“No government,” Ronald Reagan observed, “ever voluntarily shrinks in size. Government programs, once started, never go away. In fact, a government office is the closest thing to eternal life that we will ever see on this earth!
This was true when Reagan said it almost 60 years ago. Nothing in the years that followed proved him wrong.
The problem is that today we are launching government programs for trillions of dollars. And there is unfortunately little reason to believe that we will see them disappear once the crisis used to justify them is over.
Take the stimulus package adopted by Congress in 2009, in the name of fighting the previous recession. This package, which ultimately weighed over $ 800 billion, would have been one-time funding that was effectively going to disappear.
No chance. Federal spending in 2009 exceeded $ 3 trillion for the first time, reaching just over $ 3.5 trillion. It never fell below $ 3.4 trillion again. “One-off” stimulus spending has simply been incorporated into the pie.
Each figure I just quoted is quite picturesque by today’s standards. Congress spent $ 3.5 trillion last year on COVID-19 relief bills alone, adding an additional $ 1.9 trillion earlier this year.
If you don’t think these mind-boggling sums are fast becoming permanent features of the federal landscape, remember President Joe Biden has proposed over $ 4 trillion in additional new spending. At least that amount would be spent over several years. On the other hand, it is only in May; other proposals are probably in the works.
Just like the candy you eat today will stick around your waistline long after tomorrow if you don’t do anything about it, consider a specific example of what’s likely to happen: education spending.
For decades, public education spending has grown steadily, well out of step with rising student enrollment (which has increased much more modestly) or standardized test scores (which have been mostly stable). Yet the only refrain we hear from educational institutions is that our schools are underfunded.
We are hearing this even now, with pandemic costs being presented as the reason. It is not really a reason. It’s an excuse.
Georgia has 180 city and county school districts. After fiscal 2019, the last completed before the pandemic, their collective financial reserves stood at nearly $ 3.2 billion. A year later, after the brutal first months of the pandemic and the costs associated with the sudden switch to virtual platforms such as WiFi hotspots and student laptops, that figure was – expect it – almost 3 , 8 billion dollars.
That’s right: Georgia school districts’ collective reserves grew by over $ 600 million even as things crumbled all around them.
To be fair, not all districts fared so well. Thirty-five districts have seen their fund balances decline, some by millions of dollars. But much more appreciated increases, of more than a million dollars each for almost half of the districts.
It is true that the districts have since gone through two years of “austerity cuts” in their public funding, totaling nearly $ 730 million. Even so, this is only a fraction of the nearly $ 6.8 billion they have received so far in federal emergency funding.
Add it all up – changes in reserve funds, cuts in state funding, and surges in federal funding – and Georgia’s school districts are better off by over $ 6.6 billion. This is largely the way to double their annual state funding. And every district, even those who spent some of their reserves, was net positive.
If you think the educational institution is just going to watch this money disappear, I have a desert in Southeast Georgia to sell you.
It won’t be long before we hear this money described not gratefully as a lifeline during a difficult time, but solemnly as how we should have funded education from the start.
There will be little account of how it was spent or what they achieved. It will simply become the baseline against which all future education spending will be measured.
For once, I’d rather we prove Ronald Reagan wrong.