The Truth Hurts

Just this morning, a local judge rendered a verdict.

Local conservative pundits are up in arms about this verdict. They say that the judge is giving an “O.K.” on the way the prison system works.

I’m not sure about that. It seems as if this judge was telling the cold, hard truth. It seemed like more of a snuff at conservatives who would be saying “I can’t believe he didn’t get the death penalty!”

My brother has recently served some jail time. I was talking with him yesterday. He said that he isn’t going to go back. It’s quite a different tune than he was singing a few years ago. He told our mother that it wasn’t that bad and at least it’s free housing.

If a few weeks in jail can even make my brother say “I don’t want to go back”, it must be bad. I can’t imagine prisons being much better. Yes, they get “recess”. Yes, there are T.V.’s. . Yes, there are some perks that maybe shouldn’t be allowed to people who have committed heinous crimes.

(Sidenote: In Kentucky, there’s been a recent uproar over the food served in prisons. I found this amusing because at my alma mater we had a contract with ARAmark that ran out at the end of my junior year. In so many words, the student body told them to go pound sand. It was horrible food [service]. I lost 15 pounds without trying during my first semester. At the time, it was known that they also provided subpar food to prisons as well. I’m amazed they are still in business.)

However, you’re dealing with a bunch of people who are at their lowest. Some of them know they are never going to get out of there alive. It’s not like it can get worse for them.

This judge stated a simple fact “It’s going to be hell . . . ” and his days will not be easy. Especially due to the fact that he killed a child. Those people aren’t looked at too kindly behind bars.

So, I wonder, is the judge wrong in saying what she said? Should she have sugar coated it?

Kentucky State Budget Shortfall at $300 Million for FY 2008

Incoming governor Steve Beshear has received a welcome package from his predecessor in the form of a budget shortfall. Between now and 30 June 2008, that shortfall is projected at $289 million. For all intents and purposes, it’s $300 million. (In reality it’s over $400 million, but the surplus from last year will offset some of the shortfall.)

Right now, Beshear is talking of 3% cuts across the board. This will probably work for this cycle. He is also talking of a hiring freeze–also a good idea. Trouble is, we’ve been under a hiring freeze for the last four years, and this has not stopped spending from skyrocketing.

This year, as the legislature begins its session, they will have to come to grips with some very nasty realities:

  • We have a state government apparatus that is large and is growing at a faster rate than taxpayers can support
  • We have a myriad of state agencies that are demanding double-digit increases in spending
  • We have an education system–K through 12–that is a shambles in spite of a decade of unprecedented spending.
  • We have a state employee retirement system that, as a defined benefit plan, is underfunded and whose obligations–which include retiree health care–are only increasing.

Ultimately, taxpayers are going to have to decide exactly what the heck it is they want out of their government. Most of my gripes on this blog apply to the federal government, but at the state level this is also the case. Taxes are already high in Kentucky, even though we do not have a large, wealthy taxpayer base.

When you get outside of Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, and the Greater Cincinnati area, per-capita income drops substantially. When you raise taxes, even on cigarettes, it adversely impacts those who live on the margins. You can only sell so many bonds to cover your shortfalls; you can only raise taxes so much.

When your neighbors to the south–Tennessee–and to the north–Indiana–are holding the line on taxes and surviving, the pressure is on you to hold the line, too. Something will have to give.

Beshear says he plans on balancing the budget without raising taxes or laying off state employees. Perhaps that is possible in this cycle–although I have my doubts–but the larger issue is the structural size of government. Unless Beshear addresses that reality, this cycle will come back with a vengeance.

This is not a Democrat or a Republican thing; this is about Economics 101.

My prediction: cuts in state agencies will cover most of the shortfalls for this year, and Beshear will work with the General Assembly to come up with a creative plan that includes some bond sales, some budget freezes in various departments, and a small tax hike on cigarettes and alcohol, that plugs the gaps for the next cycle.

But the problem will return again, as Medicaid and education spending (including postsecondary) will create budget obligations that result in huge shortfalls.

The day of reckoning will happen; it’s only a question of when Beshear will face it, or will be able to defer that event to the next governor.