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Jim Kenney’s Gut Check

Zero-based budgeting is more radical than it sounds. Does the would-be mayor really have it in him to adopt it?

Last week, while news of Chaka Fattah’s indictment was reverberating around the local political universe, the Kenney campaign sent out an intriguing, but little noticed, press release. “Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro Endorses Jim Kenney” read the headline. In the release, Shapiro explained his reasoning: “[Kenney’s] plan to institute zero-based budgeting will benefit the people of Philadelphia and our entire region by making city government more effective.”

Jim Kenney: How ballsy is he?

Back in January, we wrote about how Shapiro had used this arcane accounting metric to reimagine how Montco spends public dollars, thereby reinventing local government. We called on the mayoral candidates to take note. Kenney did, pulling Shapiro aside at an event and peppering him with questions about the practice.

What is it? Basically, it’s a reboot. Come budget time, it requires each governmental agency, instead of just submitting its desired percentage increase, to first write a core mission statement. And then to construct a budget that meets that core mission—and goes no further. In Montco, the exercise exposed all sorts of spending—whether in response to political deals or simply due to mission creep over the years—that had little or nothing to do with that stated mission. “Structurally, we ended up with 19 percent fewer county departments,” Shapiro says. “We found that we owned and operated a nursing home that was losing all sorts of money. The taxpayers were subsidizing this. Sorry, that was beyond our mission.”

Shapiro says that implementing zero-based budgeting—essentially, building the government back up from zero—is a “huge lift, because you inevitably have to take on entrenched interests.”

Kenney was mostly a risk-averse City Councilman. Taking a look at each line item in a $4 billion budget and asking, “Does this fit our core mission?” would mean standing up to his own constituencies, which includes union workers and patronage appointments.

Shapiro says Kenney sounds committed to it, which is beyond half the battle. “It’s all about intestinal fortitude,” Shapiro says. “If the leader wants it to happen, it’ll happen.”

But does Kenney have the guts to swipe aside decades of spending and get a bureaucracy to rethink its most fundamental priorities? His biography to this point would suggest not. Sure, he’s had his moments of politically courageous acts—opposing the sham DROP early retirement program for elected officials, for instance—but they’ve been few and far between. As a card-carrying Fumocrat, he was a product of one machine who switched sides when it was expedient and is now aligned with, and indebted to, union leader John Dougherty. Not exactly a recipe for bold innovation. Besides, he was mostly a risk-averse City Councilman. Taking a look at each line item in a $4 billion budget and asking, “Does this fit our core mission?” will no doubt threaten the pet projects and sacred cows of those whose help he needs elsewhere. For Shapiro, the answer to the “core mission” question was that his government needed to get out of the nursing home business. Kenney might find countless similar examples, starting with the glaringly obvious ones: Why, after all, are we still in the gas, water and airport businesses, respectively? Changing that, of course, means standing up to his own political constituencies, which includes union workers and patronage appointments.

politics_1A zero-based approach is not necessarily about cost-cutting. Shapiro’s exercise actually led him to increase certain funding, like the flow of dollars to the public defender’s office, while making cuts in other areas. It’s really about making government more efficient and, by narrowing its focus, more customer-friendly.

The notion of zero-based budgeting might make eyes glaze over, but whether Kenney does it for real or  just for show might reveal more about him than anything else: Is he the guardian of the status quo, or will he threaten it? For his part, Shapiro knows it’s not a sexy topic, but he swears it’s a lot of fun. “I’m a nerd, and I geek out when it comes to stuff like this,” he says. “But, I mean, you get to remake and reshape a government for generations to come. What could be more fun?”

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