GUEST COMMENTARY: Indiana's surplus shouldn't be our only priority

2013-08-18T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Indiana's surplus shouldn't be our only priorityBy Calvin Bellamy
August 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

What kind of a state is Indiana? What sorts of goals should we have? How can we best use available resources? Are we satisfied with where we are or do we need to reach in other directions? Answers, of course, can differ.

For example, a recent column by Larry DeBoer, a Purdue University professor, explained how Indiana has moved from a financial deficit to a very substantial surplus. He notes the state’s $2.6 billion surplus has placed our state in an elite group. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, Indiana is one of 11 states in the All Systems Go category. So is that it? Have we reached the pinnacle?

Fiscal responsibility is, of course, an important objective, but certainly not the only important goal. It’s even possible to be too tightfisted.

Perhaps a better approach would be to emphasize less our balanced budget and instead think of a balanced approach to Hoosier needs, including (but not limited to) fiscal responsibility. Highways, sewer and water, health care and education are about quality of life and investments for the future. These matters surely need to weigh in the balance.

While figures aren’t always easy to come by, here a few examples that might challenge us to reflect on our values and priorities.

  • Infant mortality: We rank sixth from the bottom in deaths per thousand and have shown virtually no improvement between 2005 and 2010. Preliminary figures for 2011 continue the bad news — 7.7 deaths per thousand — still one of the worst in the nation.
  • Family poverty: In 2011 Indiana ranked in the bottom half based on family income. That means more than a million people were living below the poverty level that year. For 2013, that’s annual income of $23,550 for a family of four.
  • College graduation rates: In 2010 (latest available), only 36 percent of Hoosiers between the ages of 25 and 34 had some sort of postsecondary degree. That puts Indiana well below the national average of nearly 40 percent. Indiana is 16th from the bottom of all 50 states. Economic development requires a skilled workforce.
  • Highways, bridges, other infrastructure: I couldn’t find comparative data on these issues, but does anyone believe our state’s infrastructure is up to world class standards?

DeBoer points out Indiana has “cut” its way to surplus. Our state’s economy is only growing at a rate about average for the 50 states. So the surplus was not produced by a return of economic prosperity. The way we have achieved fiscal soundness is by cutting back state expenditures.

But considering the crying needs listed above and many others, wouldn’t it make sense to celebrate less our high fiscal rating and focus at least a bit more on the immediate needs of our residents and also on investments for Indiana’s long-term success?

Calvin Bellamy is a partner at the Krieg DeVault law firm. The opinions are the writer's.

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