David Hoppe

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:: What’s wrong with Indiana’s surplus?

by David Hoppe

What’s wrong with this picture?

Gov. Mike Pence is bragging about Indiana’s $210 million budget surplus. Not only that, the state has $2.14 billion in reserves, which is the second largest amount in Indiana history.

“We’ve closed the books on our fiscal year and the results are encouraging,” according to the governor. “Over the last two years, we invested in Hoosier priorities while living within our means. From increases in funding for infrastructure, child protection, and education to enacting the largest state tax cut in Indiana history, we put Hoosiers and their families first.”

OK. Look around you. When you drive on Indiana roads, are you impressed with what good shape they’re in?

Does it really seem like children in Indiana are safer, better cared for, and healthier?

And speaking of kids: You think Indiana’s solved its education problem?

I’m not saying that having a budget surplus is a bad thing. “Living within our means,” as the governor likes to put it, is a responsible thing to do. And, as I’m sure he would be quick to point out, we don’t want to be like Illinois.

Illinois, it’s true, could become America’s Greece. Its accumulated debt obligations, largely driven by the profligate spending of public pension funds, is blowing a hole through that state’s economy and, it must be said, putting a lot of vulnerable people at risk through no fault of their own.

We are indeed fortunate not to be facing that kind of crisis.

Not that Indiana ever will.

That’s because Indiana’s approach to budgeting isn’t just about arithmetic. Look at the way Hoosiers, Republicans and Democrats alike, think of the state’s budget and you begin to realize that, in this state, a budget is a moral document, and that a balanced budget is an act of public morality on the part of the state’s government.

This is an honorable exercise. Our government is a public trust we all pay into for the purposes of creating and sustaining a community with a certain quality of life. People are right to demand that money be spent effectively, so that agreed upon goals — like good roads, safe and healthy kids, and a robust system of public education — are not only possible, but part of everyday life.

But sometimes, what begins as a moral imperative becomes a kind of fixation, an end in itself. And that’s what’s behind Indiana’s great budget numbers. For example, at the same time that surging heroin use is sparking an HIV epidemic in some communities, the State Department of Health has been shorted $1.9 million, in the form of a “reversion,” money the department was budgeted, but that the governor wanted returned to the general fund — to strengthen the state’s surplus.

If making a moral issue of the state’s budget helps to keep lawmakers honest about the costs of government, fine. But what’s moral about the state collecting funds, then keeping them from being used to meet real needs?