I've been watching the collection of signatures for the tax limitation initiatives with interest, and I've noticed something that seems strange to me:
A lot of the people I have met who carried petitions during the past year are people who have benefited directly - and heavily - from the taxes collected by the state of Utah.They have benefited because of public assistance programs like food stamps and grants, they have enjoyed the education provided in this state for their children, they have found state-sponsored programs for their mentally ill or handicapped children and siblings, and they have turned gratefully to the state to help them take care of elderly, fragile parents.
Those who didn't use programs themselves seemed to know and love someone who does benefit because there was a program of some sort in place to help carry the burden of living.
And those people frighten me. They don't seem to see a connection between what they take from the state in the form of assistance and what they want to take from the state in the form of tax limitations.
Because proponents of the initiatives have said they don't want to hurt anyone - particularly the poor and education - these good-hearted, often-very-intelligent people have collected signatures to put the initiative on the ballot in November.
I think that's fine. The people of Utah have every right to put any issue they feel is important on the ballot.
But along with that right comes a duty: To learn the facts before making a decision or casting a vote.
One fact that can't be ignored is that the proponents - even the architects - of the initiative can say a million times that social service programs and education won't be hurt, but they can't back it up with facts.
They have the power to put the matter before the voters; they do not have the power to decide where cuts will be made.
That's the job of the Legislature. And there's a good chance that programs that help people to merely exist will take some of the punches.
Staffers in the Office of Planning and Budget have estimated, for example, that if the initiatives pass, the Department of Social Services will have to cut $14 million out of its budget.
Many of Utah's dollars are matched with federal dollars, though, so that means that $1 cut in certain programs will equal $3 to $4 in actual services. Norman Angus, department director, thinks the cuts could go as high as $30 million.
Each social service program helps a segment of the population, from the elderly to the low-income to the disabled. There's no way to cut a program without affecting people.
Not everyone gets hurt by every program cut. But the department has put together a list of programs that will likely be reduced or eliminated, and when you look at all of it, it's pretty devastating.
Federal law mandates some programs, so the cuts have to come from other programs. Here are a few of the changes the department will propose (with some minor changes, probably) if it is told to eliminate $14 million. I'll write about others in a future column:
Day care slots for low-income families will be reduced by 465. Because some of the people on public assistance won't be able to take jobs, the welfare caseload could climb.
They will also be less able to work if they lose their income "disregard," another proposed cut. (As an incentive to allow people on public assistance to work, the state "disregards" a percentage of income earned when calculating eligibility for grants.)
In mental health, the state would eliminate the sex-offender treatment unit at the State Hospital.
If that happens, the prison system will have to take them into its population, so these men will not only not get treated, they will continue to cost the state from a different line item. The state would also reduce pass-through funds to county programs by $1,662,000 and eliminate a total of 91 full-time positions.
In Services to the Handicapped, 240 clients will have to leave residential programs, 158 won't receive day treatment services, 2,000 hours of respite care for families will end, and 180 clients in community programs will no longer be served. The Training School will turn away 118 individuals.
The state won't distribute or create pamphlets and films to fight substance abuse, and a large chunk of money will be taken away from local-level abuse programs.
Obviously, these changes won't affect everyone. They'll just affect those who are the least able to care for themselves: the disabled, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, etc. Most Utahns will still be all right.
If they can live with the consequences.