Social service agency leaders plot ways to influence state cuts
By Jaime Levy
As state legislators prepare to hack out a smaller budget in a special session next week, members of Miami-Dade's social services community are strategizing ways to convince elected officials that budget cuts affecting their agencies will cost the community more money in the long run.
Despite assurances that cuts will not be as severe as those proposed in the legislature's October special session, social services providers are toeing the line between cooperation and exasperation as they expect to receive inadequate funds.
"In a way, we're in the position of someone sticking a knife in our back. He pulls the knife out halfway and we have to say thank you," said Harve Mogul, president of the board of the Alliance for Human Services. "There are legislators who have no idea of the correlation between prevention that is humane and cheap, and guaranteed cost on the other end of this thing. We will suffer absolutely."
At a meeting Nov. 14, members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's nonprofit committee voiced concerns about potential budget cuts and emphasized the importance of local businesses and politicians in ensuring a safety net for the state's most vulnerable populations.
"It's got to begin right here with our own delegation," said Peter England, director of development for Camillus House and co-chair of the committee's legislative sub-group. "We have to deliver the message that you can't continue to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens of the state. It's a matter of pay me now or pay me later. We keep trying to tell them, but it's not getting through."
Stances of local delegation members vary when it comes to preserving health and human services funding. Republican Rep. Carlos Lacasa, chair of the House of Representatives Fiscal Responsibility Council as well as the Florida Joint Legislative Budget Commission, said the House is looking at more modest cuts to the services and that those will have to be sufficient for the affected groups.
"Even though the economy was strong for the last eight years and theoretically, the demand for services was not as great as we anticipate it will be, they still fought for new money as vigorously as one could in good taste," said Mr. Lacasa, who previously served on Camillus House's board. "They've seen great growth in funds without growth of demand. In tough times, you have to slow growth of funds."
But representatives from health and human services providers as well as some state legislators say short-term budget cutbacks do not dig to the root of the problem: that a state dependent on sales tax cannot respond efficiently or adequately to an economic downturn.
"I can't say whether giving money to people with disabilities is more important than giving money to people with autism. Those are terrible choices no one should ever have to make. I'm not going to vote to unfairly tax people and then cut their services. I don't think that's right," said Democrat Rep. Ken Gottlieb, who serves on the Fiscal Responsibility Council as well as the House Committee for General Government Appropriations. "Relying on the sales tax makes us dependent on the economy, and when the economy goes sour, the state takes a hit much quicker than other states. I really think they need to be putting the wheels in place during the special session" for tax reform "to get things going in the regular session."
Ultimately, said that is what members of the social services community would like to see.
"The problem in this state is that we don't have a comprehensive tax strategy," Mr. England said. "We've lost a lot of businesses because they know every time the legislature is in session, no man is safe."
At the chamber of commerce's not-for-profit committee meeting last week, Steve Marcus, president and CEO of the Health Foundation of South Florida and co-chair of the committee, expressed frustration with the numbers and kind of tax exemptions the state gives - only about one-fifth of which were implemented in the past decade.
"There are too many exemptions," said Rep. Annie Betancourt, a Democrat and member of the House Committee on Fiscal Policy & Resources. She mentioned exemptions for Super Bowl tickets when the game is in Florida, alcoholic beverages used by companies for tasting and Internet access fees. "We have to revisit them all, one by one. The list is unbelievable."
Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos, chair of the Senate Committee on Education and an opponent of across-the-board budget cuts, said he agreed. He likened the state budget to a household budget.
"If one of the spouses loses their job or gets sick and can't provide, you don't do a 5% cut across the board. You don't feed your children 5% less or pay 5% less of your mortgage," said Mr. Villalobos, who favors delaying the intangibles tax cut. "There are other agencies and fat in other places that should be looked at before we touch education and social services.
"There are a lot of exemptions that have been around for a long time," he said. "The economy's changed, technology's changed. It's a good idea to review all the exemptions and not just do it automatically because it's always been that way."
With next year's regular session, which will begin in January, holding the potential for tax reform, the chamber's not-for-profit committee will focus on that meeting. The group, scheduled to convene again Dec. 11, is hoping to have information by January about the amount of federal dollars that could be lost if the state does not provide matching funds. And finding ways to substitute local or private money for state funds is one of the priorities of the Alliance for Human Services, as determined by its executive board meeting earlier this month.
Providers of social services said they are trying to avoid casting an us-versus-them dichotomy when it comes to fighting for state funds.
"Legislators, elected officials, local government, businesses are not enemies to nonprofits," said Mr. Mogul, who is also executive director of the United Way of Miami-Dade. "We have to trust that people are going to do what is best for their constituents, their customers, their neighbors."
"We're facing a special session that could be cutting the meat out of the programs we're talking about enhancing," Mr. England said. "By the time we get to the 2002 session, if the cuts are as draconian as I think they'll be, it's not a matter of enhancing. It's a matter of getting to where we were before the session."