Journalists have a responsibility to report on government spending. It’s part of our watchdog role. Readers want to know how their tax dollars are being spent. And government spending can have an impact on their everyday lives. Yet, too often, reporters simply cover the basic facts: The City Council approved an XXX budget Tuesday, an increase of XXX from last year. Too often, we don’t explain the impact of that budget. Where’s the additional money coming from?
Jack Hart, an editor at the Oregonian, suggests reporters consider the following in every budget story they write:
The dollar amount of this year’s budget.
The dollar amount of the proposed or new budget.
The percentage increase or decrease the new budget recommends.
Any significant shift in the way money is alloted among categories.
Ask these questions, too:
The impact of any changes on individual taxpayers. Are property taxes going up? By how much? What’s the cost for the average taxpayer?
Are park fees going up? By how much?
The winners and losers in the budget. Is the library budget being cut? What’s that mean for library patrons?
Watch out for loaded language in a budget document. Some terms – like shortfall – are meaningless. Does it mean the city is facing an actual budget cut? Or does it simply mean the current budget won’t cover everything agency officials want to spend next year?
What parts of the budget are increasing the fastest? Why?
Here’s a link to the city of Lincoln’s budget summary.