November 22, 2014
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Views from the cliff & suggestions to help balance the budget
Robert Haughtaling

While we await our politicians’ decisions regarding whether or not to fall off the financial cliff, I would like to offer up a few suggestions that just might help.

Republicans want to reduce entitlements and the Democrats are advocating taxing rich folks to a greater degree. To present, nothing has been sorted out – other than some blame, posturing and plenty of airtime for folks like Bill O’Reilly and Lawrence O’Donnell. Tick, tick, tick – all the way toward another financial debacle. Heck, if a bunch of politicians, economists and pundits can’t figure things out, why not take some advice from a novice like me? Let’s call my proposal to fix the economy something pithy, like the “Houghtaling Plan.” Hopefully folks in Washington are listening.

Basically my plan will take a look at what we prioritize. While there are probably a bunch of good ideas out there – we’re still waiting to hear them. Let’s begin by addressing our nation's prison system. Before going further, I am not about to advocate for 21-year sentences for people killing 77 innocents (like Norway – although their prison system should be looked at for ideas). In addition, I am not calling for letting major felons off ‘Scott-free.’ No, I would like to begin by addressing how we adjudicate those with substance abuse and mental health disorders.

After all is said and done, approximately 1 in 31 Americans are involved with the criminal justice system (prison, parole, probation). One-quarter of the world’s prison population resides in the United States. This is a startling statistic considering that Americans represent a mere 5 percent of the Earth’s inhabitants. All of this adds up to around $70 billion a year. It’s much more when one considers recidivism along with the long–term damage to health, family and career going to jail imposes.

It’s been said that up to one-half of those presently in American prisons are there for substance abuse/mental health concerns. With this being said, wouldn’t you think that they and society would be better served by cutting costs, reducing recidivism and offering viable care through home confinement along with additional sober and halfway houses? Reducing the prison population would save money. Offering alternatives would go a long way toward treating those with mental health and substance concerns in a humane fashion.

I would be willing to bet we could eliminate a few billion dollars from our prison budget. In addition, with less crowding, the operation(s) of our prison system would run much more effectively.

My second proposal for saving funds is something I call “The Tank In The Bank” program. After a bit of research, I found out that tanks cost millions (one estimate being $8.5 million). With all of our wars winding down, why not consider using some of the money we spend on tanks for something else? In fact, lets donate the money for 50 of them to each one of our states (1 per).

“Tank In The Bank” funds could be split between two items. First of all, they would support social services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment. Again, we would reduce folks going to prison and costing billions. The second area to be funded would be for items like roads and bridges. The “Tank In The Bank” initiative would be proactive and go a long way toward addressing some major concerns.

The United States spends a tremendous amount of money on the military. The ability to defend ourselves is essential and should be maintained. However, I firmly believe that reducing the number of tomahawk missiles we produce (again, by 50) would not hinder our ability to conduct war if or when necessary. An additional facet of my budget proposal would be titled “A Hawk for Some Pork.” Funding originally headed the way of missiles would now be diverted toward feeding the homeless in our inner cities. “A Hawk for Some Pork” would not only provide food for those in need – it, along with the other previously mentioned initiatives, would reduce potential criminal activity.

The overemphasis on standardized tests, along with a host of unfunded mandates, has caused significant stress for the educational community in recent years. I’m sure the original intent of these measures once had some merit, but it appears that, at present, many folks are having a hard time keeping up with the ever-changing requirements. So, perhaps it’s time to create “More Than A Score,” where schools, students and teachers are evaluated by more than merely test scores. Our nation spends a whole lot of money on producing tests, testing materials, test prep and so on. In addition, think about the time taken out of school and the ever-present danger of teaching to the test.

It has been estimated that $1.7 billion are spent on standardized testing each year. I wonder if that includes the negative effects the over-reliance on testing produces? Rather than preparing a generation to become test-takers, why not produce one that develops into better critical thinkers? At the very least, we need to reduce the role testing plays in educating our youth. Is it important to measure progress? Of course. Should testing be the sole determinant of a student, teacher or school’s success? Of course not. “More Than A Score” advocates reducing the amount and importance of standardized tests. It would also help reduce the disparity between haves and have nots, allowing for additional means of success.

The last item I’ll describe would be the “Campaign Aggravation Program” (C.A.P.). This program would place limits on the length of presidential elections and impose financial penalties on super pacs who exceed contribution limits. The intent of this measure is obvious – millions of Americans are tired of the present political climate. By reducing the presidential campaign to, let’s say, six months, we would reduce fatigue, eliminate listening to endless bickering and force politicians to do their jobs in office (rather than campaigning all the time).

Requiring super pacs to pay a 50-percent penalty for all donations in excess of the pre-determined limit would also curtail the influence donors have on the race. Penalty dollars would be used for things like repairing school buildings, community policing and environmental cleanup. When you place a cap on campaign waste, just about everyone would benefit.

After all is said and done, what we are really looking at here is reducing military spending, top-heavy educational waste, prison expenditures and exploring campaign finance reform. This might be a good place to start.

OK, so maybe I wouldn’t balance the budget with these ideas. But, in the end, the world would be a bit kinder, more safe and hopeful. Sometimes the best way to save money is to not waste it. How much would that be worth?

Robert Haughtaling, who runs the East Greenwich drug program, is an occasional contributor to this newspaper.


Comments
1 comment on this item

You don't understand what a billion dollar a year deficit means. Although, we actually do need to stop making so many tanks. You took a page and advocated for causes that you care about. But you certainly added nothing to the conversation about debt reduction. You want to lower jail populations and cut down on poverty? People should stop having kids they can't afford. Stop giving health care to illegals. Stop educating illegals. Fine employers that hire illegals with sums that are crippling to their business.

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