December 8, 2008

This morning the Seattle Times reported that the requirement for the state to have a balanced budget, as widely proclaimed by both Democrat and Republican legislators, is a myth. The legislature doesn’t have to pass a balanced state budget, the governor just has to present one as a starting point. The final budget can use the long term borrowing power of the state to cover short term operating expenses. State Treasurer Mike Murphy is quoted in the Times as saying even though it’s a bad idea, the Washington Constitution "does not prohibit you from doing something that's not too bright."

This is exactly the kind of temptation that gets families in trouble with credit card debt. It’s so easy to put those bills on plastic, convincing everyone that next month is sure to be better, we just need to hang on a little longer. In the end, it doesn’t much matter if a credit card is carrying non-essentials like Friday night pizza and videos or quarterly taxes and this month’s heating bill, it’s a first step toward bankruptcy and foreclosure.

My husband is leading a Sunday School class this month on stewardship and budgeting, of money, time and other resources. One interesting discussion these last two weeks has been the difference between secured debt (for example, for a durable investment like a house or a car) and unsecured debt like credit cards. There is a Biblical basis for secured debt as a wise investment in the future. The state government takes on secured debt when we borrow to invest in roads, buildings and other long term tangibles. I’ve got no problem with public debt (within reason) for capital investment.

However, unsecured debt is the way into slavery for individuals and families, and for governments. It may relieve the pressure on the current body of legislators by reducing the pain of cutting budgets and programs, but it puts future generations into bondage. Our federal government has already slid into this trap, with over $1.4 trillion in debt owned by just three countries – Japan, China and the United Kingdom (Source: Parade Magazine, in an article published November 9, 2008 quoting statistics from U.S. Department of the Treasury/Federal Reserve). And that was before the bailout started spending more money we don’t have!

We cannot afford to let our great state of Washington fall into the same trap. Write your legislators and tell them you want a balanced budget, no long term borrowing for short term expenses. Tell them you understand there will have to be budget cuts, you know it won’t be easy but you’ll respect them in the morning if they stand on principle. And practice the same wisdom in your own financial life, following some wise words from Thomas Jefferson:

“Never spend money before you have earned it.”