From LABI: The budget's burden of proof
In the United States, an individual is considered innocent until the government proves them guilty by a specified burden of proof.
The rationale for this fundamental principle seems clear: An individual’s right to freedom is sacred and government must have a clear argument and strong body of evidence to restrict or remove it entirely. Most folks consider this concept a no brainer in relation to the criminal or civil code as a reasonable limit on the power of government from easily overtaking the rights of the individual.
Too bad we throw this principle out the window when it comes to debating the merits of government spending.
Each year, government at every level says how much money they have, how much more they need, how it should all be spent and what drastic consequences might occur if those needs are not met entirely. These statements have a complete presumption of truth, and anyone trying to dispute the facts must generate overwhelming evidence to win the argument. The burden of proof has been put on the taxpayers hoping to keep their own money; the benefit of the doubt and presumption of innocence have unfortunately been given to the government trying to take it.
What if it was the other way around? Imagine if each year “we the people” told our elected officials that the burden of proof was on the government to justify each dollar they wanted from taxpayers. Any request for more money that could not be proved with data and evidence would not be funded. My gut tells me government and the myriad of programs created over the decades to grow it exponentially would never have survived that level of scrutiny.
Last year’s budget passed and signed into law by Governor Edwards was $2.9 billion larger than the year before. To provide this level of services and programs, billions in new taxes were passed, TOPS was held hostage and eventually cut and healthcare assistance for the disabled was threatened. Various other doomsday scenarios were floated throughout the media without robust data or evidence-based arguments beyond high-level figures generated by the same agencies seeking the additional funding. Government’s rhetoric was treated as gospel throughout three consecutive legislative sessions. Once the marathon ended last summer – with billions in additional revenue, but still slightly short of what the Governor sought – most of the alarmist predictions did not occur. Even now, after two mid-year deficits that will ultimately result in $600 million less than anticipated, the administration was able to offer a plan that still avoids reductions to most major services and agencies. No matter…the rhetoric of last year served its purpose and provided the air cover for billions in new taxes.
This week, in yet another special session, the administration has testified that if the House version of the bill to resolve the mid-year deficit is passed, thousands of prisoners will be released, prescription drug programs will be gutted and hospital partnerships for indigent care will be threatened, affecting thousands of patients.
These scenarios are thrown around each spring like Mardi Gras beads, and each one is given the presumption of truth by most in the media. Unfortunately, with no other information to consider, these scenarios are perpetuated throughout households across the state. This messaging strategy ultimately changes how the system works, placing the burden unfairly on the backs of taxpayers to prove how the government could be wrong. Government continues to get the benefit of the doubt instead of the individual, further solidifying the public sector’s role over the taxpayer.
When House members pushed back this year and last year on the Edwards administration plans, the response by the Governor’s team was always some version of “prove it” or “show me your plan.”
The burden of proof to justify more spending should be with government each year, not those trying to challenge it. If the executive branch wants more money, they should be forced to prove why they need it and why they cannot accomplish the same objective some other way. It is irrational to expect a part-time legislator, private citizen or outside group to understand the depths of the $12.2 billion operating budget of the Louisiana Department of Health the way a full-time executive branch official in that agency should.
When an individual or business taxpayer walks into the Capitol to testify against a tax increase, the burden of proof is put on them to show that the government’s tax proposal is bad policy and harmful to the economy. It should be the other way around.
You want a taxpayer’s hard-earned money? Prove why you need it with data, facts, and evidence…not with threats that are largely resolved after session once the threat is no longer needed.
Our government pension plans are expensive, outdated and gobbling up more of our budget priorities each year. However, when proposals are offered, similar to best-practice states, to improve or transform the system, the bureaucracy demands that those nosy taxpayers butt out and prove why change is needed.
Our educational system has had low outcomes for decades, sending countless children into adulthood without the skills and education they need to be successful. However, when someone proposes charter schools, parental choice, accountability and other new ideas, they are often told they are not experts, to mind their own business and prove why an arcane system even needs to change.
We have too many boards and commissions sitting on surpluses and overregulating many aspects of our economy compared to other states, but taxpayers are told to prove it when they ask for them to be reduced and streamlined. We have too many dedicated funds and local subsidies in our budget siphoning off billions of General Fund dollars to parochial programs or projects, but any proposal to change them is met with significant pushback and a chorus of government voices demanding proof that the system doesn’t work.
Government creates the rules, spends the money and protects the status quo. They have size, power and resources, along with the presumption of truth for everything they say. Meanwhile, any taxpayer trying to change government is met with skepticism and asked to overcome that presumption with strong proof that change is actually needed.
When did government flip the script on individuals? We accept the principle that the burden of proof lies with government in the criminal code. We accept it in the civil code. Why do we look the other way when it comes to government digging in our pockets? In the United States, the burden of proof should always be on government anytime they want to restrict the rights of the individual. That includes taking more of our money.
It’s time to tell government spenders to prove it or lose it. No more money until you show – with more than self-serving words and beyond a reasonable doubt – that you need it. Thus far, the jury of the public is far from convinced.
Stephen Waguespack is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.