Hard to Kill: Why Government Agencies Take on a Life of Their Own

[W]hen a program supplies particular benefits to an existing or newly created interest - public or private - it creates a set of political relationships that make it exceptionally difficult to further alter that program by coalitions of the majority. What was created in the name of the common good, is now sustained in the name of the particular interest.

-- James Q. Wilson, “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State”

Georgia State Route 400, commonly known to Atlantans as “Georgia 400,” is the state’s only toll road. The sole toll plaza on “400” was opened in 1993, on a new express extension running from the trendy Buckhead community up into the north-eastern suburbs. Like most toll roads, the pay-to-drive section of Georgia 400 was sold to taxpayers and commuters on the notion that the new stretch of highway would pay for itself, in this case at fifty cents a car.

State Route 400 quickly became one of Atlanta’s most trafficked highways, in a class with the dual interstates of I-75/I-85 and the infamous I-285 loop. All those pairs of quarters piled up, and by early 2009, the toll booths had raised funds well in excess of that required to retire the original bond issue. So in accordance with the original intent of the law that created them, the toll booths were removed around the last Fourth of July.

Whoops, sorry -- that’s not what actually happened. It’s what should have happened, but true to Wilson’s famous paper, the bureaucracy that grew around the Georgia 400 toll booths did not go quietly.

In fact, it didn’t go at all. The Georgia 400 toll plaza is still running, 24-7, despite the fact that by March of 2009, the state had banked over $32 million on an outstanding debt (including interest) of $26.6 million.

When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked State Road and Tollway Authority officials last year why the booths were still in operation, a spokesperson insisted that it would be impossible to pay off the debt early, since that would mean, er, shutting down the State Road and Tollway Authority.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Of the $22 million or so the state reaps from Ga. 400 drivers, about $7 million goes to running the toll authority and $9 million a year goes to paying down the debt.”

These figures bring up a very obvious point -- or at least one that’s obvious if you don’t work for the government. Georgia is in as much fiscal difficulty these days as any state not named California or Michigan, and nobody asked me, but, hey, state: you just admitted that you can save at least $7 million dollars a year -- forever -- just by shutting down a toll authority that’s not needed any more! That’s like getting free money!

Such thoughts, of course, have not occurred to our selfless “civil servants,” who aren’t about to give up their phony-baloney jobs without a fight. The State Road and Tollway Authority’s director, Gena Evans, went on to say that tollway authority “needs to use the excess toll money for salaries of officials who arrange financing of the Department of Transportation.”

So there you have it, folks. Never mind what we promised you twenty years ago; you weren’t supposed to remember that for this long anyway. You’re expected to go on paying the state, forever, because, well, we need that money to pay bureaucrats.

Georgia certainly isn’t the only state or locality that’s playing fiscal games these days. While today’s trillion-dollar deficits get most of the media attention, state governments have proven to be no slouches when it comes to running up the taxpayers' tabs.

According to a Reason study, state budgets grew 50 percent faster than inflation in the “fat years” from 2002 and 2007, and state education budgets grew by 70% more than the inflation rate, despite a relative decrease in the student population. California is the current poster child for big dumb government, having increased its state spending from $75 billion in 1999 to a staggering $144.5 billion last year.

A vast portion of last year’s federal “stimulus” spending actually went to propping up profligate state governments, over $53 billion of which was specifically intended “to avoid cutbacks and layoffs.” In other words, when times get tough, the government pays itself first -- with your money.

There can be, of course, no question of doing what families and businesses have to do when money gets tight, i.e., spend a lot less of it. States and localities are past masters at demagoguing budget shortfalls in the arena of public opinion.

As soon as a proposed budget cut looms, as if on cue governments start threatening to shut down the police force, fire department, and schools. Since almost nobody wants to do without cops, firemen, or teachers, this is a highly effective tactic most of the time -- although oddly enough, governments always seem to find a way to hold on to the Special Executive Assistants For Airport Graft, to say nothing of the odd Georgia Road and Tollway Authority.

Also unmentioned at budget crunch time are the layers of superfluous school administrators or the phalanxes of alphabet-soup state agencies overstocked with employees whose jobs aren’t remotely related to either public safety or education. After all, those are a lot of very dependable votes come election time.

And it’s just money -- somebody else’s money.