Let’s do some government math.

The state is facing a budget shortfall of about $340 million, according to the incoming administration of Governor-elect Jay Nixon. The outgoing administration of Gov. Matt Blunt disputes that, but it seems to be the figure that’s gotten everyone’s attention in Jefferson City.

That figure will likely be the starting point for much of the discussion in the capital in the coming weeks. It looks like a tough year for budget-makers – as well as citizens who depend on the state for everything from good roads to good schools to basic health care.

A second statistic: The state has $550 million in a so-called rainy day fund. Just about everyone would agree, at least broadly speaking, that the economy we have right now qualifies as a rainy day.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

First, this isn’t like the extra bit of cash you’ve got sitting in the bank for an emergency. Anything taken out has to be repaid – with interest – in three years. Second, grabbing that money is a one-time fix. But who knows how long the economy will sputter and stall? The state could be looking at a fiscal crisis that stretches for a few years.

Yes, some of the cuts being discussed are sobering. But calls by some legislators to break into the piggy bank are premature. Nixon is right to say the state needs to hold off for now. Besides, that money is probably better spent on one-time emergencies such as disaster relief.

It would be far better to wait at least a few months into 2009 to get a better sense of when the economy hits bottom and when a recovery might be under way. If we can get through this without getting into that fund at all, so much the better.