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At the town hall forum in Kirkwood last Thursday, the audience was more than polite to Republican Representative Rick Stream, vice-chair of the House Budget Committee. He was there to defend Republican budget cuts to an unsympathetic audience, but they were gracious. Three or four different people characterized him as a man of integrity, and no one even got near an insulting tone. Four panelists from different faith organizations spoke for five minutes each, appealing to his sympathies for the most vulnerable people in Missouri, those affected by the budget cuts. Their tone was deferential.

Politeness will get you only so far, however, when what you’re saying is beside the point, and as far as Stream was concerned, the speakers’ pleas were not germane to making a budget. They were only saying what he had already heard (too) many times. He, on the other hand, believes that hard headed fiscal policy is critical to good state government, and liberal sympathies don’t fit that mold. He told us that because Republicans cut 100,000 Missourians off Medicaid in 2005, the state is in better financial shape now than lots of other states. To his mind, you do what you have to do.

But Stream was not crass in his dismissal of the speakers. He was patient and courteous. He tried to make them understand that there are only so many cherries in the pie, no matter how many people want a bite of it.

And in fact, he maintains that Republicans are not guilty of “budget cuts.” He says they have increased funds for health care, the social services, and education.  The Mental Health budget, for example, is up $9 million, from $1.159 billion to $1.168 billion. The Health and Senior Services budget is up $12 million, from $855 million to $867 million. And the Social Services budget has increased to $7.07 billion from $6.89 billion. He cited these figures in such a modulated accountant’s voice that it was well nigh impossible to disbelieve him.

And I don’t disbelieve him. I’m sure his figures were accurate. But there were some points he neglected to bring up. The rate of inflation is about 5 percent a year–and higher than that for Medicaid and some social services. But the percentage increases of the items he cited work out to be only:

  • up .78 percent for Mental Health funding.
  • up 1.4 percent for Health and Senior Services funding.
  • up 2.61 percent for Social Services funding.

Representative Stream sounded so trustworthy, even generous, when he cited all those increases. But he did glide right by the fact that the budgeted increases are staring at inflationary pressures from the bottom of a well. And we owe even those skimpy increases to reliance on federal funds and deep slashes to state funds, such as the cuts to Mental Health Services, affecting thousands of children and adults with severe mental illness or developmental disabilities.

The cuts to state funds in all three categories stacked up this way:

  • State Mental Health contributions went from $616.6 million (see HB 2010 pdf) to just shy of $582 million.
  • State Health and Senior Services funding went from $243.6 million (see HB 2010 pdf) to $238.3 million.
  • State Social Services funding went from $1.6 billion (see HB 2011 pdf) to $1.5 billion.

What can I say? Beware of Republicans bearing budgets. And such parsimony is unnecessary, what with federal stimulus funds for just such purposes on the way.

Tsk! Rap my fingers with a ruler for being so unfair. As Stream was quick to mention, nobody knows yet exactly how much federal funding we’re going to get, when we’re going to get it, what strings may be attached and when we’ll be allowed to use it. One cannot build a state budget on ifs and maybes. One needs the hard data.

But, as Ruth Ehresman of the Missouri Budget Project pointed out to me, legislators know that they will be getting in the neighborhood of $167 million in the next two years. The funds are to be used to “prevent cuts to critical services during an economic downturn when larger numbers of people are vulnerable, and to maintain and create jobs that will stimulate the economy.”

True, that promise is not the same as having the check in your account, but this is a budget not a bank register we’re dealing with. Say your company regularly does business with a reliable firm that is slated to pay you $120,000 by a certain date. You’d feel safe putting at least $90,000 of that in your budget. You wouldn’t call Laclede Gas and cancel your account–and all of your heat for next winter–because you didn’t have the $90 thou in hand. You’d budget on a reasonable expectation.

The word that’s been floating around–and take this for what it’s worth, but it is consistent with Republican ideology–is that budget chairman Allen Icet wants to use the stimulus money for tax rebates for everyone. Talk about surrendering hard headed fiscal policy in favor of being nice to people! As W discovered last year, tax rebates don’t stimulate much of anything.

Still, reasonable people might disagree about whether it makes more sense to help Missourians pay off their credit card debt or to prevent 70,000 of the most vulnerable from losing state services–like, say, the abused and neglected children of the state who’ve had $1.5 million  cut from the funds that help them. But since our Republican budget-meisters pride themselves on being practical, here’s an unsentimental fact for their consideration: cutting services to 70,000 poor people also means cutting something like 3700 jobs at the clinics and offices that provide the aid. Most of those 3700 will then lose their health insurance, thus deepening the job losses in the health care industry in Missouri. Furthermore, cutting services to the 70,000 makes it less likely they’ll be healthy enough to work and contribute.

Pardon me for being a hard nosed pragmatist, but using that calculus, I think helping people pay off their credit card debt should come in second to helping the helpless.

Stream also used the “we didn’t have the details” defense when asked about why the committee did not increase Medicaid funding, considering that the Missouri Hospital Association is volunteering to raise its own tax rate. The additional millions the Association will contribute each year will draw down almost $93 million in federal funds, for a total of an additional $104 million in absolutely free Medicaid funding.

As I said earlier, this is a budget, not a bank register. The committee knew enough to include more Medicaid funding in the budget. Stream asserted that Nixon made the announcement about the Hospital Association’s offer without actually talking to Republican budget committee members. If so, that’s an oversight on Nixon’s part, but his lapse doesn’t excuse the committee’s stubbornness. I call it stubbornness because the Republicans have, with their shifting justifications, made it plain they don’t want to help people earning less than half the poverty level. When asked about the committee’s decision, Icet said nothing about not having the figures in hand yet. His excuse was that the state couldn’t assume those free funds would be there again next year. Actually, they almost surely will, but hey, if you fix someone’s broken wheelchair this year so that she can take care of herself, it might continue to function next year–so that she can continue taking care of herself, even without Medicaid, thus saving the state the expense of caring for her. (The only speaker that night who came even within shouting distance of being irate was the woman who described just such a case.)

But I can’t resist pointing out that Republicans could have spared themselves looking like skinflints if, when this story broke a week and a half ago, they had at least announced their willingness to accept the Hospital Association’s offer at a future date. And if they had considered raising taxes on wealthier Missourians rather than dumping Medicaid recipients down the cistern three years ago, our state would be just as solvent–more so, in fact, because we wouldn’t have had to forfeit $1.5 billion dollars in federal Medicaid funds. Keep in mind that turning down that 1.5 billion raised health insurance premiums for all of us, and that’s a back door tax, imposed by those who supposedly hate higher taxes. One way or another, Missourians were going to get taxed.

Aside from these practicalities, think of the religious implication for those Republicans who consider themselves devout: if they had helped the poor, their consciences would be more in line with Biblical admonitions to do so.

The audience members who praised Rick Stream’s integrity were quite possibly correct about that. I don’t presume to judge. But I challenge any of them to convince me that he  and his party are hard nosed and sensible about budgeting.  Fiscal restraint is good and necessary. I’m in favor of it. But fiscal parsimony in a deep recession is not only not humane, it’s not smart.