Saturday, June 23, 2012

Are budget cuts alone Wyoming's only answer?

Reading the proposed budget cuts remind me of the recent Cheyenne Little Theater production of Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman says to Humphrey Bogart, “”I can’t fight it anymore. I don’t know what’s right anymore. You’ll have to think for both of us, Richard. For all of us.” Amidst all the talk about budget cuts, the people of Wyoming need to do some of their own thinking before they find that those elected to do it for them have not.

Clearly revenue projections are concerning. So is the impact of the loss of 130 state jobs and millions of dollars used to contract with the private sector for vital services.  Budgets were cut by 10% near the end of Governor Freudenthal’s term. Governor Mead asked agencies to slice another 8%. As cuts are considered, people need to think seriously about the impact in their own lives.

To begin, public safety is at risk. As a result of earlier cuts, the Department of Corrections eliminated treatment programs for sex offenders. State Senator Tony Ross, the next senate president, acknowledged the problem. "But certainly the hardest population to treat or rehabilitate is the sex offender population, so cuts in those areas may be quite harmful," he told the media.

Those cuts were harmful. Now the Department faces a greater challenge to its responsibility to maintain public safety. If Governor Mead follows through with these cuts, the Department will have to sacrifice a significant number of officers. DOC warned, the potential cuts could jeopardize “the safety and security of (its prisons), the inmates and the community.”

Other agencies also warned cuts will dramatically impact their ability to fulfill their obligations. Reductions will mean fewer public defenders to represent those accused of crimes. That may not bother you…unless you are the accused and can’t afford a lawyer. There’ll be fewer law enforcement officers and fewer resources for the District Attorneys to investigate and prosecute crime.

Notably the Governor and legislators focus is exclusively on cutting budgets. There are no fewer than three other options. First, raise additional revenue.  Second, if the legislature is going to make the easy decisions to simply cut budgets and eliminate positions, how about wrestling with which agency responsibilities should also be eliminated? Third, admit it’s “raining” and tap that so-called “rainy day” account they’ve set aside for some ambiguous reason.

There are revenue-raising ideas to be put into the mix. Wyoming has the lowest alcohol tax in the nation. The tax on beer hasn’t been raised since 1936. Surely the nexus between alcohol abuse and crime is enough to consider booze as a source of revenue for criminal defense and prosecution as well as probation supervision. Likewise, even though the legislature is aware tobacco is one of the main reasons the Medicaid budget is skyrocketing, Wyoming’s tobacco tax is among the lowest in the nation. The national average cigarette tax is $1.45 per pack. Wyoming's is 60 cents. Only tobacco growing states tax tobacco lower. Raising this tax could cover most of the shortfall. Also, in past years, severance taxes were reduced to accommodate market problems that no longer exist. How about revisiting those cuts?

Second, there’s the question of legislative responsibility. Every agency duty is the result of their decisions. The legislature mindlessly inserts unfunded mandates in the law, among them the requirements for agencies to expend hundreds of hours preparing useless reports that are never read. It’s easy to simply cut dollars. But what about all the responsibilities the legislature heaps on state employees? Are legislators willing to reduce the workload? Likely not. That would be far too risky.

Finally, what of the millions Wyoming has set aside for a rainy day? If the state cannot afford to hire probation officers, it’s raining hard enough to use some of that savings. “The rain in Spain,” they say, “falls mainly on the plain.” The rain in Wyoming, it seems, falls mainly on the heads of people who need services. 

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