Starve the beast, cut their budget


For forty years now, we’ve heard the Republican mantra, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.”

Vintage Reagan. Since 1980. Forty years.

And over time, most Republicans came to believe it. So how did this work out in public policy? What have been the concrete effects of acting on this belief?

Mississippi, in many ways, is Exhibit A for answering this question. “Starve the beast,” captures the way many state legislators dealt with the allegedly problematic government: Cut Their Budgets.

For example, cut the state’s Department of Corrections. Since 2014, the Legislature has cut the Corrections budget 215 million dollars.

All the while the prison population was increasing and facilities were deteriorating.

Starving the beast led to a shortage of corrections officers (prison guards), inadequate health service for inmates, and substandard facilities.

And all this has led to 26 prison deaths over the last three months. Starving the beast has come back to bite us.

And now, the state Department of Corrections is under US Justice Department investigation for its abuse and neglect of prisoners, and several private citizens have sued the Department on behalf of a number of prisoners.

The money “saved” by “starving the beast” will be paid many times over by upgrading facilities and care, by paying guards a decent salary, and by defending law suits.

It doesn’t work, this “starving the beast.” The government is not a beast. It is the institutions that we as a people have created to provide for the general welfare of American citizens. It is ours to protect and to nurture.

Exhibit B that exposes the futility of the “starve the beast” strategy is the state’s public education system, specifically, the law passed in 2015 that allows the transfer of public funds from public schools to private schools for special needs students.

To qualify for these funds under the ESA, parents must affirm that their child’s public school cannot meet his or her educational needs. BUT, but, those public schools would be capable of meeting those students’ special needs if they were adequately supported in the state education budget.

After 12 years, the Adequate Education Law for funding the K-12 public schools in the state has been fully funded only once, and since 2008, the funding formula has been underfunded by a cumulative total of 2.5 billion dollars.

Imagine what teacher salaries would be now were that amount of money in the system. We certainly would not have the teacher shortage we have now, and we would have quality teachers and services available for special needs students. 

Imagine what facilities would be like. Imagine, legislators, imagine!

Exhibit  C that exposes the futility of the “starve the beast” strategy is the state’s failure to adequately fund the Department of Transportation.

Let’s see: hundreds of closed bridges; hundreds of closed roads across the state. Detours. Lost time. Increased costs. Just about every citizen in the state has seen those closures up close and personal. And what a simple solution has been staring the Legislature in the face: a small increase in the gasoline tax.

At a time when gas prices are historically low; at a time when gas prices vary 25 cents from one side of town to the other, who would mind? Who would even notice? AND we could fix the roads and bridges!

Finally, regarding the Departments of Education, Corrections, and Transportation, many legislators do not trust them to be good stewards of state tax monies.

Well, there’s a solution for that too. It’s called oversight, regulation, investigation.

That trust can be restored by cleaning house. Prosecute those who are misspending state money.

That takes being proactive, as in the way State Auditor Shad White investigated the Department of Corrections.

That also takes courage.

Legislature,  you can do that. But will you?

It depends on who you work for, the citizens of the state—voters! or special interests?

Can you imagine a better world for your state?

Conville, a native of Alabama, is a retired communications professor from the University of Southern Mississippi.