A quick lesson in narrative

I don’t want to write a long post tonight – fortunately, I don’t think I’ll have to. Let’s take a look at what’s become an all-too-common assumption from the media, thanks to today’s Baltimore Sun.

The lead from writer Erin Cox states:

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday he will ask the General Assembly to grant “modest” tax cuts to working families, small businesses and retirees.

But the Republican governor offered no details on his proposed cuts nor on how he would pay for them. (Emphasis mine.)

First of all, I seriously doubt the budget will actually be reduced in real dollars – although that would be nice. No, a “cut” is now a situation where spending is less than the increase assumed to be granted. Back in the O’Malley (and Ehrlich) eras it was not uncommon for the annual budget increase to be between three and five percent, so each line item was figured as increasing by a commensurate amount. If you spent $1 million one year, you figured the budget for the next would be $1.05 million.

So when Hogan came along and nearly level-funded the budget last year with an increase of barely one percent, this was considered a “cut” because instead of the $5,000 increase the mythical agency expected, they “only” received $1,000. They got more than the previous year but $4,000 less than they thought. It’s why we spent the most on education ever yet Democrats whined about “cuts.”

But more important to this lesson is how easily the writer makes the implication that government spending less money is something that has to be paid for. We who are on the outside, with our incomes limited by how much skill and worth we have to our employers or customers, indeed have to worry about how we have to pay for expenses both expected, like rent or insurance, and unexpected, such as the extra heating oil you need. But we don’t think of cutting our family vacation out of the budget as paying – to us, it’s spending less money so that income and expenses come closer to evening out.

So if Larry Hogan wants to spend less on particular line items in the budget, these don’t have to be “paid for” because the tax dollars are already coming in. And it’s not like there’s not a long list of secondary items to consider such as paying down the state debt that O’Malley dramatically hiked or making up for raiding the pension funds.

Now that Larry has had a year to consider a budget, instead of being forced by the vagaries of the political calendar and state law to have one ready just days after taking office last year, we will see just how fiscally conservative he really is. Pushing it back under $40 billion may be a pipe dream, but since he has the most executive power over the budget of any governor in the country he may as well use it for good and point the state back toward fiscal sanity.

What do you think the narrative pushers will say about that?

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