Let the Haggling Begin
It’s that time again. Time to haggle over a few billion here and a few billion there in the state budget. This year seems to be heading down the path of yet another tedious debate about the role of government and how our money should be spent.
Like many past Governors, Mark Warner has appeared to take the “break the bank” mentality in his final budget. The 2006-2008 budget represents a 14% increase over the previous budget, which included the largest tax increase in the history of our state. The Governor labels this budgetary growth as “investment” in our future—I’m almost certain we can “invest in the future” at a slower increase rate than 14% biennium and 109% in a decade.
But, what can be done differently? Plenty.
Currently, almost 18% of Virginia’s budget is spent on public K-12 education, totaling more than $6.6 billion per year. Funding growth has far outpaced the increases in student enrollment, with per pupil inflation-adjusted spending increasing more than 70% since 1975.
Do you feel your children are receiving a better education than you did?
Two solutions exist in order to improve our education system. First, we as citizens should expect that 65% of all education funds be spent in the classroom. By transferring funds from administration and support to actual teaching and classroom funding, we would be better utilizing education funds for what they are meant to be spent on—educating our children. Reattribution of just 3.5% of educational operating expenditures could generate almost $300 million for Virginia’s classrooms. Such funds could provide smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay and better infrastructure for educating our children.
Second, we as Virginians must take a serious look at school choice. The current system of public education allows parents few options when it comes to the educational needs of their children, one of the few monopolies existing in our country. As taxpayers continue to pay an ever-growing bill for public schools, those public schools face little accountability to parents who have no real choices should the schools not meet students’ needs.
School choice can save taxpayer dollars and push public schools to operate more efficiently. Families who choose to send their children to non-public schools save the state money (the current savings from students not enrolled in public schools totals more than $1 billion annually). In addition, when students opt out of enrollment in public schools, this reduces class size and the need for new school construction—an increasingly expensive burden on local governments. Returning a small portion of the cost to educate a child in non-public school would bring benefits to the public school system, families and children.
In the area of transportation we must effectively manage road construction and maintenance. We should encourage the strengthening of the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA) to advance innovative approaches to reduce the time and cost of new road construction. We should also put a Constitutional lock on the “Transportation Trust Fund” to ensure that tax dollars taken from citizens for transportation actually fund transportation projects. Before this simple reform takes place lawmakers should not even debate new revenue sources for transportation. Citizens made their feelings clear by defeating the 2002 tax referendums in Northern Virginia and Tidewater.
Finally, Virginia needs to reform entitlement spending. For too long government has taken the approach that to make life better for those who rely on Medicaid we should simply pour more money into the program. Money is not the answer. Instead we must focus on ensuring our tax dollars are spent properly, that recipients have more choices in how they will be cared for, that there are incentives for individuals to save for health care through Healthcare Savings Accounts (HSA), and that mechanisms are in place to aggressively combat fraud and misappropriations of funds. All of these reforms will slow the growth of Medicaid spending while providing a better product to those most in need.
A colleague once told me that the General Assembly session reminded him of pigs running to a trough—everyone wants to eat. This mentality must end if we are to continue to be one of the best run states in the country. We as Virginians must stand up and demand real reform. And we must expect our tax dollars be spent in the most efficient manner. Government is here to encourage private sector growth and the freedom of choice, not to straddle taxpayers with an ineffective bureaucracy.