Friday, September 25, 2009

Defining Progressive Priorities in Bad Times

By Eric Luedtke.

I suspect it’s not much fun right now being Governor O’Malley or a member of his staff, who have spent the better part of their term trimming the budget. I have some sympathy. People get involved in politics either due to idealism or ego, and repeatedly paging through the budget book for good programs to annihilate can’t be good for either. It’s a constant test of priorities, and as the next round of cuts necessarily digs deeper and deeper into the state budget, the decisions being made will almost certainly have long-term implications for policy priorities in Maryland.

Last week, I sat down with Garland Nixon for a taping of his show The Edge, and he asked what I thought was an interesting question about the state’s crisis. He wanted to know what priorities Maryland progressives should have in such an apocalyptic budget atmosphere. Sadly, I don’t think the progressive movement in general has an answer to that question. We’ve been so busy dealing with each incremental cut, each additional shaving of program dollars, that we have yet to formulate a big picture response to the budget crisis. We are, frankly, missing an opportunity. Perhaps the only conceivable positive result of all this could be that it may force us to define distinctly what matters most in state government, what the core legislative values of Maryland progressives are.

For me the answer is fairly straightforward; maintain as much as possible our investment in the state’s human infrastructure. The first fundamental reason for this is that our programs that help people – K-12 education and community colleges, services for people with developmental disabilities, mental health programs, the various supports for people who the recession has severely impacted – are governmental extensions of basic human decency. If my neighbor needs a helping hand, I give it, whether they live across the street or across the state.

But moral arguments aside, there are long term economic and social implications of cutting programs like these. If a kid’s schooling suffers due to budget cuts, they will in all likelihood be less productive as an adult. Abandoning people who need temporary government support to feed and house their families invites increases in a wide variety of social ills. And cutting support for people with developmental disabilities has tremendous impact on them, their families, and their communities. This last group is perhaps the most threatened. People with developmental disabilities are not a wealthy and powerful interest group. They don’t hold big dollar fundraisers for candidates. Is it any surprise, then, that they have seen painful cuts in the Developmental Disabilities Administration? Before these last couple rounds of cuts, Maryland was ranked 42nd in the country for state support of people with developmental disabilities. We’re now in danger of dropping all the way to the bottom of the barrel.

I don’t suppose that people with developmental disabilities are all that surprised. We have a society that too often underestimates, denigrates, and ignores them, all the while paying lip service to how much we care. And it absolutely is only lip service when we have almost as many people waiting for DDA services as receiving them. At last count, almost 20,000 people were on the state waiting list to get the basic services to which they are entitled as human beings.

This, then, should be the core progressive agenda in times of need – help people. And deal aggressively with those whose leadership has been so warped by special interest dollars or high paid lobbyists that they forget this basic precept. Here’s one place to start:

Money cut from the DDA in the last round of budget cuts: $21.7 million

Money we’ve left on the table by not closing tax loopholes that allow out of state corporations like Wal-Mart to avoid taxes that in-state corporations pay: $25 million to $150 million

Bluntly, there are some in the State Senate who seem to care more about Wal-Mart’s profit margin than about the kid next door with an autism spectrum disorder. We have the next few months before the legislative session begins to change their minds. And, failing that, we may simply need to change their job titles come election day next year.

Eric Luedtke is exploring a run for Senate in District 14.