October 21, 2007 at 1:00 am

Editorial

No choice left except to make tough budget cuts

Gov. Jennifer Granholm visited the Legislature as lawmakers scrambled last month on the budget. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Gov. Jennifer Granholm and state lawmakers are acting as if they have some choice other than to balance the state budget before the Oct. 31 deadline by cutting $450 million in spending. They don't.

Their only option is to get the budget ax out and start chopping. There's just 10 days left before the continuation appropriation runs out and the government faces another shutdown deadline. Surely, the governor and lawmakers have learned from the mess they made out of the tax hike bill that passing complex legislation in a matter of minutes is not the best way to set policy.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, says he agreed to support tax increases in exchange for promises of specific spending cuts, particularly in the Corrections and Human Services budgets. Those are sensible places to look for savings, since they are the two biggest consumers of government dollars.

Bishop favors privatizing prison services to cut costs. Great idea. Do it. But Republicans will also have to concede to reforming sentencing guidelines to reduce the number of people behind bars, as Granholm proposes. The Mackinac Center in Midland says that if two-thirds of the governor's sentencing changes were adopted, the savings would be $69 million.

Republicans also say they were promised savings in welfare programs and want to achieve those through outsourcing as well, specifically privatizing foster care services. If the same services can be delivered at a lower cost, the state has an obligation to make the switch.

Work force reductions are nearly always a first step in the private sector when a business finds its costs are higher than its revenues. And yet the state, throughout this nearly seven year-long fiscal crisis, has never done a top to bottom review of its payroll to determine if every worker being paid by taxpayers is essential to the operation of government.

The governor claims she has slashed 9,000 jobs from the payroll. But the state's Civil Service Web site shows that in December 2002, the month before Granholm took office, there were 52,608 state employees.

As of January, 2007, according to that same Web site, there were 53,024 state employees, an increase of or more than 600.

State employees also got a pay hike this year. Repealing it would save $150 million.

Throughout this long year of budget negotiations -- and for the prior six years of deficit budgets -- there's not been a sense of urgency to address the problem head-on. And with the clock once again ticking, there still isn't.

There are no more trick cards to play. The state's reserve funds have been emptied by politicians seeking to avoid tough choices.

The only option left is to start cutting. It's better to finish that messy job now than to wait until 10 minutes to midnight on Oct. 31.