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A deceptive surplus

Budget numbers call into question state's priorities

We all like to save money. And it’s nice to have a little something set aside for a rainy day.

For Indiana, the 2014 fiscal year just ended with a $106 million operating surplus, with a $2 billion reserve more than intact.

But before we break out the champagne and party hats, it might be wise to look at the larger picture of Indiana’s fiscal health.

Yes, the state managed to turn a troubling downturn in revenue into what looks like a banner year.

But as the outlook clouded, Gov. Mike Pence ordered $150 million in budget cuts, including $34 million in college and university funds.

He pushed for a billion-dollar tax break for business, which the legislature wisely modified.

But local governments, already strapped for funds because of property tax caps, now have been forced to think about even deeper cuts.

In some communities, public schools are struggling to keep their bus routes and preserve physical fitness and arts programs.

County jails, having already assumed the improper and impossible burden of caring for mentally ill prisoners, now are preparing for an onslaught of prisoners who used to be housed in state prisons, at state expense.

Some cities, including Indianapolis, have struggled with public safety funding. Fort Wayne sidestepped that problem with a supplemental income tax increase last year. But this year, the City Council used general budget-tightening concern to eviscerate the city’s non-public-safety unions.

Meanwhile, a promise to families who save the state money by adopting children with special needs has gone unfulfilled. While “surpluses” and “reserves” pile up, those parents continue to be told that Indiana simply can’t afford to give them the modest stipends for their children’s care that all other states provide.

Saving for a rainy day is a good thing, but a state that truly wants to be the one that “works” will also make sure that its communities are safe, its schools and parks and libraries are healthy, and that children in need are provided for. That kind of a state, we believe, is likely to develop, attract and retain the kinds of citizens who will help us naturally build an economy more truly robust than Indiana’s yet is.

Living within its means always should be the state’s goal, but across-the-board cuts can have the effect of leaving waste untouched while programs that support Indiana’s long-term economic health are crippled. A surplus to celebrate is one that comes not from widespread budget-slashing, but through careful spending and strong economic fortunes.