and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
February  2004 #1

Budget soars, Mars beckons, Pats win -
but everyone's talking about Janet
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, February 5, 2004

How's your math? Can you answer an e-mail I got last week?

"I was wondering if you know why Governor Romney's new budget is only $22.9 billion. Isn't the budget for the current fiscal year already around $23 billion? If so, and it's going up by $1.1 billion, shouldn't the new budget be higher?"

I was wondering that myself. And I found the answer, which is: Yes, it should be, and actually, it is.

If the pension money that was taken "off-budget" last year was still in the proposed new state operating budget, it would be $24.2 billion, not $22.9 billion. The Romney administration objected to this accounting change, but the Legislature did it anyhow.

Personally, I don't mind keeping track of the pension funding separately, which might make it harder to raid the pension fund, but it does make it harder to track state spending.

And if you add the amount spent on Medicaid from the obscene nursing home tax, which was taken "off-budget" when the alleged "fee" was passed, the new budget would be $24.6 billion.

It isn't easy to compare state budgets year to year because the definition of "budget" keeps changing. Some things are counted one year, and not the next. And there are different accounting methods.

You can't use the governor's budget because the House and Senate will each do its own over the next few months. The "final" budget - a compromise among all these - is not the final budget either, because during the year there are supplementals to cover "unanticipated" things like negotiated pay raises and the need for snow removal.

You have to wait and compare the end-of-year actual budget with the last end-of-year actual budget, and adjust for any items taken "off-budget." Then you know how much state spending is really going up. But by then, it's too late to do anything about it.

So, while politicians and political activists often deplore the public's lack of interest in the budget process, is it really any wonder that people would rather watch football and talk about halftime performances?

Time out for me, too.

I watched The Game until halftime, when rap performers started grabbing what used to be private parts, then I switched to part seven of public television's "The Forsythe Saga;" and got back in time for the fourth quarter. So I enjoyed Beyonce singing "The Star-spangled Banner," the tribute to NASA by Josh Groban and the Patriot win, while avoiding most of the garbage. Loved the determined little donkey becoming a Budweiser mascot, too, not to mention the football players who didn't make the championship game singing "Tomorrow."

I joined WGBH during the "Journey of Man" because, although I don't support the taxpayer funding, I do think excellence should be honored. This is true across the board, with drama, science, music, sports and even commercials.

It may be that scientific discoveries are more important than football, but the new study of genetic-based behavior shows us that sports fans are fulfilling an ancient human need to belong to a tribe. This should make NASA feel better, knowing more people were excited about the Super Bowl than about its amazing Mars exploration.

The real shame of the ugly MTV performance is that it distracted from the genuine beauty of the event itself: the little-boy love of the game shining in Tom Brady's eyes, the order inherent in the rules, the plays, the aerodynamics. Beyonce, singing her heart out in her hometown, should not have been upstaged by Janet Jackson.

We have always been aware of good vs. evil, but we're having a harder time dealing with the battle between excellent and yucky.

Sometimes we focus too much on what is merely offensive, granting obscenities, nudity and even consensual sex such importance, that they seem to equate with very serious offenses. Certainly the vehicular manslaughter in Boston that followed The Game, and the drunken vandalism that contributed to the tragedy, deserve much, much more outrage than one almost-naked breast. CBS should be fined, sure; but it's more important that the killer and rioters go to jail.

Well, at least cultural debates are easier to understand and take a position on than state budget battles. That's why, in the governmental arena, voters tune in to discussions about abortion, the death penalty, gambling and gay rights - we don't need obscure data or conflicting numbers to have an opinion on those issues.

Public debate is itself a beautiful thing, by the way, which only becomes ugly if radicals on either side make it so.

Next week there is a scheduled state constitutional convention on the "defense of marriage" issue, where proponents and opponents have a chance to avoid ugly confrontation and pursue the excellence of intelligent debate. If they can pull this off, there should be a trophy for them, too.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.

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