Monday, April 7, 2008

The Coming Budget Spectacle

Back from vacation, we're doing some thinking today about the fiscal issues facing Mayor Duffy and City Council with the City budget, and County Executive Brooks and the County Legislature with the County budget.   We'll be hearing more from the Mayor in his State of the City speech tonight.

The County's situation is particularly acute in the aftermath of the court ruling overturning the FAIR plan, leaving the County with a $30 million hole in its budget.  How the County government approaches the issue, and the political dynamics we'll be seeing, should segue very nicely into our upcoming pieces on members of the County Legislature and on the business strategy of our tabloid-that-prints-on-broadsheet, the Democrat and Chronicle.

For the County Executive and Legislature, it's back to the status quo of last September, before the FAIR plan, with a big deficit hole to fill and a determination to avoid at any costs a property tax increase.   Yet it's anything but back to last September for the Republican legislative majority.   Back then they had a comfortable margin over the Democrats.   Today they have a majority of only one.   Researching our piece on the legislature, one GOP insider, not a legislator, told us that, before the last election, the Republican side on the legislature consisted of "the smart and loyal members, who supported the smartest members, and therefore kept a couple of stupid members from doing damage."   Are the "stupid" members, each one now a kingmaker, in the driver's seat today?

On the Democratic side it should be considerably less complex, as the County Legislature's Democrats revert once more to single-minded focus on their prime objective:  to force Maggie Brooks and the Republicans to raise the property tax.

We outlined their strategy in this regard last fall.  With the prize being to force Republicans into a property-tax hike,

. . . County Democrats attack any proposal that could meliorate the County's fiscal position.

Showing similar discipline in proposals of their own, legislative Democrats hew to a rigorous protocol:

1. Propose no measure that, if permitted by law, would reduce costs or otherwise improve the County’s financial position.

2. Propose measures that would help, but are legally prohibited.

3. Propose measures that conform to either rule above, and would pit Republican constituencies against each other or otherwise help Democrats politically.

And we should add a fourth approach, which will be: 
Propose measures that would help, but whose enactment requires consent of another level of government (typically the State), which consent is guaranteed not to be forthcoming.

McNewspaper will depict the struggle over the budget gap in terms as bloody, hysterical and strife-filled as possible.  It has now completed its evidently conscious transition to tabloid status, evidenced by contriving crises to milk as long as possible, in order to support declining newspaper sales.   Recent history tells the story:   first the public defender appointment, then, when that ran out of steam, the naming of a new president for the community college, then it will be on to inflating the sense of crisis about the budget solution.  We're continuing to work on our piece showing how, at this stage in its maturity as a business, the newspaper must follow this course in order to avoid the ultimate fate of being sold by its parent company, Gannett Co., Inc.

Interesting how the budget issue now helps to bring into focus these other issues we've considered important, like who are these people in the County Legislature (and after that we'll do City Council, which should be especially interesting because it's been insulated from serious press scrutiny for so long), and how business demands on the local newspaper corrupt the community's civic discourse and processes.

It all sounds very grim.   Maybe we should have stayed in Florida.


gidget said...

Cannot wait to read your comments-

fred said...

i am staying in mississippi