When the Legislature ended its regular session at the end of February, Utah's social services were left critically underfunded. Officials are now faced with the heartbreaking choice of where to cut or eliminate by July 1 - the start of the fiscal year - and each decision will have its own quotient of human suffering.
Some programs will be eliminated entirely, others will be cut. The poorest of the poor, the sickest, the most severely handicapped, are facing reductions in help that already was on the wrong side of bare survival.Given the increasingly obvious nature of the impact of such basic cuts, Gov. Norm Bangerter should include a proposal for a $9.9 million supplement on the Legislature's special session agenda for April 17 - despite the administration's claim that no money is available.
How bad is the problem?
The Utah Human Services Coalition has identified 22 critical programs eliminated or cut by lawmakers. The coalition - representing 75 organizations - is seeking minimal financing for a "can't wait list."
During the regular session of the Legislature, the Human Services and Health Appropriations Subcommittee had a similar list of $11 million, painfully cut down from an earlier total of $17 million. By the session's close, the Legislature had funded only a fraction of the request, although subcommittee members opposed their own legislative leaders to fight for the funds.
That stubborn and rare political refusal to back down, even though it turned out to be a losing cause, illustrates an interesting phenomenon: Those lawmakers who know the most about human services are the strongest backers of adequate funding, no matter what political philosophy they espouse. In committee hearings, they see the often tragic human face of social service needs.
It's true the fiscal 1991-92 budget is tight, afflicted by revenue shortfalls and rising needs. But arguments can still be made for taking up the question in the special session.
First, state revenue projections may improve in the final months of the fiscal year ending June 30. Even if they don't, the $9.9 million is a very small figure in the total state budget and surely there is some wriggle room when so much human suffering is at stake. If necessary, lawmakers can go back in special session to make adjustments later in the year.
Second, the $9.9 million being sought actually is worth a lot more to state and local governments. If appropriated, that $9.9 million would bring another $12.2 million in federal matching funds - money that is currently lost to already-hurting human service programs.
Third, money spent on some human service programs is actually cheaper than what it costs the state for ignoring the issue. Just one of many examples: Some families eligible for welfare refuse to accept it but do need what is called Medical Assistance Only. That program has been cut, which means that such families must go on welfare in order to get medical help, thus costing the state much more money.
Fourth, the state has more than $50 million in its "rainy day fund" for emergencies. The human service crisis ought to qualify as a emergency. When it comes to funding, why do the poor, the children, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped - the neediest among us - carry such a painful share of the state's belt-tightening?
Ultimately, this is not merely a question of money. How Utah cares for those most in need has profound moral overtones as well.