Monday, May 24, 2010

Professor McGee's Excellent Experiment

At a forum on Federal Stimulus Funding spending last week, UW Oshkosh Professor Kevin McGee proposed selecting residents at random to receive copies of local government budgets and have them work with officials to determine spending for the next year--along with tax rates and levies. Professor McGee's purpose--so he says--is to give people better understanding of how their local taxes are spent--and the effect levy caps and freezes has on the community.

Sounds like the Professors hopes that people would get frustrated by the process and angry that they are allowed to only spend "X" amount of dollars and would become opponents of controls on local spending. Or they would throw up their hands and say "This is too hard--maybe we should just leave government spending to Theoretical Keynsian Economists who believe that governement spending is key to a nation's financial growth." But I think the Prof would be surprised by what would actually happen.

If the budget books went to people who are in control of their personal finances, they would simply employ the same techniques they use to budget their income--which doesn't always see a guaranteed increase at the rate of their property valuation. They would use the good old-fashioned economic technique of "Zero Based Budgeting". They would not say "We can spend 3.5% more this year--so let's add 3.5% to all of our line items--and whatever doesn't fit within those budget parameters we will call a "spending cut". Instead, they would start with the known amount that could be spent--prioritize the items that need to be purchased and the services that must be provided with that money and anything left after we reach zero gets cut.

And as a Public Sector employee himself, I don't think Professor McGee would be a big fan of the questions the average resident would ask about the single greatest expenditures for local governments--employee compensation. "Why are pay raises guaranteed instead of based on merit and performance?" "Why are there so many levels of administration?" I'm sure that most participants in the experiment would also want to bring benefits packages more in line with the costs they themselves incur in the private sector.

So let's take Professor McGee up on his offer to bring the budget process truly outside the walls of City Hall, the Orrin King Building and the District Administration building--and let's see whose eyes are opened to the way government funds would be spent.

Oh by the way, on Wednesday, the Oshkosh School Board will be voting to increase the salary ranges of Executive Directors within the District--and creating a new administrative job: Elementary/Instructural Support Principal.


  1. Interesting idea. A couple of thoughts:

    First, anyone who serves on this board must also walk in the shoes of the people who work for the agencies they're budgeting for. They have to teach school for a day, pickup garbage, ride with a police officer, paramedics, and firefighters, plow snow for hours on end, repair streets, and do janitorial work. Then they can participate in the budget process.

    The other thought is this: you are so sure people use zero based budgeting. Look at the number of people who are in debt up to their eyeballs, specifically credit card debt! Are these the people you want on the budgeting committee? If you want the common citizen to walk in these shoes, that's what you're going to get. It would be interesting to see what percentage of people in this city carry a debt other than their mortgage.

  2. If you want to use anybody, use someone that has their family's finances in order where the "ends meet".

    My mother always said, government should be run like most people's households, then we wouldn't be in debt so much.