SALT LAKE CITY — Ruie Byrd used her break from work to beg lawmakers not to take one of the few paths out of poverty from Utahns who are already suffering because of economic issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
One by one, nearly 20 advocates for nonprofits and charities that offer lifelines to the most vulnerable Utahns pleaded for legislators to use rainy day fund money rather than cutting budgets when they meet in special session Gov. Gary Herbert said will start June 18 to deal with revenue loss due to COVID-19 closures.
“Regarding Utah’s budget outlook, I plan to call a special session of the Legislature next week,” Herbert tweeted. “Because the economic downturn has decreased state revenue, the Legislature needs to meet before we begin out next fiscal year in July to address potential budgetary modifications.”
Matthew Weinstein, representing Voices for Utah Children, hosted the teleconference Thursday morning in an effort to let the public know what kinds of programs are on the chopping block if lawmakers opt to cut budgets rather than use the rainy day fund.
“With $5.4 billion in budget reserves and a ... budget gap likely to end up between ($500 million) and $1.5 billion, Utah could close the entire gap using just 20 to 30% of our rainy day reserves and still have 70 to 80% left over in case they are needed again a year from now,” Weinstein said. “We are fortunate that our governor and Legislature planned for a rainy day and that the economic impact of the coronavirus recession is turning out to be lighter in Utah than in most states.”
Cuts being discussed by legislative committees range from 2% to 10%. Among those programs is one that helped Byrd climb out of poverty she’d struggled to escape for 30 years.
“(Circles) has enriched my life more than I ever believed possible,” said Byrd, who said she unwittingly taught her six children how to cling to poverty because it was the only reality she knew. “I am not educated with a college degree, but I had a street degree with my major being poverty and my minor being drug addiction. I am urging each of you to consider the rainy day fund to continue these life-altering programs.”
Byrd, who said she was a product of intergenerational poverty “amplified by drug use,” suggested a small investment in “people like me” will strengthen the economy by lifting people out of desperate situations.
“I have changed in just over three years to being homeless with my two youngest children to our, and when I say our, I mean Circles USA, comfortable but necessary budgeting lessons,” she said. “I bought my house with a down payment of over $11,000. I would have never dreamed of that in my entire life.”
Each advocate took a few minutes to detail how proposed cuts would hurt or eliminate their ability to strengthen Utah’s economy from the bottom up.
Dr. William Cosgrove, representing the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the Legislature’s proposed cutbacks threaten “already threadbare-funded public schools.”
“We have already cut away any fat, any inefficiencies,” he said, “and further cuts will be to bone and muscle.”
“These severe budget cuts to children’s services are not needed,” he noted. “Why would we cut away portions of our community’s safety net for children when we have $5.4 billion in our state’s bank account? That is approximately five times the current need. No parent would let their children go hungry just to keep a larger reserve in the bank. None would keep the first aid kit intact on the shelf, when the children are bleeding.”
Several advocates said the proposed cuts seem to assume Utah’s economy will remain depressed for good, but the state’s track record, especially after the 2008 recession, indicate otherwise.
“Our children are our future, our hope,” Cosgrove said. “We cannot abandon them now, cannot pull the safety net out from under them, when they need us most.”
Andrew Riggle, representing Disability Law Center, said Utahns have shown great compassion and resilience as they’ve “stepped up to support each other.”
“The coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on residents of nursing homes and other congregate settings,” Riggle said. “Given this, it’s particularly unwise to reduce oversight ... of long-term care facilities. Making it harder to remain at home or in the community by reducing respite options, cutting limited supports to individuals with developmental disabilities, reducing funding for the aging waiver, or eliminating state-funded DSPD and Aging Alternatives clients altogether is similarly shortsighted.”
“Life’s turning upside down for thousands of Utahns,” he said. “Cuts forcing counties to take more responsibility for community mental health, just as we’re beginning to see returns on the Legislature’s investments in suicide prevention and school-based supports, could have a long-lasting negative effect on thousands of Utahns. Related gains implementing community treatment teams, mobile crisis teams, receiving centers, and supported housing for persons with serious mental illness are also on the chopping block.”
Pam Silberman, speaking on behalf of the International Rescue Committee, said publicly funded medical and dental clinics may have to close if proposed cuts are approved.
“The second program cut of concern to us is the School Turnaround and Leadership Development Fund, which invests in struggling schools to ensure that all Utah students, regardless of what district they live in, can access a high-quality education,” she said. “The proposed $7-million-plus cut essentially eliminates the program, inevitably coming at a huge cost to refugee students and their peers in areas such as the Salt Lake School District. This program is proven to be highly effective — 85% of students participating in the program demonstrated significant growth in their academic success.”
She and several others pointed out that the pandemic has left many of the people they serve without jobs, health insurance and even more food insecure than before. Every dollar cut has a ripple effect that continues into communities in myriad ways for many years.
“The time is now to start investing in the people who hold critical jobs in our community. We continue to witness how dependent we are on low-wage earners through this pandemic,” said Tara Rollins of the Utah Housing Coalition. “We took it for granted as many of us hunkered down at home to continue to work as people went to work to support us who were privileged. We can do flybys, put signs outside of these businesses thanking those on the front line of this pandemic; this is not enough.”
The plans made to address affordable housing are even more critical now, she said.
“We are asking the state Legislature to hold whole the commitment of $10 million from SB39 to invest in affordable housing,” Rollins said. “We understand there are tough decisions to be made, but the time is not to cut housing dollars.”
Maria Montes, of Comunidades Unidas, said the inequities faced in communities of color will only be exacerbated by funding cuts.
“The last few weeks have brought to light the inequities that communities of color face daily when trying to access health, education and safety systems,” Montes said. “So it is without a doubt that our state is facing challenges that must be addressed. Forty percent of those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 are Latinx despite this community making up only 14% of the state’s overall population. And in working to create a budget for Utah’s next recovery stages, our state leaders must fight for a plan that is equitable for all.”
The programs facing cuts are exactly the programs that will help Utah’s economy recover and its citizens thrive.
“Currently, many of the programs on the chopping block are essential in closing in the gaps that minorities in our state disproportionately experience including cutting back programs for early child education, Medicaid, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, mental and behavioral health programs as well as addiction rehabilitation services,” Montes said.
The call to action comes after two legislators, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, and Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, wrote an op-ed opposing cuts to many programs. Both were on the call Thursday, and Weinstein thanked them for their leadership in the effort.
“We are heartened by the knowledge that there is a debate taking place among legislators, many of whom want to see the budget reserves put to their intended use,” Weinstein said. “We hope that our voices will strengthen and inspire those legislators to keep up that effort.”