Martin: Life-Cycle Budgeting Will Save Our Nation, Spare the Taxpayer

Posted July 25, 2011 at 3:00pm

We’ve all read about outrageous public works projects like Boston’s Big Dig infrastructure plan, which was approved with an initial budget of $2.5 billion in 1985 but will actually cost taxpayers about $22 billion when finally paid off.

This is far from an isolated example of public mismanagement but is actually how our government conducts business a good deal of the time. Bureaucrats and politicians approve projects with little to no regard for the total cost. This irresponsible practice doesn’t just do immeasurable harm to America’s creditworthiness but is a prime contributor to bankrupting us as a nation.

Today we see government sleight of hand with nearly every expenditure at a level that would make David Copperfield green with envy. Projects and agencies are funded on a whim, with no regard to actual long-term cost, no transparency, no accountability and with complete disregard to the taxpayer.

Hundreds of billions of dollars of our money are wasted because government provides no incentive to budget accurately, as most families do when purchasing a house or a car. Can you imagine signing a lease or a mortgage with the understanding that monthly payments will vary wildly and with no established ending date to the payments?

Today we see the Transportation Security Administration — and others like it — costing taxpayers more than 700 percent compared with what we were told it would cost, with no limit on spending yet to be set.

This kind of taxpayer and budgetary abuse is why we need life-cycle budgeting, a method of accounting that takes into consideration the entire cost of a project or expenditure over its lifetime.

Without true and accurate accounting at the inception of spending decisions, governments will continue to use budget gimmickry, and the taxpayer will forever remain in the dark as to what government costs, and how much we have to pay.

Life-cycle budgeting would fundamentally change the culture of budget-making bodies and spending authorities, who currently view taxpayer money as abundant as sand on a beach and project price tags as mere suggestions rather than hard and fast limits requiring absolute obedience. When lawmakers understand that budget figures must be followed as strictly as a heart-attack regimen, burdens on the taxpayer will lighten significantly.

And this is only reasonable given that taxpayers are often pitted against each other depending on the expenditure in question. Lawmakers now have no problem avoiding retribution at the ballot box because in spreading around the “wealth,” they are able to make various constituencies happy enough to disregard the actual costs we all bear. One man’s pork is the other man’s prize, so the saying goes, and when choosing between fiscal responsibility and creating more pork, politicians will pass the barbecue sauce every time.

Without life-cycle budgeting, the deck is stacked from nearly every angle against proper accounting and budgeting of public projects. Political pressure and overall lack of accountability give rise to higher costs regardless of the alarms sounded by well-meaning budget hawks and taxpayer watchdog groups. Without institutionalizing life-cycle budgeting into the official practices of budgeting bodies, billions if not trillions of dollars will continue to go down the drain, making all of us worse off in the long run.

Life-cycle budgeting is the key to sound fiscal management that will stop the continued theft of taxpayer money for bottomless pits.

Not only will this sound practice protect the long-term fiscal health of our nation, it will ensure projects are completed competently and ensure we have the infrastructure we need as a nation to be safe and prosperous into the future.

James L. Martin is president of 60 Plus Association, a conservative seniors advocacy group.