In this time of year when people set goals and seek ways to improve themselves, we have a suggestion for our government officials as well: Redouble efforts to root out and end wasteful practices.
The time couldn't be more right. On the heels of a banner year for the stock market and amid a slowly improving economy, and considering that the public is weary of government inaction, state and local officials should see an opportunity to make headlines that would help restore confidence among taxpayers.
A Gallup poll points to a steady increase in skepticism about how tax money is used. A generation ago, Americans believed that 40 cents of every federal dollar spent was wasted, but now, some 30 years later, that number has risen to 51 cents. Americans are less likely to see money spent closer to home as wasteful, but they still believe 42 cents on the dollar is wasted by states and 38 cents is locally.
Cutting waste is not easy for politicians, especially since many of the more obvious trims have been made. Cuts have consequences, real repercussions that are painful to people and, of course, politically risky. But responsible leaders make the hard decisions. That's what we elect them to do.
Targeting waste is difficult enough, but finding it can be a challenge, too. Inquiries and investigations take resources some officials claim they don't have. Granted, our state agencies, municipalities, counties, schools, park districts and hundreds of other entities face post-recession realities of reduced staffing and financial squeezes.
But some are finding ways, such as determining which programs work and which do not. The Kane County state's attorney's office is testing its pretrial diversion program for first-time, nonviolent offenders to avoid a felony conviction by asking whether those who completed the program, which began in 1995, have stayed out of trouble. The "self-evaluation," as State's Attorney Joe McMahon calls it, includes cooperation with Aurora University and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to measure the recidivism rate.
Such actions take time and resources. More importantly, they require creativity and the ability to ask the right questions. And the payoff can be substantial, as Cook County officials are finding. Board President Toni Preckwinkle's office did some digging last year and found that judges have been able to avoid paying fully for their health care premiums. Starting July 1 that will change, saving taxpayers an estimated $4 million annually.
Are conferences and conventions truly benefiting those who attend on the taxpayers' dime? Can one layer of government be folded into another? Is every state board and commission, with accompanying big salaries, necessary? Are perks like pension eligibility to some part-time government servants fair?
When public officials say there are no more cuts to make, no one should believe it. We all know from personal experience that when there's not enough money coming in we find a way to make ends meet. To them, we say, start anew. Clean the house, find moldy programs and ineffective and unfair policies. Those who do not make it a priority to find and eliminate wasteful practices are ignoring a responsibility to voters who elected them. In 2014, resolve to do better.