Advocates for Budget Legislation Equality tackle state budget reform
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, April 2005) About 100 members of Advocates for Budget Legislation Equality (ABLE) gathered in the West Side Ecumenical Ministry’s facility on 52nd and Detroit Avenue on Saturday March 19th to voice their concerns about proposed cuts in the State of Ohio budget and the impact those cuts would have on their lives.
Gloria Aron, Chair of Community Partners for Affordable Accessible Health Care, one of two facilitators of the meeting, said ABLE called the meeting and a planned April 12th bus trip to Columbus because, “knowledge is power.” She hoped that through the community members’ testimony on April 12th that members of the state legislature would have a chance “to hear what affect budget cuts have on real people.” Aron asked that those who came to testify about the impact of the budget cuts on their lives “educate all of us on just what issues we need to be addressing.
Cleo Busby of Alliance for HUD Tenants, also assisting with facilitating the meeting, challenged members of the state legislature to take away from their own medical care the medical services they propose cutting from Medicaid.
Prior to the testimony of area residents, a number of guest speakers sought to paint a picture of the broad impact of the proposed cuts in the state budget and changes in the state’s tax structure.
Cleveland City Council President Frank Jackson rallied against the state legislature’s efforts to phase out the Local Government Fund. Jackson said the Local Government Fund money the city of Cleveland currently receives from the state of Ohio represents $55 million of the city’s $480 General Fund Budget. Speaking of the budget cuts made this past year because of a $30 million deficit, Jackson asked, “Can you imagine what $55 million in cuts will do?” Jackson noted that cuts in the proposed state budget would result in reducing the Local Government Fund by 20% next year. Under that scenario Cleveland would lose $11.5 million next year, he said.
Merrick House Executive Director Gail Long talked about cuts in community-based services to senior citizens and cuts in day care services to children of working parents. Long said that in July of 2001 the state of Ohio was providing $13.1 million for community based senior services, compared to the current $10.6 million, representing a 14% cut in home delivered meals, transportation, meals at community centers and other services to seniors in communities all over Ohio. Long noted that Governor Taft’s proposed budget calls for the budget for community based services to remain the same for the next two years at $10.6 million per year. She said if prices go up, that means a cut in services to seniors. Long said that community based services to seniors allow seniors “to be independent and in their homes.” She called on advocates of those services to convince legislators that it will cost less over time than the alternatives if the state supports services facilitating the independence of its senior citizens.
It was noted that proposed changes in eligibility for day care vouchers for working parents will result in more children going home after school to no caregiver, unqualified caregivers or being supervised by an older sibling. Governor Taft’s budget proposes cutting eligibility for vouchers from the current 185% of the poverty level to 150% of poverty for new families and 165% for existing families, said Long.
She also noted that proposed rule changes in the number of sick days the state will pay for and how the number of hours needed for day care centers to receive full day as opposed to half day reimbursement from the state will devastate the budgets of day care centers. Long said that under the rule changes, day care centers “will not be able to pay full time staff with benefits. School age programs will be a disaster.”
Dr. Heather Ways of Neighborhood Family Practice addressed the issue of health care cuts. She noted that cost is an issue in whether or not people seek health care. She noted that a couple of years ago when Neighborhood Family Practice tried charging at least $10 rather than 0 and a sliding scale, a number of people stopped coming. She said when that practice stopped, people started coming again. Dr. Ways said that a recent report by the Ohio Commission to Reform Medicaid noted that while low-income families and children account for 76% of Medicaid recipients in the state, their medical care is only responsible for 24% of the Medicaid costs. Conversely, nursing home care with only 24% of the Medicaid patients accounts for 76% of the program’s costs. Dr. Way suggested that cost savings be found by competitive bidding to control pharmaceutical costs and changing state rules on nursing home reimbursements to help reduce costs.
ABLE organizers noted that the proposed state budget cuts include reducing the number of eligible working parents in the Medicaid program, cutting vision and dental care to all adults on Medicaid, and elimination of the Disability Assistance Medical Program.
ABLE organizer and May Dugan staff member Tim Walters said, “Our state is terrible in providing care to single adults.” He called attention to Disability Assistance Medical Program, which “provides medical care and services for adults with income less than $110 per month.” The cuts would eliminate access to medicine needed to live or maintain a stable life such as heart medicine and mental health medication, said Walters. “If the program is dropped, there is no other recourse for these people. Agencies will not be able to provide care without this program,” he said. Walters urged care providers who administer programs serving people on the Disability Assistance Medical Program to write letters to state legislators stressing how they won’t be able to continue to serve people if cuts are made. “Politicians need to hear from administrators of these programs,” said Walters.
Kent Smith, a member of the Euclid School Board, talked about the state of Ohio’s over-reliance on local property tax as a way to fund schools. He noted that “despite the fact that the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times that the way Ohio funds education in unconstitutional the state legislature has not fixed this fundamental flaw”. Smith said the problem of education is not on the expenditure side, but on the revenue side. He noted that in Michigan the state legislature discovered that their property tax was higher than that of surrounding states and their sales tax was lower. Michigan raised the sales tax and lowered the property tax, enabling Michigan to provide an average of $1,000 more per student to its school systems than Ohio does. Smith says Michigan’s situation is not necessarily what will work in Ohio, but Ohio needs to develop an educational policy that is not so dependent on local property tax and provides the resources our schools need.
Josiette White of Organize! Ohio said, “Ohio’s tax system is broken. Low and middle income Ohioans are paying more taxes as a percentage of their income than wealthy Ohioans are paying as a percentage of their income.” White proposed fairer taxes in Ohio that don’t place the greatest burden on the poorest Ohioans. White criticized a proposal by Governor Bob Taft to give a 21% tax break to the wealthiest Ohioans. White called for the state of Ohio to strengthen its corporate tax and to add a 1% tax to Ohioans with income over $200,000. She said, “I don’t think someone making $200,000 a year will notice a slight tax increase that is going to make our whole state stronger.”
Individual testimony as to the impact of budget cuts covered a multitude of concerns. A local fisherman called the parking fees proposed for state parks “absolutely absurd.” He noted he already pays $20 a year for a fishing license. He called for a statewide petition drive to stop the proposed $25 yearly pass or $5 per visit parking fee at state parks. A 79-year-old man, who says he likes to walk at Edgewater park, also took issue with the proposed parking fee. “I don’t think I’d go if they put a tax,” he said.
A Medicaid recipient, who works but has limited income, said he was concerned that with cutbacks in Medicaid, dental coverage, vision coverage Medicaid recipients “won’t be able to get services we need and would become very sick and not able to live a productive life.” An individual, who came to the meeting in a wheel chair, testified that “without Medicaid, dental and vision, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you here today.”
Another Medicaid recipient with diabetes and heart problems said, “Think of us on Medicaid. Do not make these cuts.”
A woman noted that there are over 50,000 individuals in Northeast Ohio who are deaf or hard of hearing and many of them rely on Medicaid. As a deaf person she said she relied on Medicaid to get hearing aids. She said without a hearing aid she would lose her balance. She also noted the importance of vision care to deaf people. She stressed the importance of dental coverage to people who work but have no dental coverage saying that untreated dental problems could lead to heart problems in the future if not taken care of.
A man, who says he needs medicine to control his seizures, says his medication costs $1,000 per month. “Without the medicine, I can’t live. I don’t see how they can cut someone who needs medicine to live.” An individual who said he would be directly impacted by cuts in the Disability Assistance Medical Program said, “My doctor just suggested that I leave the state.”
A woman testified to the importance of day care services in allowing her to get a college education. A woman testified to the importance of transportation to senior centers. She said without the service a friend’s mother who suffers from severe depression and anxiety would have to be hospitalized.
State Legislators respond
Three members of the state legislature were on hand to hear the testimonies. All three were opposed to the cuts proposed in Governor Taft’s budget.
Representative Kenny Yuko, who represents Euclid, South Euclid and Richmond Heights, said he has seen too many Americans of the generation that served in World War II making “daily decisions – ‘do I take a prescription drug, or do I eat.” He said too many of his colleagues in the state legislature don’t have the opportunity to sit and talk with people first hand to hear what impact the proposed cuts will have and “see the faces behind the numbers.”
Representative Michael Skindell, who represents Lakewood and parts of the West Side of Cleveland, said a number of years ago he heard Mother Teresa speak of her work in Calcutta, India. When asked what people could do to help her work in Calcutta, Mother Teresa asked that people instead look to the needs of people in their own families, their neighbors and their own community. Skindell asked Ohioans to urge the legislature to create a budget for the state of Ohio that will “look out for the poorest of the poor. The budget must reflect the moral values of our society. We must make this a moral document. I urge you to come down to Columbus on April 12th. We need to talk about real values and morals. I want to support a moral document, a moral budget.”
Representative Dale Miller, who represents part of the West Side of Cleveland, echoed Skindell’s comments saying, “The state budget is a moral document that reflects our values, reflects our choices.” Miller said that at a recent budget meeting in Columbus he said to his colleagues, “We around this table are making decisions about who lives and who dies.” Miller said the budget debate in Ohio is “not about tactical reallocations of a few dollars here and there. The budget is fundamentally flawed.”
Miller said Ohio needs universal health care coverage, but until we get that we need to maintain Disability Assistance Medical Program and Family Medicaid.
“One ticket we have in this state to move people beyond low wage jobs is higher education,” he said noting the erosion of funding for higher education in Ohio.
On the revenue side of the budget, Miller called for support of Rep. Skindell’s efforts to fix the corporate franchise tax in Ohio. In addition, he said the State of Ohio “should not be cutting income tax when we have all these needs.”
In closing the meeting, facilitator Gloria Aron said, “We have to find a way to make changes.” She noted that MetroHealth hospital in Cleveland served the most Medicaid patients of any hospital in the state, and would suffer from the proposed Medicaid cuts. She also noted that the federal government matches state dollars spent on Medicaid. “Why are we allowing the state to give that money back to the federal government? “ she asked.
Aron also spoke of too many kids staying home alone because of day care cuts and seniors not being able to have needed services because of inadequate funding for senior centers. Aron noted that low-income people are spending a greater percentage of their income on taxes than the wealthiest 2% of the state’s population. Aron urged all in attendance to sign up for a bus ride to Columbus on April 12th to go lobby the state legislature in person.
Editor’s note: Advocates of Budget Legislation Equality (ABLE) is a grassroots coalition of volunteers, community members and staff of organizations formed to assure the voices of community members will be heard by those making policy decisions on the state budget in Columbus. Merrick House, the May Dugan Center, Organize! Ohio, and the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio (UHCAN Ohio) have all contributed staff to work with ABLE. To reserve a space on the April 12th bus to Columbus, or for more information call 431-6070 or 771-5077.
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