Was that really so hard?

Andy Matthews

How nice it is, for a change, to see government really feel our pain.

Across Nevada and the nation, individuals and business owners alike are confronting harsh economic realities by making tough, priority-based budgetary decisions. Nevada's politicians, whose usual response to those same realities is to keep spending however they damn well please and simply force taxpayers to cough up the extra dough, this time appear ready to do the responsible thing and cut right along with the rest of us.

Faced with a large and growing revenue shortfall, which as of mid-April was projected at $914 million (and seems destined for greater depths still), Gov. Jim Gibbons has worked successfully with state legislators, Republican and Democrat, to do the sensible thing and scale back the size of the state budget.

Occasionally, it seems, even government gets it right. The end result won't be perfect – when the dust settles, there will probably still be plenty of places where the budget could and should have been trimmed even further. But at least we're on the right track.

Still, while the media are likely to chronicle this saga primarily as a triumph of bipartisan cooperation – all well and good, of course – the real moral of this story likely will be missed.

That moral is this: Government, lo and behold, can limit spending, just like the rest of us. More importantly, if it can do so in tough times, then it can also do so in prosperous times as well.

Think about it. If the governor and the legislators, Republicans and Democrats, are capable of sitting down together and figuring out how and where they can trim this budget, then why can't they do so with every budget – regardless of the economic climate? If politicians of all stripes agree we can do without some of these programs today, then why not also skip them tomorrow?

Skeptics no doubt will argue that, if members of the private sector get to enjoy their surplus revenues during prosperous times, then surely government is entitled to do the same. That argument, however, falls flat. Individuals and businesses earn their surplus revenues through their own hard work. Government, on the other hand, earns nothing. It merely takes money, through taxation, from those who have earned it. Then it adopts the mentality of a mall-bound teenaged girl armed with Dad's credit card.

Beyond the obvious justice of letting taxpayers keep more of their own money, the benefits to tightening the budget, even in good times, would be numerous. For starters, we'd be leaving more money in the hands of private individuals and businesses, who are far more likely than government to use it to generate economic activity. Additionally, by keeping baseline budgets low, we can make the next economic funk less severe. A big part of our modern-day problem is that politicians regularly use budget surpluses to go on lavish spending sprees, subsidizing their favorite special interests. Then, when leaner times make it impossible to fund all the new programs they've created, they throw up their hands and cry "Crisis!" Reining in spending, even during good times, would soften the blow of the next downturn.

It may be that a silver lining surrounds today's dark economic cloud. Our politicians have been given a much-needed lesson in the value of self-restraint, and in the process are being forced to make the tough but important decisions we ought to be able to expect from those we elect to serve and lead. Most important, they've been forced to take a close and critical look at our state budget with the specific goal of finding places where spending can be cut. Such an experience could prove useful in the future.

History, of course, suggests that our politicians will quickly forget any lessons they may now be learning, once happy days are here again. It will be up to Nevada voters to remind them.

Andy Matthews is vice president for communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This commentary was first published in the May 2008 issue of the Nevada Business Journal.