Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A More Direct Challenge

You may recall, if you followed politics at all in the 1990s, there was a move afoot on the part of the Gingrich revolters to reform how government worked.

What happened up to that point was that the Federal government would distribute funds to states targetted for very specific goals. These were called "categorical grants". Gingrich and his orc minions proposed to change this to a "block grant" system, whereby a state would be given a chunk of money and directed to spend it as it saw fit. In a perfect world, there would have been substantially no difference between the two methods. Ideally, they would solve the same problems and be the same amount of money, with the state having a bit more discretion in how it could target money it received.

But, well...politicians, can see where this headed.

There's an interesting dynamic afoot here, and I want to study it from the ground up with you for a moment.

Little noticed outside of New York City (and even then, amidst the Obamathon, only among wonks here) was the release of an emergency budget proposal by Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Much of the hoopla over this budget stemmed from the loss of an entire graduating class at the police academy, cutting back on night-time fire coverage, as well as the suspension of a property tax rebate, an increase in property tax rates, and a 5¢ surcharge on all plastic bags.

All to close a $4 billion budget gap to $1.3 billion. Presumably, smoke and mirrors would take care of the rest. Actually, I know what will take care of the rest, but that's a different post.

Little noticed in the budget proposal, which will have to go to the city council for approval, was an item that would eliminate a program that has been around for over 100 years: public child dentistry.

Remember when you had to present a note from your dentist, once a year, certifying that you had been seen and were under his care? Some kids couldn't afford private dentists, and since these notes were mandatory, the city stepped in and established dental clinics around town for indigent (and sometimes, just lazy) kids to be checked up.

Even in the depths of near-bankruptcy thirty years ago, this program was considered sacrosanct. We could close down firehouses, reduce police presence, cut back on garbage pickup (which used to be daily), find myriad ways of saving a buck or two, but childrens' teeth were deemed essential.

This is a good thing, by the way.

Now, not so much. I pondered this rather curious earmark in the budget proposal. One day it hit me: with a President Obama, children's health insurance would be mandatory, meaning that these dentists would essentially be working for the Federal government now. He was kicking the ball upstairs.

I filed this away: city councils are notoriously slow, partly around Christmas time and PARTICULARLY ahead of an election year, to start mucking around with unions.

Comes today, this item:
ALBANY - Faced with a worsening economy, Gov. Paterson wants to slash school aid, shrink health care funding and hike public college tuition, the Daily News has learned.

The governor, who will propose $2 billion in budget cuts Wednesday, also wants public employees to go without raises for at least a year, sources said.

About $1.4 billion of the cuts to this fiscal year's budget would come from education and health care.
"Aha," says I. That cut in children's health aid, roughly a half billion dollars, would mean severe cuts in the Federally mandated children's health care program, Child Health Plus.

CH+ is funded by Medicaid, as part of those block grants I told you about earlier. You might recall the ruckus in Congress last year over renewing S-CHIP. This is that program.

Essentially, Patterson is setting up to kick Bloomberg's ball one step further up the ladder, to the Federal Government, to the Obama administration.

See, neither of these draconian budget adjustments will take effect, should they even be passed, until next summer, 2009.

Plenty of time for Obama to write, introduce, and pass his version of national healthcare. Plenty of time for the Federal government to pick up the ball.

My suspicion is we'll be seeing this same scenario repeated across the nation, as mayors and governors collaborate to kick their mandated spending programs back up the ladder to the Federal government.

For policy wonks like me, these are salad days indeed!