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Public budgeting: The ultimate statement of values

As a public two-year institution of higher education, Fulton-Montgomery Community College is steeped in the state budget process. For its entire existence, FM, (like our sister institutions,) has had to lobby, negotiate, beg and defend its need for public funding to support students. When community colleges were conceived in New York state the formula was to be simple: community college operating budgets would be funded as one-third from the state, one-third from the county sponsors and one-third from tuition. It has almost never worked out that way.

Today at FM, roughly 26 percent of the budget comes from the state, 24 percent from local county sponsors (including from Fulton and Montgomery Counties, chargebacks to other counties and use of college fund balance), and 50 percent from tuition and fees paid by students.

To be fair, many students receive financial aid to assist (or fully fund) the tuition and fees depending on their income. However, they could use that financial aid at any college, public or private, not just a community college. So I hesitate to count those dollars as direct support for community colleges by the state. 

Public budgeting is a complex and messy process. Thousands of agencies, departments and organizations make their case for “their share” of limited resources. And, it isn’t always a logical process. Sometimes it comes down to someone’s favorite project earning support from their colleagues in exchange for support for other favorite projects. Of course, political pressure plays a big role. 

However, ultimately a public budget is a statement of our values. I say that because regardless of how much an assemblyman, senator, governor, congressman, or president states that they support a cause or organization, the true test of that support is the resources allocated to it in the budget.

Thus, the budget says a lot about our values as a society. And those values will change over time and under different administrations. 

Look at some of the value questions facing public budgeting today. Is healthcare a right or a choice? Should a college education be free? Should it be free for some who meet certain conditions? Should we rebuild our infrastructure — roads, waterlines, sewer lines and/or power grid? Do we leave these investments to the private sector? (Perhaps private firms that have rebuilt infrastructure and then charge a usage fee — usually small at first with large increases later.) Should we invest in scientific studies — global warming, medicine, space travel or technology advancements? Do we value public investment for the good of society or do we value the opportunity for some to make a profit at the public’s expense? Do we value the opportunity to maximize personal income over everything else? These are tough questions. 

Nothing is free. And these are questions that have been in the balance since people formed societies that charged taxes to provide services. It seems that we need to have value discussions in ways that are productive and fact based.

At FM, we continue to teach students to use facts and data for support their arguments. Equally as important, students need to understand the data used as counter arguments. We should recognize that it is possible for our opponents in discussions to have a point. We have become a polarized society and the gap is becoming wider. But if you want to figure out which side won, look at the budget — all of the rest is just talk.

 

Dustin Swanger is president of FMCC.

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