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By: Josiah Robinson
Gage Fenwick, a former Libertarian candidate for Alabama House District 79, proposed a pair of solutions for the catastrophic budgeting issues facing the state during his run for office in 2016.
Fenwick, an economics student at Auburn University, ran against 4 Republicans in a special election for Rep. Mike Hubbard‘s seat after Hubbard was removed for corruption. Unfortunately, ballot access barriers ultimately prevented Fenwick from providing the people with another option. Fenwick’s platform had much to commend though, especially for Alabama’s budgeting problems.
The budget Fenwick aimed to fix has a much less illustrious introduction. Despite a projected modest growth in 2017, Alabama’s budget is continuously surrounded by drama. In 2015, Alabama legislators moved $80 million in excess from the Education Trust Fund to plug holes in the General Fund, which funds the state’s overcrowded prisons. More recently, a handful of state parks closed, with many more on the chopping block.
The Libertarian Republic caught up with Mr. Fenwick at the Libertarian Party of Alabama State Convention. His budgeting policy came up in conversation, and is highlighted here as an attainable, libertarian fix to a broken budget.
“My number one issue on my campaign was the budget,” Fenwick remarked. As such, he proposed two approaches to soothe Alabama’s hemorrhaging budget — legislative and administrative.
Fenwick’s legislative approach would appeal to left-leaning constituents. In this strategy, he sought to alleviate budget shortcomings with criminal justice reform. “Alabama’s second largest portion of our General Fund goes towards our state prison system.”
The solution is simple, and an easy sell. Fenwick insists that the legislature can streamline the budget by “simply not spending so much money to put away non-violent criminals.” Alabama’s prisons are desperately overcrowded, which requires increased spending to accommodate the growing number of inmates.
The fiscal implications are a huge selling point, but this approach would also advance personal liberty. Fenwick explains that “people will be able to live their lives free” from serving time for victimless crimes. If legislators were willing, this strategy could affect sweeping changes in the state.
The alternative approach, an administrative strategy, would incentivize fiscal responsibility in state departments. Fenwick illustrates the current predicament and his solution with a hypothetical.
“Let’s say the Department of Transportation has $100,000 in their budget. The state always tells them ‘make sure you come under budget, make sure you come under budget,’ so they only spend $90,000. Then the next year, the budget gets cut to $90,000.”
He sees this as a huge problem. “We’re slowly strangling our departments [so that] they have to go over budget, and then we complain when they go over budget.”
Fenwick says the current approach “penalizes” departments for going under budget. To avoid being strangled, they overspend to justify their budget. Oftentimes, the overspending isn’t even necessary.
“They start spending money on things that don’t matter. For instance, they’ll buy carpeting to cover that $10,000 [difference] and then they’ll throw away the carpets because they didn’t want them in the first place. That way, they keep their $100,000.”
“No. We need to incentivize our departments to come under budget and then not punish them for coming under budget.”
He proposes an alternative. “They have $100,000, [but] they hit $70,000? Great. You still keep the $100,000 [budget], but that $30,000 goes back to the taxpayer, who the government stole that money from.”
How will we keep these departments in check? A reward for good stewardship and fiscal responsibility. “If they come under budget, [then] we seek ways of incentivizing them. Bonuses, promotions, whatever we need to make it to where our budget is manageable.”
Need for Compromise
Gage Fenwick acknowledges that this is not a “perfect libertarian answer” taken from a Rothbard or Friedman novel. However, flexibility is a key asset Libertarians must utilize to win office and advance liberty.
Fenwick stresses that Libertarians candidates must be “people who are willing to negotiate compromises between both sides.” He believes Libertarians are uniquely situated to be the voice of reason in an arena of political theater.
In navigating the country’s partisan landscape, Fenwick encourages Libertarian candidates to balance flexibility and principle. “The most important thing is to stick to your principles. You’re a libertarian for a reason.”
“Stick to what you believe in, but keep an open mind.”
Gage Fenwick’s budget solutions are perfect examples of that mantra. He listened to his constituents’ concerns, tailored his strategy to the political climate, and proposed a liberty-advancing fix.
Local solutions such as these will serve as a proof of concept and legitimize a Libertarian presence in office. As Libertarians craft their ground game for 2018 and beyond, similar strategies will likely take centerstage.