Once again, politicians in Jefferson City are trying to score political points by targeting the poor.
Ignoring an optimistic revenue picture, the Missouri Senate last week passed a budget that singles out social services for dangerous and unnecessary cuts.
“I’m adamant in the fact that we’re going to rein in welfare growth,” declared state Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, the architect of a plan to cut funding to the departments of social services, mental health and health and senior services.
Schaefer’s actions in office are all geared to promoting his 2016 run for attorney general. And rhetoric about getting tough on “welfare” would no doubt resonate on the campaign trail. But his proposals amount to a callous attack on low-income senior citizens, foster children, Missourians with disabilities and people with mental illnesses.
They also are puzzling from a political standpoint. The legislature has taken extreme measures to wrest control over spending from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. Now, Schaefer and other Republicans are proposing to give the governor more authority than ever over how money is spent — albeit less money.
Instead of allocating money for specific programs, the legislature would give money to the departments in the form of block grants. Together, the three departments would lose $130 million. But because state monies are needed to draw down federal funds for some of the programs, the total loss would be closer to $300 million, officials said.
Services that could be affected include funding for foster care families, support for Missourians with disabilities, energy assistance for low-income families and treatment for abused and neglected children.
There are a host of reasons for the legislature to deep-six this plan. Among them:
▪ Contrary to Schaefer’s assertions that the three targeted departments are flush with money, all three have already cut their operations drastically. The Department of Mental Health, for instance, has absorbed almost $30 million in budget cuts over the last five years.
Cuts to the Department of Social Services have contributed to bureaucratic chaos and a near-breakdown in the processing of applications for Medicaid, food stamps and child care subsidies. In one month in 2014, the department logged 250,000 calls for assistance, and 150,000 of them disconnected because the wait was so long. People have reported filling out applications and receiving no response.
Delays like this leave people without needed medical care or food assistance in times of need. Working parents may have to patch together unsafe child care arrangements. The department is working on the problems and says it is making progress. Further budget cuts will only set back those efforts.
▪ Missouri continues to refuse to expand Medicaid eligibility, thereby turning away millions in federal dollars that could be used to serve mentally ill individuals and other low-income populations. If Schaefer and others really want to reduce the state’s responsibility for “welfare” costs, they would expand the limits and take advantage of federal funds to pay most of the cost.
The proposed cuts, coming on top of the stalemate on Medicaid expansion, reveal the Republican majority’s disregard for low-income working families.
▪ The legislature has done nothing again this session to rein in Missouri’s most insidious form of welfare — the more than half a billion dollars a year that the state forfeits with its runaway tax credit programs.
Tax credits allow recipients to keep tax revenues they would normally return to the state. The programs have become a favorite way for the legislature to award favors. And unlike the money the state spends to protect children, help developmentally disabled citizens lead productive lives and provide summer jobs for low-income teenagers, tax credit programs aren’t subject to annual legislative review or restraint.
Lawmakers know they should curb the unending giveaways to the powerful, but they haven’t mustered the political will.
Instead, they are targeting people who are in no position to protest — like children, elderly Missourians and people struggling with developmental disabilities and mental illness.
These people need and deserve competent and compassionate treatment from their state government. The plan from the Missouri Senate aims to replace that with callous contempt.