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Ohio Faces Tough Choices to Balance Budget


As the economy continues to falter and state tax revenues decline, 48 U.S. states face budget deficits in the coming fiscal year. Unlike the federal government, states generally do not borrow money to cover deficits. Most are drawing down cash reserves, using federal stimulus money, cutting services and increasing taxes to balance their budgets. In the [central U.S.] State of Ohio, the cutbacks adoped this month will affect services such as care for the elderly, food banks, and public libraries.

82-year-old Dorothy Linley is incapacitated. She prefers to live in her family home outside Columbus, Ohio rather than a nursing home.

"You feel like you are alive when you are at home," she said. "When you are in a nursing home you have to depend on others. And sometimes those nursing homes ain't [are not] very nice."

Dorothy receives home care through a state-funded program called Passport. A health aid visits her five days a week, makes sure she eats, does her laundry, and cleans the house for her, and she says she is free to do what she wants.

Passport is one-third the cost of nursing home care, and has been available to all eligible applicants in the state. But that is about to change. As Ohio faces a $3.2 billion budget deficit over the next two years, Passport will be able to take on no new clients.

In the end, Cindy Farson, the Director of the Central Ohio Agency on Aging says 30 percent fewer seniors will get treatment at home.

"And this is important because our waitlist will build and we project in Ohio at the end of the biennium, there may be 10,000 people on a wait list for home and community based services," she said.

Cindy says the cuts will force about two in 10 the new applicants into nursing homes at three times the cost. And many have criticized the spending plan by the state legislature and Governor Ted Strickland. The state would raise some revenue by adding slot machines at horse race tracks but there are no plans to raise taxes.

Lisa Hamler Fugit is very critical of the budget. As Director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, she sees the impact of the economic downturn every day. She wanted to raise taxes rather than cut social services. And says now people will go hungry.

"This should have been a budget about basic needs ensuring that a safety net existed," she said. "And unfortunately that was not the case."

Second Harvest Food Banks distributes food to 12,000 food pantries across the state. The state actually increases Second Harvest's funding by 50 percent to $12 million per year, but the organization determined a year ago the need would grow to $17 million.

"The demand has sky rocketed since that time. We are seeing increases up more than 30 percent," Lisa said. "At the same time our food costs are up more than twenty six percent."

Lisa says they will not be able to meet the need. Hardest hit will be the more than 700,000 children across the state who receive meals through food pantries, and the elderly.

"As we see our lines growing longer everyday with fewer and fewer resources to provide to them," she said, "I fear we are at risk of losing our democracy - to allow hunger not only to exist, but to grow exponentially in our communities, and in our state, and our nation."

Ohio's state funded library system will also take a deep cut. To the crowd waiting for the Columbus Metropolitan Library to open on a typical morning. It's no longer just a place to lend books. It offers an array of community and social programs. There are classes in resume writing, computer access for low income citizens, and after school programs for disadvantaged children.

"In 16 of our locations from three to seven [p.m.], Monday through Thursday, we have an area designated for kids. We have computers, workspace, supplies, all the textbooks from the area schools around a particular branch," Patrick Losinski said. Patrick is Director of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

He says he has not decided how to address the two year, 30 percent shortfall, but hopes not to hit anyone thing too hard. "For us, part of our strategy is looking at not just decimating the programs and having our building open, or decimating our materials budget and having our buildings open with no materials to lend, it is a bit of a balance," he added.

Many believe the current budget will not hold. There are predictions the state will run into a structural deficit by September, forcing the governor to balance the budget again.
Many in the social services field will view that as an opening to pursue tax increases to fund to vital services.

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