Penny-Wise, Billion-Foolish

Pawlenty's plan to slash health and human services only looks good on paper

A billion dollars in cuts requires dozens and dozens of densely typed pages--providing an opportunity for budgetary sleight of hand. Right now, for example, the state mandates that the counties provide about $10 million to train and house mentally disabled citizens during the daytime. Pawlenty proposes eliminating the mandate, thus making the program voluntary. Odds are that the counties--who are themselves financially strapped due to the governor's drastic cuts in local government aid--will opt out of their now-voluntary $10 million obligation. That potential cut, which is not reflected in Pawlenty's budget, amounts to a hidden cut on the disabled poor.

Another cagey proposal appears to be a shell game involving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a federally mandated program to care for children on welfare. Under Pawlenty's proposal, disabled single parents who receive supplemental security income will have that TANF money cut by $175 per month. "You're talking about taking money from the poorest of the poor; an 18 percent reduction for a disabled single parent whose family income is $800 to $1000 a month, and who can't work," says Reggie Wagner of the Legal Services Advocacy Project. "My client doesn't have anything left at the end of the month now. This is a dedicated revenue stream for a specific population, involving mostly federal money. By the state's own standards, it shouldn't be cut."

The eventual cost of Pawlenty's "savings" will be staggering
The eventual cost of Pawlenty's "savings" will be staggering

What is at stake here is nothing less than the state's identity. The testimony of Mark Peterson, president of Lutheran Social Services, summarizes it well. "What is at the center of this debate is whether or not Minnesota will continue to distinguish itself in American society by demonstrating the effectiveness of social investment." One motivation for that social investment is compassion. But another, equally vital motivation is getting the most bang for the bucks you spend--and the bucks that you cut.

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