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The federal Titanic is sinking


State Rep. T.W. Shannon October 17th, 2012

Ninety percent of an iceberg is typically underwater. This fact makes icebergs extremely dangerous, because it takes a keen eye to determine if the ice floating on the surface is a small block that can be pushed aside or several million tons of ice that will sink your ship.

This is an apt analogy for our nation’s current fiscal crisis. Because of an accounting gimmick where governments pretend future liabilities don’t exist and, therefore, don’t account for them, most Americans don’t know how big the problem really is. The amount typically reported, nearly $16 trillion, is actually only the surface of our debt.

According to a June 2010 article in National Review, America’s total debt — when accounting for unfunded future liabilities in Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security and state and local bond debt — exceeds $130 trillion.

Take a moment for that to sink in: $130 trillion.

Today, more than 40 percent of our annual state budget comes from an obviously broke federal government, yet some opinion leaders in Oklahoma want the band to play on. Indeed, a fatalistic worldview is common among elites. “Nothing to see here, folks; full steam ahead with the status quo and everything will be fine,” they say, much like the experts who thought the Titanic was unsinkable. After all, “the federal checkbook has never shut down.”

That is true, but we have never faced the problems we do today, either.

In the next several weeks, I will be conducting a legislative study to determine how state agency budgets would look if no federal funds were available to supplement their programs. It is a serious exercise with a simple goal for state agencies: Focus your limited resources on your core purposes.

Public programs are always expanding and new ones are constantly being added. “Free” money from the federal government is an incentive for state agencies to come up with new ways to spend.

Even former state Treasurer Scott Meacham once observed, “When the revenue is flowing ... there’s a trend to drift into areas that are outside the core mission of government. ... When things are going well ... things that are ‘nice to do’ become new programs.”

So what happens when that funding is cut off? Anyone who looks at the budgets can see that happening. Anyone who says otherwise is being intellectually disingenuous.

I’m seeking ways to protect Oklahomans from that scenario and to make sure tax dollars are being focused on public programs that are truly vital, rather than just “nice to do.”

Real leadership isn’t striking up the band while the ship is sinking; real leadership is being aware of oncoming obstacles, taking a proactive approach to confront them, seeking a solution from experienced people, making difficult decisions and seeing those decisions through to the end.

In the end, the ship may still go down, and I will go down with it, but it won’t be full steam ahead ... not on my watch.

Shannon, R-Lawton, represents District 62 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and is the House Speaker-elect.

 
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