At the Sedgwick County Commission, newly-elected commissioner Richard Ranzau voted three times against the county applying for grants of federal funds, showing a possible way that federal spending might be brought under control.
During the meeting, Ranzau asked staff questions about where the funding for the grant programs was coming from, which, of course, is the federal government, sometimes routed through the Kansas Department of Commerce. Sometimes local spending is required by these grants.
In opposing the programs, Ranzau said that federal government spending is too high. Also, our level of debt is too high, and that the cost of these spending programs is passed on to future generations. He also didn’t see where the U.S. Constitution authorizes activity like the commission — in partnership with the federal government — is considering undertaking.
Ranzau offered an alternative: if the commission believes these projects are important to us as a community, we could pay for them ourselves and pay for them now.
Commissioner Jim Skelton argued that if we don’t apply for and receive this money, the federal government will spend it anyway, and someone else will receive it. “I think we can end up screwing our constituency by opposing this on the philosophy that our government is too big.”
He said he doesn’t agree with the “rampant spending of stimulus money” and would like to see it end, but he didn’t see how refusing this money would make a difference.
Constitutional basis questioned
During discussion, Skelton asked county counselor Richard Euson a question: “Can you tell me about the constitutionality of this issue? How on earth can this happen if it’s not constitutional?”
Euson was flummoxed by the question, and admitted that he was not prepared to answer the question. This is not to be held against the county’s attorney, as questions like this are rarely asked — an indication of the novelty of Ranzau’s position and how infrequently elected officials and staff consider questions such as the fundamental role of government and its level of involvement.
The job of a commissioner, according to Norton
In discussion about one grant program, Commissioner Tim Norton asked a question designed to make sure that Ranzau knew that the project was located in his district. On a grant for a transportation plan, Norton again asked a question designed to make sure that Ranzau knew whose district this plan would serve, referring to former commissioner Kelly Parks’ support of the program.
These questions by Norton highlight the problem with district-based representation, where representatives of districts are expected to bring as much government largess as possible back to their districts. At the federal level this problem is illustrated by the earmarking process. Locally, we see that Sedgwick County Commissioners are assumed to be in favor of any project that benefits their districts, regardless of the overall worth of the project or its cost.
A bottom-up solution to federal spending?
At a town hall meeting on Saturday, I asked Kansas fourth district Congressman Mike Pompeo, who represents all of Sedgwick County, about his opinion of ground-up opposition to federal spending and debt, rather than waiting for Congress and the President to solve the problem from the top down.
Pompeo didn’t answer the question directly, but said that from now on, each law passed by Congress will have a section that states the constitutional authority for the legislation. He also said that the federal government is involved in many areas that it should not be involved in, adding “So many times the question is ‘should we reduce this agency’s budget by three percent,’ and the proper question is ‘why does this agency exist?'”
While the new U.S. House of Representatives is full of enthusiasm for cutting spending, here we see an example of just how difficult cutting spending will be. Local governments are addicted to grants like the three discussed above. A congressman who voted to cut programs like these will hear from the affected constituents, and would also likely hear from the Sedgwick County staff who are advocates for these projects and spending. If more elected officials would vote against these programs, that would make it easier for Congress to cut off the flow of spending.
We should also remember that Ranzau offered an alternative: fund the programs ourselves. The problem is that we are funding them ourselves, through the roundabout trip of tax dollars going to Washington, which then sends them back, in this case in the form of grants with many conditions and restrictions on the way the money can be spent. So Skelton is correct: the federal government will spend the money anyway. But to go along means that the hole is dug deeper. More crudely, the federal government says: implement this program in our way, because you’ve already paid for it, and you don’t want to piss away your taxes somewhere else.
Perhaps a coalition of forward-thinking local government officeholders like Ranzau and U.S. Congressmen like Pompeo can join together to bring the spending under control. It will take courage, especially from the local officeholders.