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'Broke' states skimp on pens, lightbulbs

Quirky budget solutions aim to reassure citizens.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2003



LOS ANGELES

To some, they are just nuts-and-bolts pencil pushers - nerds who do the perfunctory arithmetic of state government. To others, they are the financial whizzes who oil the machinery of state government.

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They are the nation's 50 state budget officers, mostly nonpartisan functionaries stuck in the middle of the biggest story in American finance - the worst state budget crunch since World War II.

After a decade of huge surpluses, these are the hapless gents and ladies who must help close a collective gap of $30 billion for this year and nearly $70 billion for next. They don't make policy, but they suggest it to lawmakers.

The budget situation has gotten so bad that, for all the officers' years on the job, some of this year's suggestions sound like a one-liners rolling off the lips of Rodney Dangerfield, the bug-eyed comic who claimed, "It's rough out there ..."

How rough is it? It's so rough that ...:

• In Illinois, some prison populations have been asked to reduce pharmaceutical costs by ordering double-potent prescription tablets and then splitting them in half.

• In Missouri, the governor has ordered every third light bulb unscrewed, office-supply closets locked, and heavier reliance on websites to save money on paper.

• Kentucky may impose new taxes on services ranging from drape-cleaning and flower arranging to termite-removal and bowling and golf.

Other quirky recent suggestions include reduced food portions and no coffee refills for prison inmates, the removal of light bulbs from vending machines, and reduced hours for museums and zoos.

But if some of the moves might sound comedic, the actual situation is not. Indeed, states are partly trying to reassure citizens that they are doing everything possible to solve the crisis at a time when major service cuts are hitting home.

Yesterday, cake; today, lettuce

"This is extremely stressful. As a period of tough choices, this is the worst it's been in over five decades for states," says Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. "During the boom of the 1990s, we were going into lawmakers and saying, 'you can have apple pie with whipped cream, donuts and chocolate cake,' " says Pattison. "Now, we're saying, 'you can have some iceberg lettuce, without the green part.' "

The weak US economy, compounded by a declining stock market, a possible war with Iraq, and new pushes for homeland security have all exacerbated fiscal problems for every state.

To cope, states are making big cuts across the board from education to aid for local governments.

Worse times ahead?

If the two-year prognosis is bad, the four-year may be worse. "We are looking at a four-year cumulative budget gap in the states of something in excess of $180 billion, rapidly growing to $200 billion," says Corina Eckl, fiscal affairs director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In such an environment, chasing down costs from light bulbs to second cups of coffee may sound like a trifle, but officials say one key goal is to set an example.

"While a lot of this sounds petty and small potatoes, it ends up being more powerful by sending a message to citizens that their elected representatives are really trying to dot every 'I' and cross every 'T,' " says Linda Luebbring, chief budget officer for Missouri. Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts brought such a message home by forgoing his salary, a move followed by at least two other governors.

"The public often doesn't get that there is a problem until they see you doing things that make sense to them," says Ms. Luebbring. "Cutbacks like these send a symbolic message that everybody must do their part, even in the smallest of ways."

Impact on tax refunds, libraries

And everyone is, like it or not, doing their part. The cutbacks have been significant for the poor, led by Medicaid reductions, but middle- and upper-income taxpayers are also being hit with service cuts and fee hikes.

Massachusetts has raised state-college tuition by a nation-leading 24 percent - while state financial aid has dropped 24 percent, according to a recent survey.

Arizonans, for instance, will likely have to wait 10 to 15 weeks for their state tax refunds - instead of the usual 10 days.

In Hawaii, many libraries will close early - and the bookmobile program is being suspended.

Cuts on lower-income Americans go well beyond healthcare. Oregon plans to evict scores of mentally ill residents from three care centers. Ohio will close three state unemployment offices.

If worse budget gaps are indeed ahead, states' abilities to cope may worsen as well.

Twenty-one states have already raided tobacco settlement funds this year, 26 have raided rainy-day funds, and 15 have laid off employees. Thirty-one have used a variety of cost-cutting methods such as reducing travel, imposing hiring freezes, and delaying expenditures.

"We have already emptied our rainy-day funds and people have become shocked by the unpleasant choices we are having to make," says Tim Keen, assistant budget director for Ohio.

If all of the above is the downside of repeated budget cutting, there is also an upside, say some of Mr. Keen's colleagues. That is the opportunity to streamline, consolidate, and eliminate needless bureaucracy, or overlap among state agencies while it is politically safe to do so.

Abraham McLaughlin in Boston contributed to this report.

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