When you lose track of millions in taxpayer dollars

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

Alzando manosThe state of Indiana recently discovered it had lost track of $320 million in taxpayer dollars, payments collected from corporations over the last couple of years. This during a time when the state was cutting funding in the millions of dollars for superfluous things like education.  The problem was attributed to a "programming error," presumably in the software used to manage state accounts.

Here were some of the phrases state administrators and legislators are using to describe the error:

  • "eye-catching"
  • "unique"
  • we maybe need a "fresh set of eyes"
  • "bank error in your favor"
  • "We drew the Community Chest card"
  • "glitch"
  • "It did seem...those payments were light"
  • "Christmas came early"
  • "We know what happened and we're correcting it."

Am I the only one who's a little bit disturbed at this trivialization of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being hidden away for years, even if through omission or oversight?

Some of those phrases are from Governor Mitch Daniels, who you'll remember was the Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush before Daniels became Governor of Indiana.  One can't help but wonder if similar "glitches" were incorporated into tracking the federal budget.

But allow me to suggest some alternate phrasing of public statements for use by the government officials who are talking to the press about this thing:

  • We really screwed up on a major scale!  $320 million is a lot of money.
  • This is so embarrassing!  We are really upset that this happened.
  • There is no excuse for this kind of incompetence.
  • Taxpayers trust us to closely track and monitor the collection and spending of their hard-earned tax dollars, and we won't rest until we're sure that each nickel is accounted for.
  • Our financial software test coverage is clearly lacking critical functional and unit tests, and we will immediately revisit the software engineering methodology used to produce the code that led to this error.
  • We know that this is not "free" or "gift" money that we can think of as some pleasantly surprising addition to our budget.  We might have made different decisions about budget cuts and spending over the last few years if we'd had proper track of these funds, and that's a tragic mistake.

And the list goes on.  The bottom line is that making light of a $320 million error only helps reinforce the public perception of incompetence and imprudence that would have led to that kind of error in the first place.

If they've any hope of retaining (regaining?) the trust of taxpayers, state leaders need to speak more sympathetically about the seriousness of this issue, and the equally serious actions they're going to take in response.

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