Friday, February 13, 2009

Moving Targets

This week I've been a part of some very difficult conversations on campus about budget cuts and their implications for our cc. Some of the difficult parts were easily predictable: impact on jobs, impact on students, impact on various programs.

But the hardest part was one I hadn't really anticipated. It was the almost palpable desire for a fixed target, a final figure that once we had hit, we could exhale and know we'd be okay.

That, we can't do. The state budget is a moving target. And this makes inclusive, good-faith planning incredibly hard.

Every few months, the state gets a new batch of quarterly tax receipt figures. Lately, each quarter's number has been shockingly low, forcing yet another series of cuts. Since state tax revenues are based on income tax (which drop when employment drops), capital gains (not too many of those around lately), and sales tax (which tanked when car sales tanked), I don't foresee good news this quarter, either. Were I the betting kind, I'd bet that the figure we've been given for the fiscal year starting this July will be adjusted even farther downward before we even get to July.

This means that we can't just do one plan. We have to do levels of contingency plans. And as hard as one plan can be, multiple plans are that much harder.

At least with a single plan, once it's done, whoever escaped the pain escaped the pain. You have the nasty battles, the deed gets done, and you move on. But when the goalposts keep moving, the 'winners' can never be sure that they've actually won. As hard as it is to build trust during cuts, it's that much harder when the cuts that were 'enough' last month aren't enough this month.

The speed of the drop is so severe that we've literally been unable to stay ahead of the curve. A few months ago we did several budget projections for the coming year, ranging from bad to awful to worst-case; we've already blown well past the worst case.

As people have started to figure out the seriousness of what we're up against, some have stepped up and offered real help in finding sustainable answers, but some have retreated into unhelpful knee-jerk posturing. Stress affects different people differently, I guess, but I'm always a little disappointed when people take crisis as opportunities to ride old hobbyhorses. Narcissism is too expensive to afford now.


When it comes to contingency planning, I'm beginning to think there's a choice to be made. Fast, inclusive, and effective: pick any two.