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Spending as if there’s no tomorrow


The higher the person’s profile, the more we pay attention. So we give great weight to the words of charismatic political leaders — and ignore the bookkeepers.

But when the subject can be expressed in columns of figures, we really ought to listen to the ones doing the adding and subtracting. Even as Iowa’s politicians are throwing around ideas that will cost a million here, tens of millions there, state Auditor David Vaudt is trying once again to tell us something.

He thinks we should be aware that the figures don’t add up.

“Iowa faces an alarming structural deficit; the citizens of Iowa deserve to know if, when and how the funds raided will be repaid,” Vaudt said in March 2004.

The situation has not improved, in his view. Last week, he reported, “If the governor’s budget is adopted, this will be the eighth consecutive year (when) spending outpaced revenues.”

Vaudt says the state has fallen into a habit of taking money from various funds and special accounts to balance the budget. For example, “even with the proposed cigarette and tobacco tax increase,” Vaudt said while debate continued on that front, “the governor’s budget taps the Senior Living Trust Fund for another $136 million, which will essentially deplete this fund in fiscal year 2006.”

We’ve also dipped into the Economic Emergency Fund, the Cash Reserve Fund, the Underground Storage Tank Fund and so on.

This is turning into the story of our time, this scramble to find ways to pay for our commitments and our wish list, too.

The story also reaches outside the government process and touches us in more subtle ways. When we want to build something nice but expensive, we knock on corporate doors. They kick in as good community members and the job gets done – but didn’t they dip into profits to make the donation? And didn’t some of those profits come from the prices paid by consumers?

If we want to create downtown housing for young workers making modest salaries, the developers have to receive tax credits, or the projects just aren’t worth doing. But those credits aren’t magic. When we cut somebody’s federal tax bill, somebody else has to make up the difference.

Americans get their first exposure to credit cards at a young age, and even then it’s easy to see the divide form between those who understood how credit works and those who say, “Hey! Free money!’ You have to wonder which group is running things now.

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