Don't Pin Me Down: Candidates Avoid Budget Specifics

"If [the amendment] is passed, I'll follow it. I'll try to make sure it works," McBride said during a recent gubernatorial debate with Republican Jeb Bush.

Not satisfied with the reply, debate moderator Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press , pushed McBride for more specifics on the money question.

"Where will you take [the money] from? Environment? Law enforcement?" Russert asked.

"I'd take it out of the general revenue budget across the board," replied McBride. "It's a priorities issue."

And that's the most detail McBride would offer, despite Russert's repeated attempts to get McBride to detail exactly how he would pay for the class-size amendment's multi-billion dollar price tag.

A look around a handful of this year's 36 gubernatorial contests reveals that McBride is not alone in his hesitancy to address money matters with specificity. In fact, most candidates have been avoiding clear talk about what may be the biggest issue of their first year in office budget deficits of yawning proportions.

"They're not really addressing it in the campaigns," said Nick Jenny, fiscal analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a think tank in Albany, New York.

"There's no upside to it," he said. "Even if you are a challenger to an incumbent you might say: 'Look there's a mess.' But then the inevitable question comes: 'Well, what are you going to do about it?' And no one wants to answer that question."

A major reason why is that many state lawmakers have exhausted the more painless budget closing methods over the past year-and-a-half, such as tapping reserve funds or freezing hiring. Now, with many states staring through newly opened budget holes, lawmakers and candidates for office are left with a politician's dread dilemma program cuts or tax increases.

As Rockefeller's Jenny puts it: "A lot of the budget reserves have been used. A lot of states have used their tobacco money already. They may have to go to some of the bigger guns major spending cuts, major tax increases."

And that, analysts say, is a less-than-inspiring message with which to rally political support.

Commenting on the race in Wisconsin between Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle, one political expert forecasts an unfortunate fate for the candidate who speaks too clearly about harsh budget realities.

"If one of these candidates were to come forward and actually say what it was going to take, I'm sure the public reaction, particularly the other candidate reaction, would be very negative. And that would probably lead to this candidate not being elected," said Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Bugher, a twelve-year veteran of former Gov. Tommy Thomson's administration, recently chaired a panel of what he calls a "bipartisan group of gray luminaries" brought together to study the state's budget situation.

After months of meetings, the panel concluded that the best way to close the state's $2.8 billion budget gap was through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, including cuts to K-12 education, and that spending cuts alone were not a viable option because they would too severely gut state services.

"It would entail closing departments like corrections. It would entail shutting down major universities. And it would be such a traumatic evisceration of public services that I think that they just wouldn't be able to do it," said Bugher.

Both candidates for governor have sworn-off tax increases, saying they will resolve the budget crisis through budget cuts. Neither candidate has specified where the cuts will fall.

While going to great lengths to avoid specifics, many candidates have acknowledged severe budget problems [in states where they do exist]. And they haven't shied away from admitting that closing them will entail hard choices.

Take Michigan's contest between Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, the Republican candidate for governor, and Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic candidate.

"Both candidates are warning the public of impending budget cuts. Both candidates have offered some proposals or at least approaches to how he or she might cure the deficit," said Craig Ruff, president of Public Policy Consultants, a public policy research firm.

Posthumus has pledged to not raise taxes and said he would spare K-12 education funding, but ''everything else would be on the board.''

Granholm said she would do an audit, cut spending and use technology to increase departmental efficiencies. As for taxes: ''Raising revenue is not my first option, by way of taxation. That would be my last resort."

But even these answers don't speak to specific solutions to the state's money problems. And they can be another way to avoid the issue altogether.

"My sense of the matter is neither candidate really is terribly interested in getting specific about what might be done to balance the state budget," said Earl Ryan, president of the Citizens Research Council, Michigan's oldest public policy research organization.

"This is probably the biggest issue facing the state right now and for the candidates not to talk about it deprives the election of one of the major criteria that voters might use in order to make a decision," said Ryan.