Christian Action League
By Bob Steinberg
Chowan County knows a thing or two about dealing with a financial crisis. Last June, the incoming county manager discovered cash reserves had been nearly depleted and revenue estimates for the coming fiscal year were vastly overstated. He would later discover that $20 million dollars which had been set aside as a nest-egg earning interest, had also evaporated. It appears this money was used to help Chowan live beyond its means.
Many citizens have an increased interest in county government and are now attending board of commissioner meetings. The new board faces daunting challenges as it struggles to get Chowan’s fiscal house in order. Commissioners, unlike our elected officials in the nation’s capital, don’t have the luxury of printing more money to meet their obligations. With limited options, the commissioners must balance the county budget. They can sell assets, reduce spending and raise taxes and fees. They can cut services that, while not essential, people have come to expect. Just like ordinary citizens, when there’s more month than money, you tighten the belt.
The federal and state governments, and many of their local counterparts across the country, also have been living beyond their means. In Raleigh, lawmakers are looking at a possible $2 billion dollar revenue shortfall by the end of this fiscal year. The Carolina Journal reported last week that there is a gaping hole in the N. C. State Employee Health Plan that will require a combination of increased taxpayer and employer contributions totaling $1.2 billion over the next two fiscal years. That will only finance current levels of benefits.
North Carolina, along with other states, anticipates receiving federal money from a finalized stimulus bill. It’s hoped this tax money will, temporarily at least, stop the bleeding of red ink.
A friend last week, mentioned that in many small, rural and poor communities, financial grants are a God-send. Grants can come from either the private sector or from the government. Private grants originate from philanthropic foundations or trusts, while government “grants” are nothing more than our tax dollars spent at the largesse of our elected officials.
While my friend praised grant money, he bemoaned the size of the proposed federal stimulus and government spending in general. Our conversation centered on the town of Edenton trying to acquire land for a new park. The acquisition would be funded by two state grants. “If we don’t take this grant money (tax dollars),” he said, “some other county or community will get it.” It doesn’t matter whether we need another park here or not. It’s simply, if we don’t take the money, someone else will.
Government has become too big and no longer works efficiently. Many expect government to do it all. Advocates for this kind of thinking are often selfish, self-centered and unwilling to take the personal responsibility needed to do the hard work and creative thinking necessary to find workable, efficient and fair solutions in problem solving. We want what we want and we want it now! Cost and who will end up paying in the end is too often a secondary thought, or worse, given no consideration at all. Consequently we can’t just blame this fiscal nightmare on Wall Street, Raleigh and Washington’s greed. The person in the mirror looking back at many of us is equally to blame.
This financial crisis has been a long time in the making and is not, as many would like to believe, a paradoxical set of circumstances that suddenly took hold in the last two years of the Bush administration. The bankruptcy of Enron in 2001 perhaps was the first visible warning sign.
Sin-ming Shaw, a former visiting scholar at Princeton University, points to Enron’s fraudulent accounting being “certified” by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, was “unable” to discover billions missing from India’s Satyam Computer Services during its audit, he said. It seems trust and competence is in short supply everywhere.
The Rasmussen polling firm last week found that 58 percent of voters don’t believe most senators voting on the $838-billion stimulus plan, know what’s in it. They also found 59 percent of American adults believe that when members of Congress meet with regulators and other government officials, they do so to help their friends and hurt their political opponents. This is the real crisis- a crisis of confidence in government.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said on the Senate floor last week, “We’ve seen more money go out the backdoor of this government than anytime in its history.”
The Senate’s $838 billion stimulus bill passed last week had the support of only three Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R- Ky., said, “President Obama was right to call for a stimulus, but this bill misses the mark.” He continued, “Most of my party colleagues doubted this plan would work.”
The Senate and the House have reached a bicameral deal that, with final passage, will increase our nation’s indebtedness by an additional $789.5 billion. Will this be the magic tonic our country needs to regain its financial strength? Or is this potion nothing more than a placebo, a mental fix that will induce a short- lived high, followed by another bout of depression.
Maybe we’ll soon come to realize that there are neither easy answers nor quick fixes when it comes to digging out of a financial crisis. Chowan County residents and their elected commissioners already understand that. It’s only a matter of time until the rest of the folks begin to understand it too.