In my final years of public service, I’d become somewhat adept at finding places in our county budget where administrators could hide money. I don’t blame them. Managers long for stability and politician’s hunger to create new programs for which they can take bows. Even so, when a fellow commissioner sought money for a worthy agenda, I could sometimes find an untapped reserve. To the novice, I may have seemed a wizard. I wasn’t. Experience had taught me where to look. “Materials and Service” could hide a pirate’s treasure. Projections for the purchase of equipment and supplies are always squishy figures. “ Personnel” can cloak a number of positions never intended to be filled. “Building and Maintenance” can squirrel away multi-year construction projects, some of which never get started..
A gavotte between government management and its political arm is common everywhere, I suspect. Case in point is the often proclaimed collapse of Social Security. If elected officials hadn’t dipped into that well so often, the account might actually show a surplus.
Recently, political big spenders have shown an interest in the federal government’s Victims’ Crime Fund, money set aside to help those whose lives have been shattered by criminal violence. Fines from conviction pour into the Justice Department every year and are meant to be passed along to the states. In 2009 the fund had $3 billion dollars on account, but by 2014, it had risen to $12 billion. The balance would be higher if the Justice Department had levied criminal rather than civil charges against convicted offenders from Wall Street and the big banks. Not doing so, says writer David Dayen, “short-change[d] victims of vicious crimes.” (“The Forgotten Victims,” by David Dayen, New Republic, December 2016, pg. 11)
Pockets of money that already exist and don’t require new taxes or new laws to spend them are a temptation to legislators. Last year Congress raided $1.5 billion from the victims’ fund for pork barrel projects in their districts. Legislators intend to spend another $375 million in the near future. (Ibid pg. 11.) Politicians on both sides of the aisle don’t seem able to discipline themselves, which is why managers play their budget games.