Human Impact of States' Budget Cuts

 

Cassandra Skyers used to help needy Connecticut families get health care and food stamps. But by month's end, the Bloomfield, Conn., woman fears she herself may be standing in line to see if she qualifies for some of the same state aid she used to distribute.

Skyers, 32, personifies the havoc the states' budget crisis is wreaking. She was one of nearly 3,000 Connecticut civil servants laid off recently to reduce state spending.

"There's not a state agency that serves the public that wasn't eviscerated in some significant way" by budget cuts ordered by Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R), said Larry Dorman, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a labor union that represents workers like Skyers.

Connecticut is not alone. California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia have also laid off employees or plan to do so. Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) intends to shut down most state offices April 22 and furlough state workers without pay for one day as a way to cut costs.

It's all part of an effort by states to staunch a flood of red ink. The budget crisis has left people like Skyers without state jobs, and others struggling to find health care or pay for college tuition. Some cuts are largely annoyances. There are longer lines at Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles offices and shorter hours at Virginia state liquor stores.

"When we have to go out and reduce expenditures we go where the money is spent and obviously that affects real people," Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R) said. States collectively have to save about $26 billion between now and June 30 to avoid finishing the fiscal year in the red, which is unconstitutional everywhere except Vermont.

The longer-term picture is even worse: States are looking at deficits of approaching $90 billion in fiscal 2004, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. (A few states have escaped the pain, notably Wyoming and New Mexico. These fortunate few get much of their revenue from mineral extraction fees).

Most states have used the quick fixes available to them -- drawing down "rainy day" funds and tapping into funds provided by the tobacco industry to settle a massive lawsuit designed to recover the public health costs of diseases related to smoking. What's left are the difficult choices.

One big target of savings is Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, which makes up some 20 percent of state spending and is the fastest growing budget item for many states. According to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, a philanthropy group that focuses on major health care issues, 49 states have made or announced plans to make cuts in Medicaid since last July 1. Kaiser reports that 45 states are limiting prescriptions, or charging higher co-pays; 27 states are toughening eligibility rules; and 25 are reducing benefits, such as dental care.

Because of the cuts, nearly a half-million older people in Massachusetts are no longer eligible for eyeglasses or false teeth from the state. More than 100,000 poor people in Oregon lost dental, outpatient and other Medicaid services. And the Illinois Medicaid program has started requiring patients on the antidepressant Zoloft to buy stronger dose pills and split the pills in half.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning organization that researches how fiscal policies affect the poor, about 1 million people have lost or stand to lose state-subsidized medical insurance under budget cuts that have either been enacted or are being proposed. Judi Hilman, a health policy analyst with Utah Issues, an advocacy group for the needy in Salt Lake City, said her office is getting "about 60 to 70 calls a day" from people worried about losing their Medicaid benefits.

Programs for the disabled also are on the chopping block. It was only after a disabled man made a direct plea to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) that the state restored funds to a program that allows the man to communicate with others. "That's where we are [in pinching people with budget cuts]." Kempthorne said.

Education, which eats up the largest chunk of state budgets, also is being skewered. About 20 states cut K-12 funding in 2003 and some are still slicing, making rare mid-year cuts that are forcing schools to restrict travel, lay off staff and even make teachers double as janitors.

It also means fewer school days for many students. Nearly half of the 198 school districts in Oregon are considering paring back their school calendars, said Jan Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Education Association. Schools in six other states -- Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming -- have gone to a four-day week as a way to save money.

Most states "trimmed around the edges" in the first two years of the budget meltdown and made minor cuts to education, but now states have "gone full-swing" and are making cuts across the board, David Shreve, an education expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Stateline.org.

The situation is even more bleak for state colleges. Across the country, college students and families are scrambling to meet higher tuition bills at the same time states cut financial aid. "The cumulative effect is a major assault on college affordability," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit funded in part by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.

Today's heightened security doesn't mean law enforcement is getting a pass. State troopers across the country are being forced to work 10- to 12-hour shifts and make do with older police cars because of tight budgets and not enough troopers.

"It's going to get worse," said Scott Reinacher, chairman of the National Troopers Association and a retired state trooper. Michigan, for example, is already down 300 troopers and faces the prospect of another 300 retiring in the next 18 months. The exceptions are New York and New Jersey, which made security a top priority after 9/11. "There is a lot of focus on training, making sure we are ready to go, but the biggest problem is staffing," Reinacher said.

States are trying creative cuts that get a lot of attention but don't really ease their fiscal woes. Maintenance workers in Missouri are unscrewing light bulbs in government buildings; Minnesota is considering closing roadside rest stops; and prisoners in Virginia no longer get breakfast and lunch on weekends, but get brunch instead.

In another attention-getting move with little bottom line impact, South Carolina's newly-elected Gov. Bob Riley (R) said he would cut his $101,433 annual salary to $96,361. Oregon's newly elected Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is also cutting his pay by 5 percent.

"These are symbolic things that elected and appointed state officials do to show that they are doing everything that they can to deal with the shortfall before they ask their citizens, either through tax increases or budget cuts, to take some of the pain," said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

"You're not going to solve the problem with little things like that," Pattison said. He estimated that these budget-balancing move add up to about "0.001 percent" of what's needed to close the states' budget gaps.

Tight budgets and the uneven economy are giving some state leaders the political cover to eliminate redundant or wasteful government programs. In Rhode Island, for example, Gov. Donald Carcieri (R ) has launched a state-wide "Big Audit" that includes everything from looking at the number of vehicles in the state's motor pool to the credit cards state workers use.

Most state leaders, despite some gut-wrenching budget decisions they're making now, cling to the conviction that the tough times won't last forever.

"We suffered through horrendous time in the 80s with the farm crisis ... followed by the 1990s that were just breath-taking in terms of the revenues that came into the states," said Nebraska Gov. Johanns. "We will see improvement."

Even if it takes five years to bounce back, as some analysts predict, states will rebound. "This is not a forever problem," said Montana Gov. Judy Martz (R).

Tomorrow: Stateline.org looks at the impact of the budget squeeze on what is arguably the top priority for most voters: education.

 
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