Bad Week for State and Local Government

November, 2016

Lincoln -- Last week was a bad one for state and local government in Nebraska. Newspapers reported that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services owes tens of millions of dollars back to the federal goverment for mismanaging funds, and that Lancaster County is wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on needlessly removing trees while bridge repairs and other priorities go begging.

The DHHS story is a continuation of costly embarrassments that have gone on for months, if not years. The Omaha World-Herald editorializes that it must be the fault of state employees who are inept and pay no attention to whomever is governor, inasmuch as the scandal stretches back from current governor Ricketts to his predecessor Heineman to his predecessor Johanns. I'm not buying it; it's too easy to blame state employees. DHHS is a code agency, directly under the control of the state's chief executive. The buck must stop with the governors, who need to be held accountable.

Responsibility for the Lancaster County misadventure is harder to pin down. The County Engineer argues for taking property from a landowner and cutting down his trees along North 27th Street (at a cost of $200,000), because the county has already spent money on its road-widening project and no other owners along the stretch have objected. But the hold-out landowner points out that the county's road-widening project would be paid for by developers should the area be developed, at no cost to the county and, moreover, the land in question is environmentally protected. (It's adjacent to the Shoemaker Marsh.) The County Engineer nevertheless plunged forward with the argument that, essentially, other funds already expended would be wasted if more are not wasted. This won the support of three of the five county commissioners. Bridge repairs and other county projects apparantly can and will wait.

All of this is painful for me to watch, as I have long been a supporter of state and local governments. They are closest to the people and best able to deliver essential governmental services. There was a time, it seems to me, when these governments worked better, when state and local employees took greater pride in their work, even taking pleasure when they gave their fellow taxpayers back more than what they were paid in salaries. I worked among them for several years; they came to work eager to innovate and to serve. Now I sense that many in state and local ranks are demoralized and don't care as much. And it does not take much insight to figure out why.

One of the unfortunate legacies of Ronald Reagan's presidency is his oft-repeated quote, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" This quote became folk-wisdom for a whole generation of voters and taxpayers who, whenever governments messed up, preferred to repeat the outrageous quote and mindlessly blame government itself rather than rolling up their sleeves and correcting the problems at hand.

This misguided sentiment has progressed to the point where huge numbers of voters and taxpayers now celebrate the failure of government at any level. Yes, celebrate. And vote for politicians who promise more such celebrations by cutting and demoralizing governments and their workers even further.

I long for the day when we all start once again to take pride in the effectiveness and efficiency of our governments at all levels, whether that's our National Parks and FEMA at the federal level, Human Services and Corrections at the state level, or bridges and public schools at the local level. Let's stop celebrating government failures, begin anew to address our problems squarely, and get to work on what needs to be done. I'm a taxpayer, and I want my money's worth from governments and to be able to feel good once more about governments that succeed -- federal, state, and local. That's what we should be looking to celebrate, not governments' failures.