Accounting gimmicks lead to cost overruns
By Jamie Miller, Irreverent View’s political insider
For too long, infrastructure projects have been symbols of wasteful spending and deceptive budgeting and jobs projections. As taxpayers we must continue to put pressure on elected leaders to give us transparency and accountability.
High-speed rail is a good example. The project that Gov. Scott just killed on behalf of taxpayers reportedly would have created more than 24,000 jobs but when you read the fine print, that project would have created just 1,100 permanent jobs. At $2.4 billion dollars, that’s more than $2.1 million per permanent job.
Voters should demand budgets that look at the entire life-cycle of long-term projects. Short-term claims don’t tell the whole story.
Federal and local governments have used accounting gimmicks to hide the real cost of building and maintaining projects, to sneak budgets past taxpayers, or gain political points. By neglecting to budget for the entire life of the project, politicians put vendors in a position where they must use substandard materials or run over budget because the project wasn’t properly budgeted in the first place.
When people buy automobiles, they consider several factors. Of course they look at the sticker price, but also look at the miles per gallon, the warranty, the crash rating, the estimated re-sale value, and the type of tires the car requires. For instance, the last time gas price exceeded $4 per gallon, people could buy a used SUV that gets 18 mpg vs. a car that gets 24 mpg and save about $7,000 off the cost of the SUV. While the car that gets better gas mileage would likely save money in the long run, a driver could drive about 50,000 miles before they met this cost because of the up-front savings. A person who made that gamble would have said it paid off because gas prices did not stay elevated for 50,000 miles of vehicle life. It actually made more sense to buy the SUV and pay the higher gas prices.
We taxpayers must expect our lawmakers to budget a project the same way people make decisions when they buy an automobile – by considering all significant factors.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is a good example of a true fiscal steward. Last year, Gov. Christie cancelled construction on a rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey amid concerns that the state didn’t know the true costs. Using the 2005 initial projection of $5 billion, New Jersey officials proceeded to obtain $3 billion from the federal government, spend $600 million in start-up costs, and commit another $1.2 billion in contracts and fees. Now, as the expected cost of the project ballooned to $10 billion – double the original estimate – Christie cancelled the project, as the state’s budget couldn’t endure the additional costs. While New Jersey taxpayers have spent more than $4.5 billion for nothing – had the true costs of the project been disclosed in the first place, it wouldn’t have ever started, thus saving taxpayers those billions.
Floridians should be thanking Gov. Scott for canceling this rail boondoggle long before it cost Floridians billions of dollars.
As taxpayers, we should expect fiscal responsibility in times of budget shortfalls as well as in times of surplus. Just because we have the money to begin a project one year, doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have the money to maintain it five years down the road. Taxpayers should ask our elected officials at all levels of government to investigate infrastructure projects and give taxpayers the full bill upfront – from cradle to grave. If they don’t, let’s hold them accountable on Election Day.
Jamie Miller is a political consultant, a former campaign manager for Katherine Harris’ U.S. Senate race, and a former executive director for the Republican Party of Florida. E-mail him at:Repjam@aol.com
Please feel free to post your comments. If you choose to reply to this column by email to the author, you give Irreverent View your consent to publish your comments. Only your first name and city (if known) will be published. Email addresses are always redacted. If you would like your comment to be published anonymously or if you would like it to remain strictly confidential between you and the column author, please indicate so. Your request will be honored.