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Balancing the budget is an exercise in values

Last month, Governor Napolitano announced a combination plan to put this year’s budget back into balance after several months of tax revenues falling below projections. The plan calls for using $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund, saving $300 million in cash outlays by financing new school construction, and cutting state spending by $100 million. She has directed state agencies to identify budget cuts that do not slash services to children. 
Some state lawmakers have criticized the ideas of dipping into the rainy day fund and financing school construction, saying the budget should be balanced through spending cuts alone. They don’t want to make commitments that affect future budgets and future taxpayers. But, in fact, every budget decision shapes the future. When a budget is out of balance, our elected representatives have to choose among alternatives. Their fiscal job goes far beyond debt service and fund balances; it includes putting our priorities and values into action. And large budget cuts would have much more devastating and permanent consequences for Arizona than the governor’s combination plan.
At first glance, it may seem easy to cut $600 million out of a $10.6 billion budget. But the devil truly is in the details. Only $4 out of every $10 of the budget are really able to be cut. The rest is protected by past voter initiatives or required by federal law. Cutting other parts of the budget would be fiscally irresponsible because they are linked to federal funding, which brings in $2 or $3 of federal funds for every $1 of state funds spent. Cutting programs with federal match means our economy would suffer when federal funds are directed away from Arizona and toward other states.
Once you set aside those areas that can’t be cut, the remaining programs are those most lawmakers don’t really want to cut: prisons, the Department of Public Safety, veterans’ services, emergency services and military affairs. Balancing the entire $600 million deficit out of state programs would require cuts of 20 to 30 percent in areas such as public health, substance abuse treatment and prevention, math and science education improvements, health care for working parents without employer coverage, services for children with autism and shelters for women and children who are domestic violence victims. These programs reflect values voters hold dear — education, health care and safety for children —  values that resonate in every legislative district throughout the state.
We expect our lawmakers to consider the real-life impact of cutting state services. When the state’s economy picks up again, it will be easy to replenish the rainy day fund and accelerate school construction payments. But how do you undo the consequences to children and their working parents of going without health care? How do you make up for the physical and emotional damage that will happen when mothers are unable to escape their abusers because domestic violence shelters have no room? How do you piece together a family torn apart by substance abuse when treatment is unavailable, and children must be placed in foster care to keep them safe?
New funding added during the last legislative session reflected Arizona’s priority for our families and our future. According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, more than $8 of $10 added were dollars for kids. We ask our lawmakers not to compromise Arizona’s priorities by removing those new dollars before they’ve had a chance to make a difference.
Dana Wolfe Naimark is the president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance.

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