Monday, January 24, 2011

Budget solutions may lie in outside ideas

Bluffton Today

Last week we had weather issues and ceremonial obligations, not to mention a few organizational problems. This week we got down to the hard work of getting our arms around this budget.

The numbers we are looking at currently are discouraging, but most of the trends are positive. Revenue is down but is making a comeback. We also have to fill holes that last year’s budget took care of with onetime monies and federal stimulus dollars. That was particularly true with Health and Human Services and Education aspects of the spending plan.

Consequently, we continue to take testimony from agency heads, educational leaders, state hospital representatives, and just about everyone with an interest in the budget, including a great number of you.

In contrast to last year, when we basically just cut everything that could not be absolutely justified, this year’s more refined effort will lean more toward rearranging and changing our priorities within those areas where we have any discretion whatsoever.

As you know, in the off-season, your representative and many others try to attend legislative conferences where we can exchange ideas and strategies with lawmakers from other states. We are always on the lookout for ideas that will allow us to do what we need to do more efficiently and with less burden to the taxpayer. If they have a better way to deliver speech therapy services in Iowa, I want to use it here as well. If design/build roads are a success in Oregon, I want to know how they did it. This type of idea sharing will play a large role in our process this year.

Another way we get fresh ideas into our system is to bring new people into positions of influence in our state. Such is the case for the new nominee for the head of Health and Human Services, Tony Keck. Hailing from Louisiana, Tony is already deeply engaged in his departmental budget despite the fact he has yet to be confirmed by the legislature. After seeing Tony in action last Tuesday morning, I’m confident his confirmation is a safe bet.

One of the many impressive things about Mr. Keck is the fact that he didn’t ask for more money for his department, he asked for greater flexibility in allocating his resources. He also had a number of ideas that had been implemented successfully in Louisiana, which seemed a good fit for our circumstances. As a matter of fact, some of his cost-saving suggestions bear more than a passing similarity with aspects of what our hometown heroes, CareCore, are doing on a national level.

As much as I don’t like having to deal with the fallout from the Great Recession, the necessity to economize forces us to employ something like a natural selection of ideas to carry on our core functions. The spur of necessity requires that we be more open to new thinking and possibly to come out of this hard time as a more efficient and more humane state government. Having new, smart contributors like Tony Keck is also a big plus as well.

I want to apologize to all of you e-mailing me at my statehouse address whose communications were kicked back. Server problems once again. Please resend. We need to hear from you. This “natural selection” of ideas works best with a large pool of potentially great solutions.