Friday, June 19, 2009

State leaders need to raise revenue, not cut funding from social service programs

Representatives from local social service organizations met in Athens on Monday, June 15 in order to discuss how the next state budget could have drastic impacts on services for people living in need and to explain why the state needs to raise revenue instead of just cutting funding.

Advocates for Budget Legislation and Equality (ABLE), organized the meeting and is sponsoring similar meetings and press conferences around the state to discuss the current budget situation. Click here to read ABLE's budget platform, and click here for more information on ABLE.
Ohio leaders are currently trying to fill a $3.2 billion shortfall in the next state budget, which will begin in July. Representatives of ABLE and other organizations are concerned that in order to solve the budget crisis, state leaders will further cut funding for social services programs.

“We need to raise more revenue,” said Jason Denzin, a statewide organizer for ABLE. Programs that help Ohio’s most vulnerable populations have already had their budgets cut, and the state needs to find ways to bring in more funding instead of cutting spending for these programs, he said.

Kathleen Gmeiner, representative of Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN) of Ohio, said that if the state cuts funding for Medicaid, it would also lose federal funding for the program. In fact, for every $0.40 that the state pays toward Medicaid, the federal government matches with $0.60, Gmeiner said. So if state leaders try to fill part of the budget gap by cutting this funding, they will be actually losing more than twice the amount of money they cut, and it will be extremely harmful to the people who rely on Medicaid services.

Cindy Birt, representing Athens County Family and Children First, explained that she is concerned about the state cutting funding for the Help Me Grow program, which is an early intervention program for that provides health care and development services for children. Studies have shown that investing in early intervention programs actually saves the state money in the long run, because if the children don’t receive these important services they will likely need assistance from more expensive state programs when they are older.

Lois Whealey and Mike Turner spoke out against cutting funding for senior citizens. Whealey said the state needs to do more to help seniors stay in their own homes. Turner added that if the state had not started rolling back taxes in 2005, Ohio would not have these budget problems.
“The tax cuts did not work,” Turner said.

Cliff Bonner, a teacher from the Federal Hocking Local School District, said his district has already had to eliminate several teaching, administrative and staff positions. He would like to the school funding system changed to be more fair and equitable, and he is concerned about public schools losing money in the budget battle.

Bill Sams, who represents the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 8, said that the state has already cut funding to social service programs and has eliminated countless jobs with these programs at a time when unemployment rates are already very high.

In addition, at a time when more people are living in poverty and the demand for social service programs is increasing, the state is reducing the number of people who are working for these programs, he said. It is wrong both practically and morally for the state to be reducing the number of people working to help people in need during these economic times, Sams said.

William Peacock spoke out for the needs of the disabled in Ohio, and said he is concerned about cuts in funding for programs for these individuals.

Lisa Roberts, director of the Friends and Neighbors Community Choice Food Pantry in Lottridge, said food pantries are seeing their demand increase more and more as the economy worsens.

“I see people lining up for two or three hours before the doors open,” Roberts said. “I see senior citizens standing out in the snow or the rain.” People need to have their basic needs met first before anything else, and more and more people are being forced to visit food banks, Roberts said.

“If you are hungry, you really can’t be anything else,” she said. Roberts believes the governor and state leaders are trying to help the poor, but they are faced with a very challenging budget situation. She hopes that the state will not cut funding programs for food banks or for people living in poverty, though, because so many people rely on these programs.
“We see new people every day,” Roberts said.

Jack Frech, director of Athens County Job and Family Services, pointed out that even before the recession began, Athens County and southeast Ohio were already hurting economically. The poverty rate in Athens County, for example, has been nearly 30 percent for several years, and nearly 50 percent of the population live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, Frech said.

“Children are going hungry in Ohio. There’s no excuse for that,” Frech said. The national recession has caused the economic problems to spread into parts of the state that have never experienced these types of poverty problems before, he added.
“This is a statewide issue,” Frech said.

People are facing problems with unemployment, lack of health care, hunger and numerous other issues, and now is not the time to cut funding for programs to help these people, Frech said. Instead, now is the time for people to pull together and share resources. The state needs to find ways to increase its revenue, not just cut funding, Frech said.

The people with more financial stability in Ohio and across the country have to work together and share with the people who have very little, Frech said. The gap between the rich and poor is widening, and our leaders need to make changes to help the poor and decrease this gap.

Denzin of ABLE pointed out a few simple ways that state leaders could raise revenue without hurting the poor. Currently, Ohio has $7 billion worth of tax exemptions, and state leaders need to look at some of these exemptions to see if any can be reduced or eliminated, he said. In addition, the state should roll back the tax cuts that were put into place in 2005 and then phased in over the next five years, Denzin said.

These are just two steps, but they would go a long way toward helping to fill the state’s budget shortfall.