Monday, January 12, 2009

Economic crisis leads to conservative budget hysteria

One of the most conservative-dominated states in the nation, Utah, is planning to cut its budget by 15% for the coming year, despite the fact that even the Republican governor recommended only about a 7% cut. And where is this 15% coming from?

Meals on Wheels and a host of support programs for at-risk teenagers and seniors. As the Salt Lake Tribune reports:

Salt Lake County prevention programs -- which help immigrants, teens in juvenile court and others -- stand to lose as much as 38 percent in state dollars, or $811,872, under one scenario. An estimated 17 employees at different community groups would likely lose their jobs due to reduced contracts.

Of the 3,200 students who participated in Cornerstone Counseling programs in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, about 1,300 could no longer be served. That would mean a significant reduction in the teaching of practical life skills that studies link to a drop in drug and alcohol use.

The day the [Governor John] Huntsman scenario was announced in December, Salt Lake County served 1,084 meals to seniors in their homes, a number that could drop by half if the dollars aren't replaced.

"These are people who are very frail, very sick, and we're taking food away from them," said Shauna O'Neil, Salt Lake County's director of aging. Though the governor has proposed backfilling those and other dollars, many community groups and local officials are skeptical the dollars will be found.

Acute needs, particularly those involving youth, have been prioritized at the state level. For example, programs for treating substance abuse were protected while many programs preventing alcoholism were suggested as cuts.

"This is at the point where there aren't a lot of good choices," said Lisa-Michele Church, executive director of the Department of Human Services. She hopes her agency will have some safeguards, because of its mission.

What's being overlooked, advocates say, is how much money prevention programs can save the state in the long run.

A huge chunk of money was cut by eliminating $4.7 million from DORA, a substance abuse program set up by the Drug Offender Reform Act. Its closure ends treatment for 1,400 and could lead to the need for more jails. But without a long track record of outcomes, it was more vulnerable to cuts.

An economic crisis does not mean it's time to stop spending government money. In fact, as pretty much every economist who isn't a libertarian ideologue has told us recently, it's the time to spend, not only to help support those suffering from economic decline in the markets, but because it's the only way to stimulate the markets back into productivity. Beyond this alone, however, it's difficult to see anything but conservative exploitation of the economic crisis to get out of the mandatory welfare programs they have long resisted.

These programs are life-saving programs. Cutting the budget itself is unnecessary, and cutting it at these places is morally repugnant. These calculated political moves demonstrate a marked animosity toward the under-privileged.

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