With just a few weeks to go before the election, groups on both sides of the tax initiative issue are stepping up the pace to convince voters to support their views.
For better or worse, I've already made up my mind on the issue and I imagine I'll take some heat for my decision. Or at least for writing about it. I'm going to vote "no."During the past year, I've attended many of the meetings held by different advocacy and special-interest groups concerned about social service programs. I sat through every budget hearing for both social services and health during the past legislative session and watched lawmakers make tough decisions about which programs to fund and which ones to reduce or discontinue entirely.
I've spent hundreds of hours with people who are involved in a variety of social service programs - particularly low-income people who use heat assistance programs, at-home nursing and food delivery, Medicaid, food stamps, mental health services and public assistance grants - to help them survive. I've become familiar with non-profit organizations that try to help the aged, the mentally and physically handicapped, those with illnesses, the homeless, the hungry, the poor - virtually anyone who has a need.
I've also watched program after program take financial cuts. I can't think of any examples of real program growth, although there may be some. I guarantee that any growth has been more than compensated for by cuts to other programs. In three years, Medicaid has lost over $21 million and even without tax limitations and rollbacks faces a $10 million shortfall.
Welfare reform, expected by advocates to save the state a great deal of money when those who are now receiving grants begin to contribute to the tax base instead of taking from it, has gotten off to a quiet start in Davis County. Part of that quiet start is because lawmakers didn't put money into the program to give it a solid foundation. Instead, the Department of Social Services has shifted money and people from existing programs. And it's too soon to tell if that approach will work - or if it might even hurt the programs that were shifted around.
People who advocate for the aged, the handicapped and the mentally ill say their programs are always among the first to be cut or held "flat" (no increased revenue, despite higher demand, inflation and increased industry costs). Their clients, they say, are also among the most vulnerable.
Recently, the Deseret News has published a series of letters to the editor from citizens who complain that the government won't commit itself to information on the specific cuts it will make. The same writers maintain that the fight against the initiatives is a government-sponsored fight - Big Brother versus the common man.
I don't believe either claim. Media have run a number of stories about programs that public officials have targeted for the 13 percent cut they expect if initiatives pass. (Tax initiative proponents say the cut is only 6.5 percent. Government officials say that 6.5 figure is valid for the half-year when the initiative first takes effect; thereafter it will amount to 13 percent for the full 12-month period.) I have written articles about specific cuts expected by the Socials Services and Health departments.
The stories I have written and the meetings I have covered have not, for the most part, even involved "Big Brother." Groups like Utah Issues, Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Council for the Developmentally Disabled, the Board of Family Services, the Medical Care Advisory Committee, Crossroads Urban Center, Utahns Against Hunger - the list goes on and on - are NOT composed of government officials, though they do interact with the government and make recommendations about programs and services.
Members of these and many other groups are private citizens, just like thousands of others who sit on both sides of the initiative issue. The big difference is that they work with programs and issues and people in need regularly, and I believe they have a pretty clear picture of the effect the initiatives may have.
They also attend interim committee meetings and budget hearings and issue meetings. They take notes and ask questions and learn firsthand what the government is doing. These groups are frequently at odds with government decisions, so a "conspiracy" theory seems a little farfetched.
I'm sure that members of groups that support the initiatives probably attend some of the meetings, too. But I haven't seen them at the meetings I've attended. Not even when they're specifically invited to offer input.