Why state cuts matter

WHY STATE CUTS MATTER…. When a handful of Senate Republicans slashed over $100 billion from the economic stimulus package, they specifically targeted $40 billion in proposed aid to states. Helping rescue states, Sen. Collins & Co. said, does not stimulate the economy, and as such doesn’t belong in the legislation. Democratic leaders reluctantly went along — they weren’t given a choice since Republicans refuse to give the bill an up-or-down vote — and the $40 billion in aid was eliminated.

It’s probably worth taking a moment to consider the consequences of this. States, facing the kind of crisis unseen in generations, are prohibited from running deficits, and are averse to raising taxes, so drastic shortfalls mean drastic cuts — which in turn make the effects of the recession worse.

They have plundered reserves, enacted hiring freezes and engaged in all manner of budgetary voodoo to shield us from the pain.

But now state governments — reeling from a historic free fall in tax revenue — have run out of tricks. And Americans are about to feel it. In some cases, they already have.

Nevada resident Margaret Frye-Jackman, 71, was diagnosed in August with ovarian cancer. She had two rounds of chemotherapy at University Medical Center, the only public hospital in the Las Vegas area.

Soon after, she and her daughter heard the news on TV: The hospital’s outpatient oncology services were closing because of state Medicaid cuts. Treatment for Frye-Jackman and hundreds of other cancer patients was eliminated.

Luckily, Frye-Jackman’s gynecological oncologist, Dr. Nick Spirtos, decided to open a tiny chemotherapy center in his office’s empty storage room.

Today, he treats Frye-Jackman there, along with about 20 more cancer patients who were dumped by the hospital. Frye-Jackman’s care is paid for with Medicare and supplemental insurance, but other patients can’t cover the cost of full treatment. The doctor has considered putting donation boxes in the lobby.

“If this is what it’s like in Nevada, with cancer stuff closing, is it like that everywhere?” said Frye-Jackman’s daughter, Margaret Bakes, accompanying her mother to the doctor’s recently. “Are all the other states closing stuff too?”

As a matter of fact, yes. Collectively, states are looking at a $47.4-billion gap for 2009, which is likely to get considerably worse in 2010 and 2011. The result, as the LAT noted, will be massive layoffs at the state level and huge cutbacks in services: “Parks will close. Environmental programs will be scaled back. Bus and ferry routes will shut down, possibly sending more drivers onto clogged streets and highways. Schools may go without school nurses, and classes may become more crowded. Sick people who rely on state health programs may instead get sicker.”

Cutting state aid from the stimulus bill is a very bad idea. Congress can get the money to states quickly, and give states a much needed boost at exactly the right time. I don’t know what Collins & Co. are thinking, but they need to think again.