bloated County Judge’s Office, are easy spending reductions. The $118,000 salary for his pointless “chief of staff” is one of the easiest spending cuts of all. So are the ghost employees within certain departments which are positions which receive annual funding but have had no person in them for years. In Judge Doyal’s office, there is such a ghost. The ghost should go with a spending reduction in the overall budget to reflect that reduction of waste.
The Citizens Budget Committee has not had much trouble finding waste and inefficiency to eliminate. In its second month of the four-month process, the Committee has already found most of the $100 million in spending reductions. No children’s program faces extinction. No senior citizen program faces a budget threat. The Committee seeks to boost law enforcement and the improvement and maintenance of roads and bridges in our community. Those are basic functions of a County government in Texas.
Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to ghosts or wasting millions of dollars on duplicative truck purchases is nothing short of shameful. It’s got to stop.
Montgomery County’s government needs to get the spending reductions – with parallel tax reductions – done. Then the citizens of this community, one of the most conservative and Republican in the United States, will have the moral authority to get done what, sadly, President Trump has not yet started.