Stateline Story

Budget Axe Fells State Programs

Programs to prevent youth violence in Colorado cancelled. Two-thirds of the school bus stops in Tulsa, Oklahoma eliminated. Stockpiles of the flu vaccines usually purchased by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reduced by nineteen percent.

All are victims of state budget cuts. And each, in its own way, is indicative of the kinds of actions lawmakers in many states are taking to keep their budgets balanced in the face of declining tax revenues and a lagging national economy.

Take Massachusetts, for example, which at one time faced a budget deficit of more than $2 billion. One place where state lawmakers looked for savings is the flu vaccination program.

"This is historic in the program's existence," said Roseanne Pawelec, public affairs director for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "We've never (before) had to cut or eliminate doses we've ordered."

Budget cuts reduced Massachusetts' flu vaccine stockpile for the coming winter from 700,000 to 568,000 doses. Last year, the department had 744,000 doses on hand.

As a result, public health officials are urging local communities and health clinics to make immunizing the elderly and infirm a priority.

"The younger and healthier you are the longer you may have to wait for your shot," Pawelec told Stateline.org.

The cut in flu shots is but one sign of the Bay state's budget blues. Lawmakers have also cut from many other state programs and have stalled a planned decrease in the state income tax.

Many other states find themselves in similarly severe fiscal straits. In April, 43 states reported budget gaps totaling $27.3 billion for fiscal year 2002, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures . That gap has grown to $57.9 billion for fiscal year 2003, according to NCSL. The consequences for state programs, from healthcare to police to education, are as significant as they are widespread.

In Oklahoma, school funding was reduced $119 million, a cut of 4.5 percent, after tax revenue came in below estimates for the first few months of the fiscal year.

"It's going to be a very difficult year," said Sandy Garrett, the superintendent of schools in Oklahoma. "Depressing, disappointing most aptly describe the situation."

How the cuts play out at the local level will differ from district to district, said Garrett. But she expects school leaders to look at teacher layoffs, class size increases and various other cost saving measures.

Tulsa school superintendent David Sawyer increased average class size by one student, cut librarians in the district's six smallest elementary sites, reduced the pay of substitutes from $90 to $75 per day and moved the school start date from mid-August to the Tuesday after Labor Day in an effort to make up for $6.5 million in lost funding.

"We're turning the lights out," said John Hamill, director of public information for the Tulsa public schools. "I know this sounds dippy, but I turned my light out during lunch today."

The cost-saving measure that most raised the ire of parents was the elimination of 50 bus routes and drivers and a cut in the number of bus stops from 900 to 300. After these cuts, the school system could guarantee transportation for only those students who live more than a mile-and-a-half from school.

"It caused a great deal of consternation on the part of some parents," said Hamill.

So the parents complained. In response, Tulsa added 56 more bus stops, but it couldn't afford to restore all of the original routes.

In South Carolina, money for mental health was scaled back.

"We have case mangers trying to manage 150 patients. That's ludicrous," said Tom Ward, public affairs director for the Columbia Area Mental Health Center , an organization that serves mostly low-income individuals.

Ward said such large caseloads means patients will have to wait longer before seeing their case manager or doctor, possibly resulting in more serious problems down the road. But he added that the budget debate is forcing lawmakers to look at some of the benefits of preventative care.

"They're beginning to understand that when you don't properly fund this work you're going to see much higher costs when you go in-patient in prisons and hospitals," he said.

In Colorado, the budget axe felled funds for the prevention of youth violence.

"It just feels like when times are good, it's popular to fund kids programs," said Anne Byrne, executive director of Summer Scholars , a program in northeast Denver that provides an intensive summer learning environment for elementary school children. "But when things get lean, they are not a population that holds a lot of political clout and [the programs] often get cut."

Byrne said her organization is likely to reduce the number of kids it serves next summer from 1,200 to 900 due to less state funding. Summer Scholars, which is funded by a variety of private and public sources, typically receives $150,00 from the state. This year it is getting nothing from the state.