Budget strategy obscures flawed system

By: - April 13, 2005 5:04 pm

Wednesday morning, advocates for people in North Carolina who need human services were treated to what has become an annual spectacle at the legislative building, the release of a spending proposal that would make devastating cuts to human services programs.

This year’s edition would cut basic health care services to 57,000 people, mostly seniors and people with disabilities. It completely ignores the massive waiting list for day care subsidy that reached 30,000 kids last fall. There is no money even for inflationary increases, meaning that some kids currently receiving the subsidy may lose it.

The committee did manage to find the money to transfer the coverage of children up to five years old from Health Choice to Medicaid, which means that the coverage becomes an entitlement instead of something that competes for funding with other programs every session.

The plan provides $1 million for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, but ignores pleas to raising the eligibility ceiling for the program, which is the most restrictive in the nation. No money for HIV/AIDS prevention and education either, even though the disease continues to spread among the African-American community.

Even with the cuts and lack of attention to other needs, the committee came up almost $26 million short of the cuts the legislative leaders asked them to find. That may mean even more reductions.

The cut in services for seniors and the disabled raises the question asked every year. Are legislators serious about these reductions or are they being presented to mobilize advocates across the state and build political support for raising revenue so lawmakers feel more comfortable making fewer budget cuts?

The answer is not as obvious this year, as the budget does contain small increases in several areas, mental health and substance abuse programs, vocational programs for adults, school nurses and crisis intervention services.

If past sessions are any indication, if legislative leaders wanted to create an outpouring of public protest, they wouldn’t have stopped $26 million short of the target. They would have proposed cutting more programs, not finding a little money for them.

So it is likely that this is a serious budget proposal with its plan to cut services to 57,000 of the state’s most vulnerable people. But the whole discussion is the latest disturbing evidence of how flawed the current system is.

Why does the choice have to be between proposing deep cuts to programs to provoke public outrage or proposing slightly less damaging cuts with the almost patronizing reassurance that it could have been worse?

Why is the choice to cut $138 million from Governor Easley’s budget or $164 million?

Why do legislative committees start with the assumption that human services need to be cut, instead of learning about the needs of the people in the state before setting a target for budget reductions?

We don’t need any more budget dramas or politically strategic proposals to cut programs. We need an honest discussion of what is important, where we want to be as a state, whether or not we will take care of people who are struggling or families who need help lifting themselves out of poverty.

Then we need our elected officials to do their job and find the revenue to pay for it.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066