Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wiederaenders: Close the parks? At what cost?

Tim turns in one of his very occasional pseudoblog columns today on the closings of state parks and how much this money-saving measure will cost in real terms.

Tim's idle musings only scratch the surface, and he passes up an important teaching moment. Many Arizonans, used to simple answers and instant gratification, think that cutting the state budget is a simple matter. They rarely see or hear about the web of interdependent factors that government holds together, such that anywhere you look to reduce funding, you cause new costs elsewhere. Most government programs are not simple spending measures, they are designed and built to reduce social costs to all of us.

Tim's example, Homolovi Ruins, is a case in point. Until the early '80s it cost the state -- us -- nothing. To most citizens it was a relatively remote pile of old walls. To the Hopis it was an ancestral home and sacred site. To archaeologists it was a trove of information about the migrations and lives of Hopis. And to pothunters -- thieves -- it was an unprotected treasure mine.

The social cost of doing nothing about Homolovi was daily desecration and the steady loss of artifacts and knowledge. The state began spending a little money to help prevent this loss and educate Arizonans about their heritage. Closing the park puts the site back where it was, forsaken and deteriorating. And there's a new cost on top of the old -- the businesses that have benefited from visitor traffic in the park have to look elsewhere to pay their rent. You can't find these sorts of costs and benefits acknowledged in the state budget, but they are very real.

Extending the example to other areas is easy -- kicking people off AHCCCS raises costs for families and hospitals, eliminating support for the seriously mentally ill raises costs on families and communities, cutting the Department of Juvenile Corrections raises costs for counties. Almost any cut you can name comes with a contingent cost, often greater than the savings. Some kinds of cuts also trigger losses of federal matching funds as well, compounding the revenue problem. It's a management nightmare.

This is why the Legislature's adamant resistance to talking about raising revenue through taxes and fees is dead stupid. You have to have those options on the table to prevent spiraling down into bankruptcy. I'd have liked to see Tim take a couple hundred more words to make that point. It needs saying in the Courier.