By Greg Porter
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis
The biennial state budget is the single most important bill that Indiana lawmakers must pass. It is literally the one thing we are required to do in order to keep the operations of state government functioning.
Yet this is what the budget process in our state has become:
Shortly after the close of the fiscal year last June 30, our governor and auditor glowingly reported that our state has a budget surplus of more than $2 billion. How were we able to achieve this? Primarily through the use of reversions, a tactic that calls for our state agencies not to spend a specific amount of money in their budgets, then simply returning it to the state coffers.
Not long after that announcement, our governor indicated that agencies and universities again will be required to maintain reserves that will not be used for services. In reality, these funds are simply the starting point for another series of reversions that will be returned to the state in June of next year to pad our bank account and keep that surplus over $2 billion.
In those quarters where people believe government should never spend any money on anything – unless it’s tax breaks for them or assistance when they need help in a time of emergency – this huge surplus is met with cheers.
But for those people who believe that government must be fiscally responsible AND work to help the people it serves, this constant nipping away at funding does have an impact. Here is a short list of reserves that became reversions over the last fiscal year:
- Almost $350,000 in Domestic Violence Prevention and Treatment, even as funds from the federal government and other sources continue to decline. One major service provider in Central Indiana recently closed, leaving an even greater service void in one of our state’s major service areas.
- More than $3 million to a variety of programs dedicated to children. For example, funding for Newborn Screening was cut by almost $200,000, even though Indiana has one of the five worst infant mortality rates in the country.
- Our CHOICE program – which provides in-home care for seniors that helps them maintain independence and avoid costly nursing home expenses – saw an $800,000 cut in funding, even though it has a waiting list of several thousand people.
- Others have mentioned a $27.5 million cut in funding for higher education. You may not know that funding was cut for scholarships designed to encourage primary care physicians to work in medically-underserved areas of the state, as well as for recruiting teachers for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses.
- Even though the quality of mental health services in our state has been a constant source of concern, more than $11 million in state mental health funding was reverted. A good chunk of that amount – nearly $3.5 million – was from a program designed to help children.
- More than $10 million was reverted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the state Department of Agriculture at a time when our state continues to have an assortment of concerns over the quality of our air, soil and water.
- Close to $4 million in funding was reverted that could have gone to help the developmentally disabled.
- Finally, even though the Pence Administration has repeatedly touted its prowess at job creation – especially in finding the “high tech jobs of the future” – it cut $12 million from the 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, which is the main program designed to encourage exactly this kind of job development.
Perhaps these amounts seem trifling to some of you. Rest assured they are not to the people impacted by these cuts.
How many of our developmentally disabled will lose their ability to live independently outside of an institutionalized setting? How many will lose their jobs at their local grocery store due to a lack of funding in the Supported Employment Program and other initiatives that provide these folks with real job opportunities?
I am sure the governor and his administration will claim they do care, but all I am seeing is a devotion to a golden $2 billion figure, to the exclusion of all other concerns. That number must be reached, no matter what the cost.
That is not serving the best interests of the people of Indiana.
Rep. Greg Porter is a Democrat from Indianapolis and the ranking minority member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee.