Quantcast
StarBulletin.com

Commentary: State legislatures facing grim outlook


By

POSTED: Monday, July 27, 2009

The National Conference of State Legislatures had its annual summit meeting last week in downtown Philadelphia, at the corner of Gloom and Doom. Attendance was down, thanks to the rotten economy. Lawmakers from the host state were among the no-shows, since they were (and still are) wrangling over a bad-news budget in Harrisburg.

Those who did make it came fresh from battles to force their books into balance, mostly through anguished combinations of tax increases, service cuts and borrowing, with a little help from the federal stimulus. After scrambling to close deficits that totaled $113 billion in fiscal 2009, the conference reported, lawmakers faced a staggering shortfall of $143 billion for 2010. That does not include any new budget holes that many states fear will open in coming months.

The dire outlook was underscored by a report in Friday’s Times by Jason DeParle, who found the unemployment system in a state of crisis. With joblessness doubled by the recession, unemployment funds across the country are quickly drying up. States are borrowing billions to keep the checks coming, and forcing workers to wait ever longer for benefits to start, putting them in danger of missing rent and meals.

If any clear lesson is emerging from all this darkness, it’s that heedlessness in good times makes bad times even worse. The unemployment emergency, DeParle explained, has exposed years of neglect by states that chose to cut taxes rather than maintain support for unemployment programs. The federal commitment lagged as well.

In Philadelphia, lawmakers repeatedly visited the theme of doing more with less — or with nothing. Their safety nets are strained by newly unemployed people unfamiliar with the world of social services. Panelists were urging lawmakers to make relatively small investments in user-friendly technology, in the hope of saving money later. People with streamlined access to timely benefits will be more likely to avoid eviction, homelessness, medical emergencies and other catastrophic — and far costlier — outcomes. Governments should stop shuttling applicants from place to place, which causes eligible people in need to fall by the bureaucratic wayside.

The lawmakers’ summit revealed some bright spots, in places like Kentucky, where housing officials have pioneered a unified system to help homeowners at risk of foreclosure. With one phone number, one Web site, one data collection system, nonprofit agencies and government work together to try to restructure loans and get people on a stable footing. With so many agencies sharing the same administrative load, no single nonprofit is overwhelmed. A few thousand families are better served. These are small consolations in a world of hurt, but for now it’s about all there are.