Diana Urban (Courtesy of Diana Urban)

Opinion: Lessons of a Manure Pile

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that made their living as dairy and potato farmers. This meant lots of good old- fashioned farm work, but it also meant I could have a horse. That started a journey that lead me to the upper reaches of the equestrian world, but that is a story for another day

Today I was out in the barn cleaning the stalls of my rescue horse “Wesley” and my miniature rescue donkey “Donkay Hoyate.” As I pushed the wheelbarrow out to the manure pile — I refer to this as wheelbarrow aerobics — I noticed that, as usual, the manure pile was spreading out. This happens because it is much easier to dump the load at the bottom of the pile than to push your way up the pile effectively taking up less space. In other words, to consistently manage the manure pile for efficiency and savings takes time and work. Lack of planning and commitment leads to a space-gobbling unruly pile of manure, which was the management style my siblings and I practiced as kids. Our achievement was a manure pile that literally blocked the back door of the barn. You could not open the door!

What has this got to do with my position as our former State Representative?? Well, we now find ourselves in a similar situation with our state budget brought on largely by our unwillingness to “manage the pile.” Let me explain.

As the House Chair of the Committee on Children, I took great pride by the time I left the legislature, in the fact that the Annie E Casey foundation in their annual “Kids Count” survey ranks Connecticut 5th in the nation for our programs to help our kids grow up healthy, safe, and strong. But we also have the highest per capita debt in the country. There are other states whose per capita debt looks pretty good, but their ranking in Kids Count is dismal. For instance, the state of Florida — which is often held up as an example of good fiscal management — ranks 40th, which is actually a drop from 37th in 2015). However, Florida’s per capita deficit ranking is 25th. What is going on here? 

It is clear that we, in the state of Connecticut, place a high value on our children and their future. But is that the main contributor to our deficit??

Nope! It goes much deeper than that, and it involves that pesky manure pile technique where you keep allowing the pile  (or in this case the budget) to grow in an unwieldy manner — Or, why do today what can be put off until tomorrow?

And why use data informed decision-making when it might reveal programs that are not working? That all sounds like too much explaining and work. It is much easier to say “yes” to all kinds of wonderful programs than to make the hard choices that will help manage the pile.

And the biggest contributor to that pile is our state pensions. Why? Because it is far easier to put off rectifying the ‘money in money out’ problem and just under-fund them. This pushes the really tough decisions into the future. However due to the nature of the beast this also leads to exponential growth in the future money owed.

This leads to the legislature putting itself in a bad position to make decisions as the exponential growth impacts the future deficit which starts a domino effect which can end in our raiding our rainy day fund and seeing our bond rating drop. Even writing that exhausted me so you can imagine how difficult it is to get any consensus on actually tackling the problem. Add to that the cost of dealing with Y2K, the Savings and Loan debacle, the mortgage crisis, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Great Recession and Connecticut’s penchant to always lag the economy in entering and exiting a recession (the land of steady habits) and you have a huge challenge!

As many of you know I have been a champion of Results Based accountability (RBA) and  instituted it in the Committee on Children. Visit www.ctkidsreportcard.org to see how it works. In a nutshell it is a tool that insists on data-informed decision making.

Getting it adopted at all has been a bear. But I can tell you that when we had to make tough decision — like the future of the CT Juvenile training school, instituting the state-wide mental health plan for kids, or continuing to fund school-based health centers — by using data we were able to cut through the fog and get to the issue of “is this program making anyone better off?”

The economy appears to be doing well for a certain segment of society . But for others… farmers, retail workers, food stamp recipients, Medicaid patients, people dependent on Social Security, we are faced with being forced to be leaner, more accountable and transparent or face the terrible cuts that are currently taking place.

As a legislator, I always wanted to know where to cut and not just randomly slash employees and programs helter skelter to meet a bottom line number. RBA is an amazing tool to help us get on that road to recovery. It can serve to restore faith in government by creating a path where legislators willingly tackle the tough questions.

In this holiday season I would ask for the state to commit to a system of data-informed decision making as a gift to us all

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