“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”
This recent statement by Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff designate, may seem a bit cavalier, arrogant, or even an indication that current conditions provide Obama the opportunity to impose long-lasting policies he never could dream of achieving in good times. However, other government officials at all levels probably understand what Emanuel was getting at.
In fact, that philosophy may come in handy during the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature.
The current financial crisis facing the state and nation may give lawmakers an opportunity to think creatively and look at ways to streamline government operations. Some of that streamlining may involve stepping on some toes, but it also may result in some long-overdue action to reduce government bureaucracy and improve efficiency.
For instance, in a column earlier this month, Kansas University law professor Mike Hoeflich discussed ways that legislators and the Kansas Board of Regents might consider trimming the state’s higher education costs. Hoeflich’s primary idea was for the state to carefully examine duplication of programs at its university campuses. Rather than cut all programs equally, he suggested, it might be better to eliminate the weakest programs and preserve the budgets of the strongest ones.
Of course, this would be a politically difficult proposition. No campus wants to lose programs. People in authority — regents or lawmakers — would have to make the best decisions they could and force universities to accept them.
Another example arose just this week. In light of the state’s current financial situation, there are plans to revive a proposal to merge two small agencies — the State Conservation Commission and the Animal Health Department — into the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Legislative auditors estimate the move would save the state about $710,000 a year, or $3.5 million over five years.
The state’s secretary of agriculture and at least some legislators think the merger could be a good idea. Predictably, the heads of the two agencies do not. The idea, they say, needs more study.
In prosperous times, it’s easy for the state to put off tough decisions about such issues as university duplication or bloated bureaucracy. Facing a $141 million deficit for this year and as much as $1 billion next year gives legislators a certain amount of cover for decisions that might be politically impossible in better financial times.
That’s where the opportunity comes in. The state is in dire financial straits but there may be an opportunity to make those lemons into lemonade.