The idea that government spending is synonymous with waste is being put the test in Denver as the Colorado Legislature looks for more ways to cut the state's budget. For while there is undoubtedly excess in any spending plan, as a "hit list" of more than $1 billion in possible cuts suggests, lawmakers have trimmed the fat out of the state budget and are now slashing muscle and bone.
Before they are done, everyone in the state will feel the pain. To see that, consider some of the ideas put forward on the Legislature's list.
One idea is to raise tuitions and reduce state support for state colleges. That could yield $100 million.
Of course, in doing so it would further shift the burden for paying for higher education onto families, many of whom are in no position to assume it. And it would stunt the best, most clearly demonstrable engine of economic development ever devised.
There is no better economic stimulus than higher education. It works on an individual level, as degreed workers earn considerably more. It works for families, as those better-paid individuals are then better able to provide for their loved ones, and pass on those benefits to the next generation. And it works for society: see the areas around Harvard and MIT, Silicon Valley near Stanford, and North Carolina's Research Triangle.
Next on the Legislature's list are cuts to human services such as child care, youth corrections and care for the mentally ill. In other words, take money from programs that benefit the weakest, most vulnerable members of society - the people least able to object. Are we then to suppose that those moves will not come back to haunt us as increases in crime, homelessness and more problems for schools and local government?
Also on the list are proposals to furlough state employees and lay off prison guards. Cutting guards can have obvious implications for public safety, but beyond that this would also reduce spending at a time when local businesses need exactly the opposite.
And our lawmakers can cut the budget for tourism promotion - again. A perfect example of what should be a counter-cyclical program, tourism promotion should be cut in the fat years and boosted in the lean.
None of this is to fault our legislators. They have little choice in any of this. State government is constitutionally (and rightly) forbidden to engage in deficit spending. At the same time, much of the state budget is effectively out of our lawmakers' hands. They simply cannot close all the prisons, refuse to pay for Medicaid or ignore constitutional mandates such as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights amendment or the education spending required by Amendment 23.
Faced with declining revenue, they have to cut where they can. And where they can cut is in programs such as those named on their "hit list." That, and whatever they can palm off onto local governments.
What is more, because of the "ratchet down" effect of TABOR, those cuts will be effectively institutionalized for years even if the economy were to rebound soon. Absent some drastic reform, that will ensure that this economic downturn will be reflected in state spending well after the recession itself is behind us.
Given the constraints, it is hard to imagine a practical alternative. But no one will be spared the effects.