Can Simpler translate grand budget ideas into unity?

November 21, 2017

“Although the sense of equality is made the basis of many social and political ideals, the real conditions of rich, cooperative life are fulfilled only when the bare idea of equality is replaced by the realization of the unity of all life.” - From the Discourses of Meher Baba

Ken Simpler Jr. recently announced that he will run for a second term as Delaware's treasurer in 2018. The statewide office plays to Simpler's strength as a career finance man successful enough to retire in his early 50s.

The treasurer's position has often been a stepping stone to the governor's house in Delaware. Tom Carper followed that route, as did Jack Markell.

There is a difference, though, between Carper and Markell, and Simpler. They are registered Democrats while Simpler is a Republican.

No Republican has held Delaware's governor's seat since Mike Castle left that office about 26 years ago. If he is eventually willing, Simpler looks to be the Republican with the best opportunity to break the Carper, Minner, Markell, Carney streak. But there's a lot of work to be done between now and then.

With roots in family businesses in Rehoboth Beach, which gives him a downstate foothold, and a financial career in Chicago followed by current residence in New Castle County, Simpler carries solid and traditional Republican fundamentals to his political base. But his first shot at higher office won't come until 2020 when John Carney finishes the four-year term to which he was elected in 2016. In the meantime, the best way for Simpler to strengthen his base will be to do a good job as treasurer.

In the latest of several lengthy reports distributed throughout the state, Simpler showed his willingness to play a stronger role in helping Delaware sort out the budgetary shortfalls that have become a vexing routine over the past several years. He drew on his many years in Chicago to frame his approach. He quoted architect and visionary Daniel Burnham who, in laying out his vision for the Chicago world's fair of 1893, plotted a bold course: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."

Simpler discussed the state's finances and labeled his approach "The Grand Bargain." Two observations and suggestions from that report have stayed with me. First, he noted a structural fallacy in the beginning approach to each year's budget.

For dozens of years, governors have built their budgets around revenue projections provided by a financial advisory committee. The problem with that approach, said Simpler, is that as long as revenues are growing, it automatically results in government growth whether or not growth is needed.

Better, he said, to see what government services are really needed and budget for them rather than figuring out how to spend all the money coming in, or not. Essentially, don't grow government just because revenues are growing.

The second observation is tied to the first. He noted Delaware law requires the state only budget to spend 98 percent of anticipated revenues. The remainder goes into a so-called rainy day fund, dating back to the days when Millsboro's Richard Cordrey ran Delaware's Senate. Set aside for emergencies, that fund now totals hundreds of millions of dollars and has never been used. Even when the nation's economy crashed in 2008, and Delaware's along with it, the rainy day fund wasn't tapped.

Simpler suggests a different way. Run a tight government, he suggests, paying for the essential services that contribute to stability, and, in the good years, continue to contribute to the rainy day fund.

But in the bad years, when the economy is beating us all up, that's not the time, he said, to cut back on the essential services on which Delawareans depend. Rather, he said, that's when it makes sense to use rainy day funds. Don't add to the misery brought on by economic contraction by also cutting state services. Use the emergency funds then to keep our state strong and to soften the blow for our people and keep us in a good position to come out strongly when the economy improves.

Both of Simpler's approaches make sense. But having good ideas is just part of the process. In the next couple of years, we will see whether he has the political skills to work with another savvy financial guy, Gov. John Carney, to translate those ideas into a solution that everyone in the state can get behind, so we can avoid the budget debacle that caused so much anxiety last June.

Achieving unity, as mentioned in the beginning quotation, is the highest goal and the greatest achievement to which politicians can aspire. Never has the need been stronger in our state and our nation.

Dennis Forney is the publisher of the Cape Gazette.



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