Small-town America, the collective memory that is often embellished, had a unique function that some believe should be carried over as governments grow ever larger and more intrusive. Providing entertainment, or beauty, or other aesthetic pleasure could be a viable function of government that is small, close to the people, and never goes into debt to accomplish. When town hall meetings were in the local church, or the local school, and the majority of citizens felt compelled, even to the point of duty, to participate, this kind of function made the most sense.
However, as government has grown significantly beyond its means in the cities that were towns before our grandfathers were children, we need to stop and consider whether aesthetics and entertainment should be provided by our local governments.
Making the news this weekend in Austin was that the Trail of Lights, cancelled last year due to lack of funding, has a new sponsor and possibly new life this Christmas season. The RunTex Foundation, the non-profit side of the local footwear stores, has a shot at taking the bid if the City Council approves it this week.
The Trail of Lights was cut when the strain on the city’s budget started to get serious. When it happened, I admit to being pretty cynical – the city was cutting something that cost relatively little, in an effort to lull citizens into believing higher taxes would be the answer to the city’s spending problem. Unlike a lot of the events that happen here each year, the Trail of Lights was something geared primarily to citizens, and our youngest citizens at that. At the same time, the economy is weak and was still weaker when the Trail of Lights was initially cut from the budget. Opening the event up to private-sector bids is a good move, though last year’s sponsor was unable to raise the funds necessary to put on the event (the bid was only approved in August, and the Trail of Lights takes nearly a million dollars to put on).
I don’t often agree with Mayor Leffingwell, but his decision to approach RunTex about sponsorship seems pretty ingenious to me. The cynic in me is, of course, looking at Leffingwell’s bid for re-election and his Save Our Springs opponent (Brigid Shea) and thinking that he’s smart to offer citizens something as feel-good as the Trail of Lights as a carrot for votes. Even if that’s the case (and let’s face it, that’s smart politics), getting the Trail of Lights back this year will be a good way to bring back some of Austin’s charm. Privatizing the affair also gives the city some breathing room – no more having to cut the event out of the budget or dither over whether we can afford it later.
But this does give us reason to have a civil discussion about whether essential services are the only thing a government should ever fund, or if there’s a place in government for providing entertainment as well. I’m not universally opposed to things like the Trail of Lights. I do think, however, that when you find that government is more in debt every year, with no end in sight, and you can’t make ends meet with the funds you have on hand – this describes most government, but especially Austin right now – then you need to step away and do just what is absolutely essential. The days of the town hall meetings in the local church are long since past, and there are plenty of entities that can provide a significant good to the public without enlisting tax dollars and raiding taxpayer wallets.