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Helping States Make Good Choices

Resource type: News

New York Times |

Original Source


The rapidly deteriorating economy has confronted states with their toughest budget decisions in years. This month, about 45 states reported budget gaps for the present fiscal year and most expect to struggle with shortfalls over the next two years.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that these deficits could reach $350 billion. Individual budget gaps could be quite large — at least a 10 percent difference between income and spending in New York and five other states this year. Since a majority of state constitutions require balanced budgets, the only alternatives are to raise taxes or cut spending.

To cope, many states are spending less on health care and education, which take up a large percentage of most state budges. But the bottom line is that there are few good choices and a lot of very bad ones, since services would be cut at the moment of greatest need.

President Obama has promised federal help, and the $825 billion stimulus package being considered in Congress contains more than $250 billion in badly needed aid to states. It is hard to see how essential state programs can survive without it.

New Jersey, to take one example, is cutting funds for charity care in hospitals; Massachusetts has trimmed spending for Head Start. Tennessee’s health care reductions could deprive 30,000 to 40,000 sick people of needed care.

Federal help also could keep states from rushing into short-term fixes that could have bad long-term consequences. Pre-kindergarten programs save enormous amounts of money later on because as the students age they are less likely to repeat a grade, need special education or get involved with the justice system.

On the plus side, the fiscal crisis may force states to think creatively and, for once, use plain common sense. States burdened with billions of dollars in soaring prison budgets, like California, may no longer be able to afford the three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws that lock up nonviolent offenders for decades for minor crimes.

The common itch to build new prisons must also be controlled; even Texas is beginning to make distinctions between chronic violent offenders who need long-term incarceration and those who don’t. Utah, meanwhile, has put its full-time employees on a four-day workweek. This has saved on energy bills and, surprisingly, in reduced sick pay. Some hard choices can be wise ones.

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