Forget the Czar, Embrace the Zero

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William Carpenter is the latest to gain the strange title of "czar."

It’s unofficial, of course.

Officially County Executive Maggie Brooks has elevated Carpenter, the county’s budget director, to a special assistant. His role will be defined as finding cost savings in places that, as she put it, "impact the budget the most."

She means Medicaid. She worries about the rising cost of the entitlement program creating a permanent hole in the county’s budget.

"Which is why we are creating this new Medicaid Czar position, for lack of a better term," Brooks said. "That will provide a specific focus to those areas that will continue to grow, continue to impact our budget, continue to increase the size of the deficit as we move forward."

You’ve got to love that term – czar. In a nation that prides itself on democratic principals, the term swings far from that ideal.

A czar or tsar is linked to a person with extraordinary power – an emperor. It’s been used for the leaders of empires throughout the ages, but is best known as the title for those who lead Russia up to the revolution.

How in the world would the good ol’ US of A find itself calling people czars?

Well it usually rises when a problem looks to be fairly unsolvable, and the governing leadership wants a person in charge who spend every waking moment trying to cure it.

The nation’s war on drugs appears to be the time when the title took off. That was when the first President Bush appointed Bill Bennett as director of the U.S. Drug Control Policy back in 1989. All the rest of those directors are known as drug czars. And you know how that war on drugs has been going.

Back in the mid-1990s, Mayor Bill Johnson named Van White as the city’s crime czar. White moved on and the title faded away. And I don’t need to remind you how much violence is still prevalent in the community today.

Nowadays czars are everywhere.

A few months ago, Philadelphia appointed a "gun czar" to take on the problem of gun crimes. Congressional Democrats are yelling for the president to create the position of "flu bug czar" to attack the possibility of an Asian Bird Flu epidemic. Plug the word into Google and you notice that headline writers have taken to using the word czar as shorthand for the leader of a government agency.

The czar appears when elected leaders want to look like they’re getting really, really, really serious about something. But it can also look like a bit of surrender by a government official.

"Medicaid czar" Carpenter, for example, wants to make changes that can only be made with state approval: changes to managing prescription drugs and rule changes to require some recipients to work.

So unlike the emperors of yore, Carpernter’s role can only be that of lobbyist, someone who depends on others to make the change real.

And, of course, that has been how the county has defined the problem of its systemic budget shortfall. Most of the nearly billion Monroe County budget is mandated by Albany, cry county leaders. In the county budget, they say that more than three quarters of the spending is mandated – out of their control.

But the rest is not – about $214 million. So why not show Albany how it’s done with what’s left? After all, the budget also shows that the controllable spending (the so-called non-mandated spending) rose at a slightly higher rate than the mandated.

Why not take those funds and build from the ground up?

Remember the phrase "zero-based budgeting?" It’s the one embraced by fiscal conservatives. It basically means that instead of using prior funding levels from government departments as the starting point for crafting a budget… you start from zero.

Then you make every budget item justify itself.

Some talk the game of zero-based budgeting, but rarely do it. Because it can mean that some departments get big cuts while others gain more money. That makes government employees angry.

But a budget is the grandest political document of all. It’s not about dollars and cents… it’s really about that government leader’s priorities. A true embrace of zero-based budgeting would allow the government leader to make his or her priorities the number one determinant. And if reigning in the spending is a high-priority, this would allow more room to show that.

A czar might be nice, may sound tough. But it’s the zero that will truly show the intentions of a government.

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