State News

House looks to cut another $265M from human services

Posted June 2, 2009 4:02 a.m. EDT
Updated June 2, 2009 6:28 p.m. EDT

North Carolina flag, NC flag, state flag, N.C. flag

— Dozens of nonprofit organizations and service providers said Tuesday that cutting North Carolina's state budget alone to balance it would increase unemployment and delay the economic recovery.

The coalition of more than 60 groups, called "Together NC," urged lawmakers to raise taxes to help narrow a proposed $4.6 billion budget gap for next year.

House Democrats last week rolled out proposed spending plans that would make dramatic spending cuts and reduce or eliminate services, including slashing $1.4 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services.

An appropriations committee discovered a miscalculation in the DHHS budget proposal, however, requiring lawmakers to find another $265 million in cuts.

"The impact of this (additional reduction) is quite significant," DHHS Secretary Lanier Cansler told lawmakers.

The revised plan was roundly criticized Tuesday by human services advocates, who compared the mood in the committee room to a funeral.

"This is a horrid proposal in every way, shape and form, and the funeral analogy is really on purpose because I do believe that, with this budget, people will die," said John Tote, executive director of the Mental Health Association of North Carolina. "Let's just euthanize people that are old and sick in our state and get it over with instead of the slow death that we're going to be inflicting upon people."

The revisions included cuts to the Smart Start preschool program, high-risk group homes and child care subsidies, freezing enrollment in a medical insurance program for needy children and eliminating a dental health program.

"It really does put children's lives at risk," said Karen McLeod, president of the North Carolina Children and Family Services Association.

Lawmakers expressed concern at how cuts were being made.

"We change numbers, (and) things shift around. There's no way we can see what we did last time versus this time," said Rep. Jeff Barnhart, R-Cabarrus. "Then you study to get comparisons, (and) the next time we get a different sheet with different numbers. I'm just frustrated with the way we do this."

The budget proposal is expected to go to a House committee vote on Thursday.

One of the few positive comments about the proposal was that lawmakers created a list of preferred prescription drugs for people on Medicaid, which would be a blow to the powerful drug-industry lobby.

"This shows how deep the budget crisis is that legislators are willing to strike against those kinds of costs with a big political contributor," said Adam Searing, of the North Carolina Justice Center's Health Access Coalition.

Budget proposals offered by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Senate both included about $500 million in additional revenue through a combination of tax increases and fees, but House budget-writers have resisted attempts to include new taxes in their proposal.

"From Day 1, I have believed that you have to have some new mix of revenue to solve the problem," Perdue said. "I believe the voters in North Carolina want cuts – they want massive cuts – but they don't want to cripple the work of the state and the future of this state."

John Quinterno, research associate with the N.C. Justice Center, said everyone statewide would be affected by a cutting-only approach to the budget because public workers who lose their jobs would spend less in their communities.

"At some point, the General Assembly is going to have to stand up and grow a backbone and say, 'We can't stand those cuts. We're in a terrible economic situation right now. Nobody wants their taxes raised, but we're going to have to do it,'" Tote said.