Who Should Pay (and What Must Be Paid) If the Government Shuts Down?

Who Should Pay (and What Must Be Paid) If the Government Shuts Down?

Being good with a budget means being good at seeing the glass half empty and leaking.

It’s more than simply not counting one’s chickens before they’re hatched, more than not pretending one can pay Tuesday for a hamburger today (to load up on the clichés).

Fundamentally, being good with a budget is betting that, unfortunately, all the things one hopes will happen won’t happen, and assuming many of the things one reasonably fears will happen will.

If one gets good at it, and if the world isn’t really quite that bleak, one periodically has the delightful pleasure of being better off . . . sometimes much better off . . . than anticipated. Perhaps that nice recliner can be in the Christmas stocking this year after all!

On the other hand, when the world turns out to be just as bleak as one feared, one is well-prepared to weather the storm.

From this gloomy pragmatic perspective, Governor Scott’s instructions to state agencies to figure out what Floridians truly cannot live without, and what we can, are right on the mark.

Publicly, nothing substantive has changed since the House abruptly (and unconstitutionally, as it turned out) quit the Capitol at the end of April. Yes, the House and Senate leadership have agreed on a date for the special session. But we’ve seen and heard nothing that suggests they have figured out how to get to the end of that session with a balanced budget and majority votes in both chambers.

Everyone understands that the official sticking point is health care for the uninsured. The Senate insists that the state should do something to draw down federal funds to cover roughly 800,000 members of Florida’s society. These are the ones who make too much to receive support from Florida’s current Medicaid program and too little to be eligible for subsidized health insurance on the federally-run exchange.  The Governor says “no.” The House says “h–l no.”

The Governor clearly thinks the federal government ought to be the deus ex machina and resolve the problem by extending the LIP program, which would allow the House budget to balance and would deprive the Senate of it’s politically most compelling argument.

Alas, while there certainly are heroes with tragic flaws aplenty in our current state government, Uncle Sam isn’t Sophocles, and this isn’t a Greek tragedy.

It is, however, a tragedy.

Legislating, especially budget legislation, always has required mastery of and commitment to the art of compromise. One may raise one’s ideological torch with one hand, but the budget pen must be in the other. Better still if all parties can dowse their torches and allow for the light of reason to shine through.

Because when governments shut down, ordinary people pay the price.

They pay it, for example, in delayed checks that pay for nursing care for a disabled child or frail elderly mother. They pay it in lost wages when they have to stay home to provide the care the check would have paid for. They pay for it in the increased stress born of the fear that their employer will not understand that their child cannot just be left at home alone, or their mother with dementia allowed to take herself to her doctor’s appointment. And if, confident that their employer will not understand, they leave their child or their mother alone or in the care of someone in whom they have limited trust, they pay in anxiety and lost productivity at work . . . and, just possibly, their child or mother pays in more serious ways.

State employees, and those other workers whose paychecks are supported, in whole or in part, by state funds, will pay in lost wages that, of course, they might get back at some point. But if money is tight (and for many working Floridians, money is still very tight), they’ll end up paying their rent with a credit card or their car payment with a payday loan . . . or they won’t pay. The resulting interest or penalties will eat up their pay, even when restored, and then some. The net result is that the political games our leaders are playing will be impoverishing our citizens.

So here’s my deal for our state’s elected leadership: You can mess around as much as you like with the budget, playing to your political ambitions and your ideological obsessions, as long as you agree to pay the price.

I’m not talking about going without pay.

I’m talking about paying for every cost incurred by every Floridian because you didn’t do your job.

Out of your own pocket . . . not ours.