Tired of taking hits in the public and media over how they are "cutting the heart" out of state budgets this year, House Republican leaders are putting an upbeat spin on the state's budget crunch.
Despite the proposed cutbacks to make up an overall $200 million shortfall, some state agencies are still seeing "significant" growth, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, told the House Republican caucus Thursday.
He noted a 23 percent increase for the 10 applied technology schools scattered around the state and are now under the new Utah College of Applied Technology.
Higher education overall sees a 6.6 percent increase, Garn said, and public education sees a 3.7 percent increase.
Overall, agencies served by the general and uniform school funds will see a 0.49 percent cutback, not unreasonable in a $7.3 billion budget, GOP leaders said.
But the picture painted by House Republicans is different than what a number of budget subcommittees have seen this week as agency directors and special interest groups walked to the podiums of budget committees to declare gloom and doom because of cuts recommended by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Community welfare and public health officials told lawmakers Thursday that proposals to carve out $200 million from the state's budget reflect "silly" and "inhumane" budgeting.
Not only is the effort to make up the shortfall felt most sharply by the poor, they are also more harmed by the current recession, the advocates said.
Karen Crompton, executive director of the child advocacy group Utah Children, questioned the perception that the money isn't there.
She called on legislators to add $1 million to reopen the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and restore full dental coverage, which was restricted to emergency coverage as of Jan. 1, to the 27,600 poor children covered by the plan.
Crompton pointed to $120 million Rainy Day Fund, the $146 million Centennial Highway Fund, the $40 million in one-time capital facilities bonding for certain capital projects that would free up General Fund money, about $32 million in I-15 construction cost savings and interest from a tobacco settlement trust fund as sources of money for essential programs.
"It's not the money, it's the political will that's missing," Crompton said. "For every politician who ever touted their support for the working poor and families, now is the time to make good on that promise."
Their message got a vote of support earlier in the day from Sen. Orrin Hatch, co-creator of CHIP. Speaking to care providers at Primary Children's Medical Center, Hatch said the cap and the impending cuts in the state Department of Health could permanently harm a service that is working exactly as intended. He contacted Gov. Mike Leavitt and a few legislators later to tell them the same thing. Tom Metcalf, a Salt Lake pediatrician, said he met a family last week that was on Medicaid in December but are now finally making enough to get off Medicaid. But when they applied and qualified for CHIP they could not be covered, he said.
CHIP was implemented in 1998 as an insurance program for children whose families are not offered or cannot afford private health insurance. Since its inception, more than 49,000 Utah children have used the program.
To be eligible for CHIP, a child must live in a household with an income between 100 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Children below the federal poverty level are eligible for Medicaid.
The state Department of Health estimated last month that approximately 70,000 children in Utah are uninsured.
By not allowing more children into the program, the state is actually increasing the healthcare costs of the state, said Wayne Cottam, a dentist and chairman of the Utah Oral Health Coalition.
Dental disease is the most common childhood disease but it is consistently the most difficult health service to obtain for children who don't have access to insurance, Cottam said, adding that 80 percent of the dental decay among children in Utah is found in the poorest 20 percent.
Under the new dental restriction, "we can pull teeth but we can't fix a cavity," Cottam said.
"What makes that fact even more pathetic is that the CHIP dental program was working," with 70 percent of the children enrolled getting the dental care they need.
Utah's most vulnerable senior citizens are also being unfairly targeted by the cuts, advocates and public health officials said.
If the suggested 9.6 percent cut in adult services is implemented, 200 of the meals delivered to home-bound senior citizens every day would have to cut beginning Feb. 1, said Shauna O'Neil, director of Salt Lake County Adult Services. Rich County would stop providing meals in June and 11 other counties would make serious cutbacks, she said.
If those services are interrupted, some seniors could become hospitalized, adding unnecessary cost to their health care.
"This is a silly way to budget, and it's not humane," she said.
To salvage funds for the most essential agencies under its purview, the Criminal Justice and Executive Offices Appropriations subcommittee has drawn more than $1 million from the Department of Youth Corrections and divided it among four agencies.
Youth corrections received extra funding last year for a projected increase in clients that never materialized. Some $45,000 would go to the state treasurer's office, $130,000 for the state auditor's office, $400,000 to the state court system, and the department of public safety would receive $500,000.
"I would have sooner taken the money, but understanding where the budget is, I'll go with the wishes of the committee," Youth Corrections administrator Blake Chard said. The figures are good news for the four agencies, but they aren't celebrating yet. The recommendations, which were proposed at Thursday's committee meeting, are only preliminary. Not enough members of the committee were present for a vote. And it's possible the numbers will change slightly before the committee's 2 p.m. Jan. 15 meeting.
If the committee approves the analyst's revised recommendations, the extra $400,000 for the courts will allow administrative director Dan Becker to alleviate some of the pressing personnel problems his system faces. For the past several legislative sessions, Becker and staff have lobbied lawmakers to increase the number of deputy clerks for the understaffed system. Clerks handle most paperwork for judges and interface most directly with the public.
Becker feared he would be forced to cut clerkships, rather than add positions that would help decrease the workload of state judges, who may be forced to undertake some clerkship duties in parts of the state if they do not receive help.
Becker said that unless the fiscal year 2003 budget shows signs of improvement, the court system will be forced to eliminate — through attrition or lay offs — 35 people. More than 90 percent of the court system's budget draws from state funds, and three-quarters of the system's expenses are from personnel. Thus, any budget cuts mostly effect hiring and firing.
Mike Chabries, executive director of the Department of Corrections, will use $500,000 to forego a day of furlough for his employees.
"We have so many 24-hour facilities, that we don't want to give employees a day off," Chabries said. "We hope to fund furlough without taking it."
If budget projections for FY2003 are ominous, then "some programs will be held more harmless than others," Buttars said. "This year everybody took an equal [across-the-board] cut."
With next year's budget, the committee may weigh programs differently — protecting what Buttars called the more essential programs, including the courts, early prevention programs through the Corrections and the Utah Highway Patrol.
The presidents of Utah's larger institutions of higher education were also in a charitable mood this week. They agreed to shoulder more cutbacks to spare the College of Eastern Utah.
The presidents, who were charged by the Higher Education Appropriations subcommittee with divvying up an additional 1.5 percent in systemwide cuts, suggested CEU take a 0.50 percent cut, while the average for seven other institutions in the system was 1.56 percent.
Utah State University also would take a somewhat smaller cut at 1.41 percent because of budget problems related to the Extension Service it oversees.
CEU President Ryan Thomas said he did not ask for any special concession from the other presidents, but he's "grateful for the recognition of our challenges." The central Utah area served by the college is suffering from higher-than-average unemployment and a declining population, he said.
Thomas also inherited some problems from his predecessor, who gave scholarships and raises that did not have adequate financing. His budget for last year was more than $800,000 in deficit.
During budget hearings Wednesday it was noted that both Thomas and his wife are teaching classes free and doing other jobs not related to his assignment as president to help bridge the gap. He is working on a report to identify problems and suggest possible solutions. "Some course corrections have already occurred," he said. Having to trim only $59,500 from his budget should the second round of budget cuts actually be required will be a big help.
The cuts for other institutions will range from $3.5 million at the University to $246,000 at Snow College. College presidents universally told the legislators that another round of cuts will mean faculty and staff cuts and possible program retrenchment at their institutions.
U. President Bernie Machen has proposed borrowing from his institution's reserves to limp through to another fiscal year.
Rep. Gordon E. Snow, R-Roosevelt, objected to that method of financing the cuts. "I don't care where you borrow, even if it's from yourself." Other businesses have to absorb losses in an economic downtown and the university should find ways to deal with the cuts other than borrowing, he said.
U. spokesman Fred Esplin noted that the university does not have the option of cutting production or having massive layoffs as a business would. "The students are already there and contracts with faculty and staff are signed," he said. Having to cut in the middle of a fiscal year has been a difficult process for the institutions, which are all being challenged by growing numbers of students.
Meanwhile, committee member Rep. Katherine M. Bryson, R-Orem, took a swat at the State Board of Regents and the commissioner for higher education for planning a move to the Gateway complex when money is so tight.
Regents Chairman Charles Johnson defended the upcoming move, saying the lease is up on current space in the Triad Center and that the $8 million for the new quarters was appropriated before Utah's economy took a nosedive.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is faced with having to cut an additional $90,000 from its budget.
That's in addition to the $364,000 cut recommended by fiscal analysts.
"We would prefer not to have to do the additional cuts," said Brent Bradford, deputy director of DEQ. "We have already taken big cuts in our budget."
The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation and Environmental Quality asked DEQ officials to come up with additional cuts that will be discussed by the committee on Tuesday.
Analysts have recommended that DEQ eliminate two vacant positions, cut employee travel and office expenses by 10 percent and reduce the amount of money to run some programs.
Executive Director Dianne Nielson said she supports the suggestions but asked that departments be able to look at other ways to cut than imposing a one-day furlough for all state employees, something some lawmakers have suggested.
Bradford said they have come up with a better solution — eliminating a contract DEQ has with a consulting firm to inventory drinking water sources and cut some out-of-state travel.
DEQ is faced with a daunting task to cut its budget, state officials say.
"We are down to muscle and bones now to be able to provide services," department Director Dianne Nielson told lawmakers.