The 20 of us on JFAC, the budget committee, sit in a tall cream and white room with vaulted ceilings, columns and a big clock. We sit at banks of huge desks, far from each other so that at best we can see only the two CoChairs, maybe one of the Vice Chairs and the people next to us. Clearly I got too got used to the courthouse where last year we were packed tight and I could swivel in my seat and look any committee member in the eye. We could pass notes to two thirds of the committee with ease and were never so far away as to start getting impersonal.
For several weeks now agency after agency will come to JFAC to explain how state directors have held it all together these past two lean budget cutting years and how existing budget cuts are impacting families, jobs in the agency and workload. Yesterday we talked about the Department of Health & Welfare –a big agency dealing with a lot of crisis and complexity. Children with disabilities, adults needing mental health treatment, suicide prevention, drug treatment, victims of abuse, kids needing adoption, foster care; health care for those with urgent special needs, the very poor; hungry families, doctors, hospitals, psychiatrists, social workers, clinics, home care providers, crisis intervention specialists. Thousands of people reel, losing jobs, scrambling for life lines as we cut again and again at services which more and more people need — and the economy settles like a ship in the dark depths of what seems to be the bottom.
And later in the day a different 18 of us law makers sat underground at the huge high desks of the new statehouse auditorium in the west wing. We picked a number out of a hat — the magic target we will cut all budgets to for next year, for 2011. It was a low number. As last year's queen of picking sadly accurate low budget numbers, I'm usually the first to admit when things will be bad.
But the numbers some chose today were so low I had the distinct feeling that a twisted game was being played.
What kind of a time is this for games, for trying to cut the base of our budget so low that when the economy recovers — just a little — Majority Leader Moyle and his house wrecking crew can call any money above their target number a surplus and turn it into the corporate tax cuts they so desperately want, but realistically can't put into law this year.
I wonder if the Senate prayer delivered under the grand Senate dome in the morning anticipated the day. It told us to be kind to the unlovely. I wondered who unlovely were. I feel a little unlovely sometimes but I think it is relative and means those harder for us to love, people different from yourself, people struggling in unfamiliar ways, to us the ones that don't sit under domed ceilings or shake your hand in a suit and tie.
But we were not kind. Our legislative bodies are on the verge of being cruel. If we plan to cut even deeper next year, if we claim we have no option but to cut more budgets deeper and deeper till everything bleeds, then we are cruel. We are willfully forgetting that some families, like mine are still doing fine, still have jobs, and though we might be a bit skittish, we could and would pay more — just to be sure that the whole burden of balancing the next budget does not fall like and ax on the backs of schools, kids, and the state's most vulnerable, trying so hard to get through this alive.