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Archive for Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nickel-and-diming it

States trim ‘small’ items to balance budgets

July 19, 2009

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— South Dakota eliminated grants for mosquito spraying. Illinois stopped paying for funerals for the poor. Kansas reduced mowing along highways and turned off air conditioning in government buildings earlier than usual.

As states across the nation struggle to balance their budgets, lawmakers are seeking savings any way they can, even if it means nickel-and-dime cuts in basic services.

Since the recession began, many states have slashed spending by billions of dollars. Now legislators in all 50 states are looking for still more cuts as they confront a $121 billion shortfall for the new fiscal year that began July 1.

“I think it’s easy to understand when you think about your own personal finances,” said Ian Pulsipher, a policy specialist in Denver with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “If you could imagine your own income decreasing by a very large amount in one year, you can imagine the kinds of changes you would have to make.”

In Mississippi, the cash crunch has gotten so bad that the highway patrol limits the number of bullets troopers can use for target practice on their days off.

“If they need more, we’ll give them more,” said Department of Public Safety spokesman Jon Kalahar. But with such a weak economy, ammunition costs are a small area where officials can cut down.

In Idaho, elected officials eliminated all state funding for the state’s Women’s Commission, saying the group had done enough to promote equal rights since its founding in the 1960s.

Some lawmakers had been trying to dump the commission for years, and the state’s dire economic situation helped them justify wiping out the $30,000 appropriation.

In Kansas, maintenance crews reduced grass mowing along state highways, and many government buildings began turning off air conditioning at 4 p.m., an hour earlier than usual, in a move that should shave about $125,000 off the energy tab this year.

In Virginia, transportation officials cut $21,000 in annual spending on a ferry that has offered service across the James River for 140 years.

The state had funded the Hatton Ferry since 1941, mostly for tourists visiting Thomas Jefferson’s old stomping grounds.

County supervisors are providing $9,340 to keep the ferry running through September in hopes that a private or nonprofit group will take it over. The ferry is the last of its kind powered by a human being pushing against the river bottom with a long pole.

The pressure is pinching major cities, too. In Denver, officials are trying to slash $120 million from the budget — nearly double the amount originally forecast — because sales tax revenues have dropped so steeply.

To save money, Denver has brought in crews to clean city offices during the day, allowing the building’s lights to be turned off earlier and requiring fewer security guards.

Through neighborhood meetings and an online survey, the city has also asked residents to weigh in on other ways to save.

Some of the possibilities include charging $10 a month for trash collection, watering parks less frequently, cutting back on street repairs and keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail. One woman suggested planting perennials instead of annuals in parks to save money.

Mayor John Hickenlooper said all residents would feel the effects of the coming cuts, which he plans to propose next month.

“But like millions of families and businesses across the country, we must live within our means. And like families do during tough times, we have asked the community to come together and have a conversation about how our city can face economic reality — and emerge stronger,” he said.

South Dakota eliminated grants that helped local governments spray against mosquitoes, part of the fight against the West Nile virus. The grants peaked at $908,082 in the past five years, and that figure had dwindled to $200,000 for the year that ended June 30.

Illinois has stopped paying for funerals for the poor while the General Assembly debates the state budget. Current proposals would eliminate payments of $1,000 per funeral and $500 per burial. Funeral directors are calling wondering what to do.

“If they continue to provide the service, they’re concerned they won’t be reimbursed,” said Department of Human Services spokesman Tom Green. “If they don’t provide the service, they wonder who will.”

Alabama reduced funding for textbooks and eliminated money given to teachers to buy school supplies and textbooks. The money went instead to protect teachers’ jobs.

“It’s better to delay textbook purchases than to lay off teachers and have overcrowded classrooms,” said Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, a teachers’ union.

Georgia considered cutting funding to the Plains Visitor Information Center in Jimmy Carter’s hometown. But the state Senate ultimately restored $186,000 for the shrine that honors the man who rose from peanut farmer to president.

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