When we’re broke, what should we cut?

New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte, on a TV interview show recently, mentioned the state’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory. He was particularly proud that it is located adjacent to important facilities of the state Department of Health so that there is useful interaction between the departments.

In a budget crisis, would you want to cut this program? I wouldn’t.

I had never heard of the veterinary diagnostic lab and never thought about whether New Mexico has one or not. Now that I am aware of it, I can appreciate how such a laboratory contributes to preventing disease in New Mexico farm animals, pets and wildlife.  I felt the same way in 1993 when I learned that New Mexico solved the mystery of the deadly hantavirus within several weeks because state employees had been out in the wilds counting deer mice (see triplespacedagain.com July 2011).

These programs are among essential government functions that should be preserved even in a budget crisis. Those services run from school buses to prison guards. They include a division that works to reduce forest fires and one that protects investors from fraud.

There’s another set of functions that are not essential to health or safety but that support our economy, such as tourism advertising, history and culture programs, the film industry incentive and economic development programs. Nobody dies if we close a museum. But it hurts the state’s economy. As you may recall, last year we had a radical cut in staffing for state historic sites. How much more of that should we tolerate?

So, if we don’t have enough money to pay for all this, what should we do?

During the regular legislative session and in the weeks following, when we were all waiting to see what the governor would veto, I saw articles and letters to the editor pleading the case of one program or another. Don’t cut the funding for this one, they all said.

I did not see a single article advocating specific budget cuts.  Nobody is jumping up to volunteer information on what’s a waste of taxpayer money.

Most every program in government was created for what seemed at the time to be a good and compelling reason — just like that laboratory that you had probably never heard of.

If, in times of tight budgets, the state reduces funding for a program, we don’t get greater efficiency. We get less of whatever service the program is intended to perform. Having fewer teachers in the classroom, for example, doesn’t incentivize them to teach more efficiently. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking.

Friends in the construction industry complained to me a few years ago that the number of state inspectors had been reduced. That saves the state money, but it forces contractors to wait longer for an inspection before proceeding with a project. And let’s remember, we have inspectors because long experience has shown that having inspectors is better than the dangerous effects of shoddy construction that would probably result without them.

Agencies like to use something called vacancy savings. That means that when a job is unfilled because someone has retired, quit, etc., the agency simply doesn’t fill the position. This is much less painful than having to fire or furlough employees. But it leaves to chance the decision about which services get cut. If we have fewer technicians in that laboratory, it will take longer to resolve diagnostic questions that could save lives.

New Mexico is stuck for the coming fiscal year with an austerity budget that is not going to benefit any of us or help pull us out of the fiscal doldrums. The governor’s vetoes of a few reasonable tax proposals, such as the Internet sales tax, are not what we needed in this state.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017

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