S.D. asks for counterproductive amendment

On balanced budget amendment: Keep your eyes on the road

What doesn’t add up here?

We have a South Dakota Legislature mulling whether to throw its support behind a proposal for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a balanced budget by the federal government.

And at this very same time, we have one of our own state officials, South Dakota Secretary of Transportation Darin Bergquist, telling the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee how desperately our state needs federal cash to keep its roads in shape. Speaking Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Bergquist reminded the panel that South Dakota faces special circumstances, including fewer taxpayers per mile than many states and a shorter construction season. “States cannot do it alone,” Bergquist said. “We need a strong federal program.”

Does anyone see a connection here between the health of our state’s roads and federal spending? Now what about other sectors? Do South Dakota farmers want the federal government to cut off disaster payments in the name of a balanced budget? Does the crop insurance industry want the feds to stop subsidizing farmers’ crop insurance? What about federal grants to college students? Federal grants to rural hospitals? How much would the feds save by closing Ellsworth Air Force Base? How much could we hack from Social Security payments, Medicaid, Medicare?

Our opinion at the Capital Journal is that we should by all means support responsible budgeting and push for a balanced federal budget. It would be great if we could all be less dependent on the federal government. But we should not amend our U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget without giving careful consideration to what we get from the federal government’s spending.

Our main reason for that is one we haven’t even touched on yet. We think it would be foolish to bind the hands of our federal government to address crises. We should not add a balanced budget amendment unless we have the genius to also end recessions, depressions, wars and Dust Bowls. In any of those situations, we need a federal government that will take the necessary action, whatever the cost.

Second, as we’ve already hinted at above, we think the coffee shop clamor to pass a balanced budget amendment is exactly that — coffee shop talk that ought to stay right there, where it’s harmless.

As some members of our editorial board are telling us this week, South Dakotans who think a balanced budget amendment is common sense fail to realize both the complexity of a national economy and the dependence small states have on the federal government. We cannot know when there is going to be a hurricane or a winter storm Atlas that hits some state unusually hard and throws federal spending out of balance in any given area.

As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted, ideas do not have to be deeply right to be deeply influential. This idea of a balanced budget amendment is deeply flawed.

Let’s think twice before we second-guess the Founding Fathers on this one. There was a reason they didn’t include this amendment.

On this issue, it’s time to get out of the coffee shop and take a drive to clear your mind, South Dakota. Keep your eyes on the road.