Starting with a zero based budget

About once a year, I reluctantly sit down and figure out how much I spend each month. I write down the critical expenses: groceries, rent/mortgage, utilities, taxes, medical, insurance, education, gifts, and entertainment. I come up with the amount I need just to get by, without vacations or splurging on big-ticket items.

Unlike the government, I don’t automatically assume that I can spend more than I did the previous year. But that’s just the assumption that government makes.

In the end, it’s not about choosing between spending cuts and higher taxes. It’s about creating a realistic budget for our government. That’s where a zero based budget (ZBB) can be a great tool.

I first learned about ZBB from Martin L. Gross’ “The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z” (1992). It was written almost twenty years ago, but it’s still relevant for today.

According to Gross, a zero based budget “starts from scratch, as if there were no government, then develops a budget for what is necessary to run the operation” (page 19).

I’d like to propose a special budget commission to figure out exactly how much money we need to run Hawaii’s government. It could include business executives, community leaders, accountants, and engineering experts.

The budget would start with the basics: our elected representatives and judiciary; infrastructure (roads, harbors, airports); utilities (sewer, water, electricity, gas); public safety and defense (police, fire, ambulance, coast guard); education (schools, adult and vocational classes, English proficiency); human assistance programs (welfare, food stamps, medical care); and common areas (beaches, parks, preserves). (Did I miss anything critical?)

Everything else would be prioritized. It won’t be easy, but I think we need to evaluate everything that government does and consolidate government programs.

What do you think – can we start at zero and build a lean government that does a few things well?

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