State budget ripples through economies and communities

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We complain that they aren’t competent. But now we have reason to worry that there aren’t enough of them.
Government employees, that is — specifically, the front-line regulators who are charged with keeping us safe and keeping our institutions honest. This is an effect of the looming cuts in the state budget.

Construction inspectors are in short supply, a construction industry executive told me. Budget shortfalls have led several New Mexico municipalities to let go of their own inspectors because they can turn over inspection duties to the state.
At the same time, the state has fewer inspectors. Since construction projects require inspections at several points during the course of a project, if inspection is delayed, the project has to stop and wait. Small contractors shut down, and workers go home with no paycheck. In an industry hard hit by economic factors, this makes things worse.
Contractors complain about the incompetence of inspectors. The complaint depends on which side you’re on. If you’re the contractor being inspected, the inspector is an idiot for finding fault unfairly. If you’re a rival, the inspector is an idiot for letting bad work go uncorrected. But for most consumers, the inspector is a safeguard. Just by being there, he helps keep contractors honest and construction projects safe.
The top manager of a state regulatory agency worries that the budget will leave him unable to hire qualified people to oversee a challenging industry.  
In some industries — banking and insurance are examples — qualified regulators are hard to find, partly because the industry itself is so lucrative. If you can earn six or seven figures as a banker or insurance executive, why would you work for government, earn a mediocre salary, make unpopular decisions, be mistrusted by the industry you regulate, and get not much respect from your community?  
In 2008, years of inadequate regulation contributed mightily to the global meltdown of the securities industry. We learned that too late.
I’m noticing how much we rely on regulation just to get through the day, in a world that is too complex for us to be fully informed consumers without help. The days of Jimmy Stewart’s locally owned Building and Loan are long gone. Nowadays, we have to count on the assurance that rules exist and somebody is enforcing them. Imagine trying to do enough research on your own to decide where to open a bank account. Most of us couldn’t do it. Even if we knew how, there are not enough hours in the day. We rely on regulators every time we pump gasoline or buy groceries.  
And we entrust regulators with some of the toughest decisions in society, such as when to take children away from irresponsible or abusive parents. Though they occasionally get it wrong, with tragic results, they are filling a vacuum created by other changes in society.
So, in the current budget crisis, reducing the size of government is necessary but we dare not let it be done either randomly or carelessly. The popular method called “vacancy savings,” for example, means letting whatever positions happen to be empty right now stay empty, instead of making decisions about what’s needed. Vacancies in government are most often found in the toughest and least appreciated jobs, such as caseworkers for abused children, where the burnout rate is legendary.
In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, we have to hope that our new administration will support good managers and smart use of technology, finding ways to save money without making tough times worse.

© New Mexico News Service 2011