Budgets and Stuff…

Ever put together a $33 million budget?

Me neither.

The budget process for towns and schools in New Hampshire is officially broken. Honestly, having come from a city form of government before this, the way they deal with things in towns is crazy.

Here’s the problem: there is a proposed budget, and a default budget. The proposed budget is what the town hopes to pass, and the default budget is a fallback budget, where last year’s budget is only increased by contractually obligated amounts.

Normally the proposed budget is more than the default budget. If voters don’t like it they can reject it. If voters add to the proposed budget that’s fine, because if the body politik as a whole doesn’t approve they can always fall back on the default budget.

These days, however, are not normal. Budgets are being slashed in the midst of one of the worst state and municipal budget crunches in decades. (I listened to a story on NPR about how bad it is just tonight on the ride home.) 60 Minutes had a segment about it a number of months ago. Things really are bad, particularly on the state and local levels, where politicians don’t have a treasury that can print money to fall back on.

So what have local lawmakers done? Slashed budgets. The proposed budgets for both the town of Conway and for SAU 9 were less than last year. Some of that was voluntary, and some of it was by force. Some departments did as they were requested by the boards overseeing the budgets, and some had their budgets cut without their approval. It got ugly at times.

But New Hampshire is about local democracy, so those cuts had to go before the voters. The voters with something to lose came out, and in both cases the cuts were restored. In the case of the town the cuts were restored and then some, but the towns budget is about one-third of the school, so less people got up in arms about it.

But therein lies the problem—remember the fallback budget, the default budget? It’s last year’s budget plus contractually obligated increases, right? So it’s last year’s budget plus a little. No big deal. But then take the proposed budgets, the cut budgets, and then add back the voters requests. Suddenly that proposed budget becomes last year’s budget, maybe plus a little. All the sudden there is no fallback. There is no option for people to turn to should they not approve of the proposed budget. There is one choice for voters, which equal to no choice.

Or there was a choice, but that choice was to show up to the deliberative portion of town meeting to fight for cuts or increases. Now that choice has passed, and there won’t be another shot at it.

But think about it: the newspaper says Budget Committee Cuts, If Passed, Will Eliminate 60 Jobs at the School. Who will come out for that meeting? The person who wants those cuts? No, they think “my elected representatives are doing what I want them to do, no reason to raise concern.”

No, it’s the people who want to fight the cuts that come out. That’s what happened with both the town and the school—people opposed to the cuts came out, and people in support of the cuts stayed home.

I know what you’re thinking, “maybe the town doesn’t really support these cuts.” But last November’s election argues that. Every election in the region went to conservatives. It seems strange all those same people would be looking to raise their taxes. And all the budget committee members and all the selectmen were struggling to be frugal—one would think the elected officials would be representative of the people that put them into office.

But the votes for both the town and the school were overwhelmingly in favor of giving them more money. That seems hard to believe, that a town would so wholeheartedly endorse higher taxes.

And if the voters who showed up at the meetings aren’t representative of the electorate as a whole, it’s too late now. The people will have two choices—vote for a little increase, or vote for a larger one. That, to me, is a broken system.

And it’s funny, I’m not against increased spending personally. But when I go to meetings (and I go to a lot of them) I hear a lot of citizens concerned about spiking property taxes and increases in local spending. I would wager it’s roughly equal to the number of people willing to watch their taxes go up for more services. But that isn’t the impression Conway’s form of government gives. It, unfortunately, has built-in assumptions about perpetually increasing budgets and a legislative format that brings out the special interest groups at the expense of the general public. It gives a disproportionate amount of power to the few, albiet at the fault of the many who don’t show up.

It’s been interesting to watch, but I’m not sure it’s good democracy. And that’s what it’s meant to preserve.

Just in case you missed the link, here’s the 60 Minutes segment about state debts:

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