The Poor Tax Gov. Jodi Rell's state budget is a real tear-jerker, especially for the sick and poor
February 12, 2009
I've discovered a fatal flaw in Gov. Jodi Rell's state budget proposal: She promises cuts that'll make you cry but didn't budget any extra for tissues.
Too bad. You're gonna need them. Especially if you're a single mom on Medicaid. Or dying of HIV/AIDS and in need of a caregiver. Or an emergency room patient who needs an interpreter. Rell's proposed budget slashes money for all those things in the name of making government smaller and more accountable — and saving you money.
The wealthiest residents, meanwhile, aren't being asked to sacrifice much of anything, except maybe a few extra bucks for a driver's license.
If you're one of the lucky ones, you might find her budget plan a sensible and affordable vision for delivering essential state services without taxing us all to death.
But if you're on the margins of society — or worried about those who are — you might be reaching for the Kleenex.
Rell's getting high marks for proposing a $38.4 billion two-year budget that doesn't raise taxes or cut funds for public schools or towns, and doesn't rely on dubious accounting tricks.
Last week, the governor stood, sunbathed, in the state House chamber and pitched a blueprint for state spending filled with "pain" and "sacrifice" but no new taxes — and no tax hikes.
True, Rell's budget doesn't increase the income tax or corporate taxes. But a host of fee hikes and budget cuts amount to de facto tax increases on the people who will pay them — often those who can least afford it. Just a few examples:
• Medical interpreters for Medicaid patients get nixed. That puts non-English speakers at risk of getting misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all. Savings: $11.5 million.
• Non-emergency medical care will be denied to non-citizens if they've been here less than five years. Connecticut is now one of 14 states that pays for some care. Savings: $48 million.
• A new program to provide personal care assistance, case management and adult day care for HIV/AIDS patients is delayed until at least 2011. Savings: $5.6 million.
• Monthly health insurance premiums double for families on the HUSKY B program, from $50 to $100. Savings: $3 million.
• HUSKY A patients would pay monthly premiums for the first time. Savings: $18 million.
• Certain mental health drugs will be added to the "preferred drug list," meaning prescriptions for drugs not on the list would require prior approval from doctors — a potentially confusing and time-consuming process that could cause some patients to go without meds altogether. Savings: $2.9 million.
• Dentist visits won't be covered for patients on Medicaid or SAGA unless it's an emergency. That favors costly emergency care over cheaper, preventative care. Savings: $40.7 million.
And that's just the beginning. The "Governor's Budget Summary," a textbook thick with tables and charts on state spending, is filled with program cuts and fee increases that advocates for the poor say will sock families of limited means. Wealthy individuals and middle class families, meanwhile, will pay higher fees for some things but aren't being asked to pay a dime more in taxes.
Rell's budget address railed against the "bloat of bureaucracy" and promised there will be "sacrifice" and "tears."
"Over the years, over the decades, state government often lost sight of what its core mission was and who it was serving," Rell told the General Assembly. "Layer upon layer of bureaucracy has been built so deeply and set so tightly that original goals have been crushed under the weight of permanency."
It was great red meat for her fellow Republicans, who rewarded Rell with several rounds of enthusiastic applause. But it was a troubling reading of what state government's "core mission" is. Apparently, routine teeth cleanings and affordable brain-stabilizing drugs aren't part of it.
While Rell addressed the legislature in soaring and unspecific language, her budget chief Robert Genuario was left to present the press with the gory details.
In a legislative hearing room packed with reporters, Genuario fended off questions about whether the budget was based on current figures, and whether it was fair to all citizens.
Genuario was asked whether charging cash-strapped patients premiums for HUSKY amounts to a tax increase. He just shrugged it off. "Nah," he said.
As Genuario explained it, they had two choices: Kick some people off HUSKY by narrowing eligibility requirements, or make people currently on the plan pay more.
He forgot option C: Do neither, and make up the money somewhere else in the budget, where it won't jeopardize the health of disadvantaged individuals.
Like the budget plan put together by Better Choices for Connecticut, a new progressive coalition working to fend off deep social service cuts. On paper, the plan saves $2.9 billion next year — enough to balance the books without shredding the social safety net. They do it by asking corporations and individuals earning $200,000 or more to pay higher taxes; hiking the sales tax from 6 percent to 7; creating tax credits for working families and small businesses; slashing subsidies for Hollywood filmmaking and raising booze and cigarette taxes.
Bingo: You've just raised nearly $3 billion without robbing services from the sick, the poor and the dying.
Democrats who control the state House and Senate aren't likely to let Rell's harshest cuts stand, but they're not exactly rushing out with their own solutions either. And they're noncommittal at best about taxing the rich to spare the poor.
House Speaker Chris Donovan, the Meriden Democrat praised for his liberal credentials, wouldn't even comment on one of the most obvious solutions: the so-called millionaire's tax. "Certainly we've looked at that in the past. We're going to look at all aspects of how do we get ourselves out of this package and see what we come up with," Donovan told me after Rell's speech. "Everything's on the table."