Consensus must be reached in budget debate

Monday, May 19, 2003

It is possible to mean well and still not do what's best for those you serve.

This thought comes to mind because of Gov. Mike Johanns' call for a 10 percent, across-the-board reduction in state spending.

No doubt, the governor was thinking about the state's taxpayers when he made the proposal. By asking for the most severe spending cutback in more than 70 years, the governor was trying to ease the burden on citizens already besieged by economic troubles and the drought.

But, what the governor failed to take into account was the long-range damage he would be doing by overcutting basic state services.

As this year's agonizing legislative session has shown, choices must be made. Some things can and should be cut. Other things should not.

Although they're not perfect -- no one is -- the members of the Nebraska Legislature have done a fairly good job in 2003 of dealing with the budget crisis, while still attending to the state's major needs: roads, law enforcement, higher education and aid to public schools.

By cutting any of those essentials too severely -- which 10 percent is -- long-range harm would have been done, costing the state more money over the long run.

The state's a little like a family that's having hard financial times. Yes, cutbacks have to be made. But there are basics which take priority, while non-essentials have to go.

In retrospect, the state's fiscal crisis could have been handled much better by extending the state's sale tax and income tax rates which were already in effect. It would have taken a few more dollars out of everyone's pocket, but in the long run it would pay off by protecting the state's most basic, and important, services.

By his call for a 10 percent, across-the-board cut in spending, Gov. Johanns put several of the state's top-ranking officials in extremely difficult positions. As a result, Harold Clarke, the director of correctional services, proposed the closing of the Work Ethic Camp in McCook and the juvenile correctional facility in Omaha, and Chancellor Harvey Perlman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln called for the termination of the Nebraska Forestry Service.

To the best of their ability, the legislators worked through these challenges. Now, it's time for the governor to negotiate with the state senators to bring this difficult, and contentious, budget conflict to an end.

Gov. Johanns had good intentions, but his call for a 10 percent cutback would have done severe damage to the state's basic services. Now that the Legislature has done the nitty-gritty work on the budget, the governor and the senators need to resolve this crisis, without resorting to a special session.

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