Sharon Sayles Clinton

"GUNS VS. BUTTER" is how the headlines characterized the Minneapolis budget battle that briefly caught the spotlight last week. The way it was framed, it was hard not to recognize a familiar story line: Chief executive bent on protecting social programs battles budget-cutting legislative majority. In Minneapolis, the battle was between Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, whose city budget proposed no tax increase, lots of government "redesign," and otherwise little new; and a self-described "fiscally moderate" City Council caucus whose proposed cuts included city contributions to the Minnesota AIDS Project, Legal Aid, and the Harriet Tubman battered women's shelter as well as a massive program to remove vacant and boarded-up housing. Part of the money saved was to go for the purchase of 120 new police cars.

When the news got out, the fiscal moderates had a mess on their hands. Hundreds turned out for a public hearing on the budget last Wednesday, all but a few of them in protest of the proposed cuts. The coalition frayed at the edges, and on Friday the council and the mayor announced a compromise that left much of the mayor's budget in place.

Lost in the fracas was the fact that, on balance, the mayor and the fiscal moderates were in almost perfect agreement the entire time. Sayles Belton also wanted to buy those police cars (and hire 40 new officers, plus a number of civilian police employees); they differed only with respect to financing them. It was the mayor who proposed the most drastic cuts in social programs. The fight last week was only over additions to her list.

The mayor's budget recommendations fill some 143 pages in a glossy binder featuring the motto of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden: "Let Nature Be Your Teacher." Walking through the document, it seems that Sayles Belton let Darwin be her teacher. Tucked away in the middle is the section on "Healthy Families and Children," a phrase that practically sums up her 1993 campaign platform. Here, it kicked off a series of recommendations to chop direct services from the city's department of Public Health, close two maternal/child health clinics, and contract out most of the work the city's public health nurses do. In all, the mayor suggested, this would save the city about a quarter-million dollars immediately and eliminate 73 mostly permanent, full-time jobs.

It's worth noting here that such programs aren't the odd, recent additions to "basic city services" they're sometimes made out to be; rather, the city has been pulling away from social services for decades now. At one point, Minneapolis owned and ran the general hospital, the jail, and all of the welfare services. Well-baby clinics, says health commissioner Carolyn McKay, predate the 1920s.

What the mayor had in mind here, her allies say, is essentially an attempt to save the city's health programs by bombing them. Congress is all but certain to cut funds for those kinds of programs, notes Sayles Belton spokeswoman Mary Pattock; so instead of waiting until the cuts hit, and then closing things down, the city is trying to move the clients over to a network of county or nonprofit agencies where they might hope to survive. Of course, counties and nonprofits anticipate cuts of their own, but Pattock says the mayor hopes that, some way or another, "Those clinics would lose some money, but these people would not be left high and dry."

Other items in the mayor's budget included the contracting out of dental clinics for children who can't get their teeth checked elsewhere; of public health nurse visits to "socially complex pregnant women" and families with small kids; of one program to screen children for developmental disabilities and another designed to make sure that low-income minority teen mothers have healthy babies; and--ironically, considering how the mayor's allies blasted the "fiscal moderates" for proposing AIDS funding cuts--not renewing the $60,000 contribution the city made to the Aliveness Project in 1994.

In addition, Sayles Belton recommends that the city pull back from, or--in the official wording--"reactivate the original partners for," the high school mini-clinics that deal with everything from sore throats to sexual abuse. The clinics at one point got funding from the school district and the health care industry, but those commitments have largely lapsed, leaving the burden mostly with the city. Sayles Belton staffers say they hope outside funding will flow again in the face of crisis, but admit they can't guarantee that.

All these could be described as fairly draconian cuts, especially at a time when the need for things like subsidized health care and housing is only growing. But no one used that kind of language during the big Minneapolis budget battle, where the "anti-kid, anti-family" rhetoric was reserved for broadsides directed at the fiscal moderates. And in that sense, the fight does eerily resemble the tug-of-war in Washington: There, you have a president who embraces massive cuts in spending for the poor while staking out a line-in-the-sand position against those who would slash even more. Political professionals are open about how this will position Clinton and the Democrats perfectly for 1996. Sayles Belton won't be up for reelection until a year after that, but perhaps it's never too soon.

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