The new legislative session starts next week.
A lot of the most interesting stories a reporter writes originate in the workings of government. So the state Legislature is one of the best story sources I've found.Even so, as the session approaches, I feel some dread, as well as anticipation.
The dread, I think, comes from seeing the terrible burden lawmakers face as they try to meet all the needs in the state.
Sometimes, I think that passing laws is a snap, compared to setting the budget that will affect every single Utahn.
During the appropriations subcommittee hearings, I have met interesting people who lead lives far different from anything I can imagine. People give up their privacy to tell lawmakers what it's like to need programs and services desperately. Some of those services exist, others don't.
Dozens of people tell their stories at each of the meetings, which take place two or three times a week for several weeks. For instance:
An aging mother described her fears about the present and the future of her adult son who has mental retardation. Until he was 22, he went to school every day, where he learned to make the most of his limited abilities. After that, he came home to sit. There was no place for him in a sheltered workshop. And as she and her husband get older (both are in their late 60s), they worry about what will happen to their son when they can no longer care for him.
A young mother of three described trying to run her household on the welfare grant that provides the family's only income. They live far below the federal poverty guideline, but she has not been able to find a job and she can't afford child care with the type of work for which she is qualified. Even with assistance to pay for child care, she couldn't make it; she would lose the medical protection they receive from Medicaid.
An elderly man described his feeling about the Alternatives program, operated on a county level with pass-through state money. With limited and comparatively inexpensive help from the program, he lived in his own home in the community. Without that help, he would go into a nursing home - which, incidentally, would cost more taxpayer money than Alternatives.
The Alternatives program only serves people who meet income eligibility criteria and have such fragile health that they are within a few months of admission to a nursing home.
Within Human Services and Health, there's a coalition that keeps backbiting at bay. Representatives from a number of groups have joined forces to see that people who are disadvantaged or disabled don't compete with each other for limited dollars. Instead, they try to present a unified front to see that basic needs are met.
The process, however, generates an unspoken competition. And it puts services that are crucial to society at odds with each other.
It's hard to forget the last session, for example, when education dominated the agenda. I don't think that anyone doubted a crisis in education funding. But attention was diverted from other areas, including corrections, public safety, human services and health, which also have a very real impact on people's lives.
How do you decide whether it's more important to put money into overcrowded prisons or into reducing classroom size? Do you maintain state roads or do you help a frail senior citizen stay at home as long as possible? Do you provide oxygen to a woman who can't afford it and can't live without it, or do you fund programs that provide early intervention to students who are labeled "at-risk"?
Along the way, each department will try to find ways to show the impact if their requests are not funded.
Norman G. Angus, director of Human Services, talked last week about that battle. How, he wondered, can he get lawmakers to understand the lives of the people his programs serve?
In the middle and upper class, we really have no conception of true poverty. We don't know what it's like to live in a $150 apartment with three kids because that's all we can afford - and even that's a struggle. We can drop in at the homeless shelters or soup kitchens and see poverty close up, but we don't live those lives. We don't know the grinding, eroding process that can wear people down.
We can't walk in each others' shoes. And try as he might, Angus fears he won't be able to convey the reality of caring for a much-loved, severely handicapped child with no hope of respite or of being an abused child in a system where caseloads are huge.
I don't have an answer for Angus, although I know his question is vital.
That's why I genuinely look forward to this session. And I dread it.