Idaho conservatives are proud that the state runs a balanced budget and doesn’t do deficit spending like “the Feds”. But I have long maintained we do sustain deficit spending in three areas, we just don’t put these figures on the balance sheet, so they are easy to ignore. Our infrastructure maintenance deficit for just our roads and bridges amounts to about $190M a year; further, deferred maintenance on state owned buildings adds another $500M, not annualized. I don’t consider it a conservative value to neglect what you own.
The second running deficit not on a balance sheet is the constitutionally required investment in public education. Governor Otter even acknowledged we weren’t sustaining this obligation a couple years back, and we are paying the costs of this deficit in our low wages. The symmetry of Idaho being 49th in the nation in education spending and 50th in average household wages is not just a coincidence.
But two articles in our local paper this week highlighted the third area where we run a deficit: governance. In two separate incidents, two employees of different small water or sewer districts have been charged with misuse of public funds. One seemed a pretty clear case of fingers in the cash drawer, but the other made me think of a slowly crumbling stone wall, falling down out of neglect.
The commissioners of these small districts are elected officials, thus responsible to their constituents. They should have procedures in place to maintain the integrity of entrusted funds. Such procedures require work and deserve reward. But I doubt the small towns have many citizens clamoring for this thankless responsibility. I know how hard it is to get people to run for school boards, but think what happens to institutions that aren’t supported: they crumble.
One of the employees charged with misuse had been the treasurer for 16 years, after all the other board members resigned. She collected payments in a jar by the register in the small town’s café. She employed her son to do maintenance work because she couldn’t physically do it at the age of 80.
I am hearing all the time from folks in our rural areas how things would be better if “the guvmint would just get out of our business”. This sentiment ignores the fact that we, the people are our government. And if you have an institution you rely on be it water from the tap, the waste you flush, the power in the socket, the roads or the schools, if you aren’t willing to contribute something, your valuable time or some of your wealth or income to that institution, it will crumble. But even more insidious is the growing belief that our elected officials are all corrupt or incompetent or self-serving. When or if this proves true, prosecution is in order. But if we citizens have failed to invest in our civic duty and we let the institutions we value degrade, there is some blame looking back at us in the mirror.
Finally, if you have a neighbor who does donate some of their time to city council or cemetery district service, thank them and maybe wonder what they deserve for such effort besides your generous gratitude. If you expect such service for free, you will probably get what you pay for, maybe worse. Public service deserves our respect, our vigilance and our gratitude. It is a debt we owe.
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