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Zero Sum Makes Zero Sense

June 30th, 2011 by dk

I hate it when public budget deliberations pretend to compare unrelated programs. Emotional appeals trump rational thinking. The important is sacrificed to save the immediate. As budget sums approach zero, zero-sum thinking takes over.

Reduced budgets should motivate leaders to sharpen their pencils, but those pointy objects shouldn’t be used to stab one another. We watch our taxes being spent, so we want to weigh in. But too often we use unconnected numbers to make our arguments. The two billion dollars spent on war this week is not available to reopen my favorite spay and neuter clinic.

Like it or not, dollars spent in one place cannot be moved to another place, just because we say so. If you want UO Football Coach Chip Kelly to adopt your daughter’s grade school and fund its imperiled music enrichment program for a year with three days of his salary, a letter to Chip Kelly will do more good than a letter to the editor — even better, a letter from your daughter. But your daughter would be well advised to remember that Coach Kelly’s salary can be spent however he chooses.

Occasionally, legislation passes that reconnects numbers that never should have been kept separate. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has spent a political lifetime injecting common sense into the earliest stages of budget deliberation, creating intuitive structural connections. Twenty years ago, his vision gathered all the state’s health care dollars into a single pot. The Oregon Health Plan optimized those dollars with clear-eyed judgement, comparing the costs and benefits of reconstructive knee surgery for a 60-year-old Medicaid patient against pre-natal care for an indigent 16-year-old mother-to-be.

Kitzhaber hopes now to do the same with education, removing artificial barriers between the state’s learning institutions. High schools, community colleges and public universities form a continuous chain in many Oregonians’ lives. It just makes sense that their funding strategies should be similarly connected in the state’s budget. (Memo to Kitzhaber’s 2014 Re-Election Campaign: Once this reconfiguration has proven successful, please add public library funding to your life-long learning campaign.)

Next up: public safety.

Deliberations at the state level are complicated because risks faced in rural Oregon look different than risks faced by urban populations. For example, the state should link fire suppression in rural counties with homelessness in urban counties. This would prevent otherwise rational lawmakers from stabbing one another with sharpened pencils. As Oregon counties go, Linn and Lane are yin and yang. They are of one piece, reducing fear across the state.

For the record, fear is an emotion. It’s often not clearly identified as such, because it carries with it an implicit acknowledgment of weakness. So public safety’s emotional appeals are more difficult to decode than those for children or kittens.

Lane County Board of Commissioners can offer themselves as an incubator for what happens when holistic thinking is disallowed for legal, structural reasons or shouted down by emotional appeals.

Nobody wants to cuddle up to an ex-con sex offender, but only state and county funding keeps him from having to sleep under a bridge or in the woods at the edge of a public park. As things stand today, it’s easier to rally supporters for a homeless man’s dog than it is to help the owner get a roof over their heads.

Sponsors Inc. has been doing that thankless and important work for 36 years. Their county funding is slated to be reduced by over 50 percent. We are told that reduction was necessary to keep jail beds open, which is the immediate need that the fear response demands. But each bed kept open today by reducing Sponsors funding increases demand for beds tomorrow.

Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, Sponsors Executive Director Paul Solomon, and others are working on solutions. Missing right now is the scientific study to prove — with hard numbers to combat wishful thinking — what they know anecdotally to be true: the medical formula also applies to social services. Intensive care reduces chronic illness. Put another way, an ounce of crime prevention is worth….

Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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