The myth of the bloated budget

The New Hampshire Legislature is facing a budget shortfall of massive proportions. The term “structural deficit” has been aptly used to describe the magnitude of the gap between projected revenue and spending. No Rube Goldberg cobbling of multiple revenue streams gets close to balancing against probable state spending in 2009-10.

Nowhere is the budget pain likely to be worse than the Department of Health and Human Services, our largest state agency. To move toward the goal of a balanced budget, the department is being asked to cut 7 percent of its budget – almost $32 million. At least $25 million of this contraction is in cuts to ongoing programs.

The cut request could not come at a worse time.

A tanking economy translates into more unemployment, more evictions, more foreclosures and a higher degree of need. The government safety net, while always important, becomes even more needed now.

Before agreeing to an agenda of further cuts to human services, underlying assumptions need to be examined. One assumption is the idea that there is always more room to slash the Health and Human Services budget. A few years back, a legislator told me that the department budget was a sinkhole of waste. He did not provide any specifics. Apparently, no proof was required, and saying it made it so. The hard-right fantasy is that state government has been recklessly spending money like drunken sailors. No credible evidence is presented.

It is time to call out these fantasies. Neither the Legislature nor the department has engaged in any spending spree. By manufacturing phony images unrelated to fiscal realities, these ideologues are attempting to manipulate public sentiment in the direction of blind budget-cutting. Under this logic, any cut is a good cut.

This game has a long history in New Hampshire, but it has played out. How many times can you simply press the replay button on the mantra, “Cut all taxes and spending”? In 2008, that approach is the equivalent of a sick joke.

The right-wing narrative is bloodless: Cuts are easier when you ignore consequences. Their story line deletes people and their messy needs. The complex economic and medical needs of low-income, elderly and disabled citizens in this state exist.

In 2009-10, the department will not be cutting fat. Take your pick of destructive cuts. Medicaid is far and away the largest program at the department, but it has a federal match. Any cut there will be a double hit, compounded by the loss of federal matching funds.

Cutting Medicaid reimbursements, already extremely low, will make health care more inaccessible to masses of people. A losing proposition would become an even bigger loser. To compensate for the financial loss these patients would represent, premiums for private-pay patients would have to rise.

Ironically, more of the cost borne by programs like Medicaid would end up downshifted to cities and towns.

A 21st century state should have a sustainable 21st century vision. Wholesale cuts to human services is not a vision for a future-oriented state. Maybe it is time to look seriously at the revenue side.

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is a lawyer for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. This article originally appeared in the Concord Monitor.

Categories: Opinion