Feb. 2nd, 2005

windelina: (Firefly)
Kay: It made me think of what you once told me -- "In five years, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate." That was seven years ago.
Michael: I know -- I'm trying, darling.
"The Godfather, Part II"

I don't mean to sound cynical, but it's starting to look as though the Bush administration does not seriously intend to get the federal budget in order. At least that's the impression I got from White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's attempt last week to explain the unfortunate fact that the administration projects that the deficit will climb this year.

To grasp the full vacuity of the administration's rationalization, you need to consider it piece by piece. Here's how McClellan began his response to a reporter's question about the growing deficit: "And in terms of the deficit, the president has a deficit reduction plan. It's based on strong economic growth and spending restraint."

So the two elements of this plan are strong economic growth and spending restraint. Let's begin with the growth.

"Strong economic growth" means an expanding economy that produces large gains in tax revenues. The trouble is that the economy, as the administration has been reminding us for a long time, is already growing, yet tax revenues are not rising anywhere fast enough to meet the level of spending. Tax revenue accounted for 20.9 percent of the economy in 2000 and is projected to account for just 16.8 percent this year. A really hot business cycle can usually push tax revenues up a couple of percentage points in a great year. Even if that were to happen in 2005, calling this a deficit reduction plan is like assuring your teenager that you have a plan to pay for her education, and it involves her growing 10 inches and winning a basketball scholarship. And no, dear, this growth plan has nothing to do with that new luxury yacht I just bought myself.

Phase 2 of the "plan" is spending restraint. President Bush is confining his spending restraint to domestic discretionary spending, which accounts for about $500 billion, less than one-quarter of the budget. So programs like the National Science Foundation will suffer a budget freeze.

If he can get Congress to accept his spending limits -- something he has tried and failed to do in every year of his presidency -- we would chop a whopping $9 billion from the deficit. The deficit, let me remind you, will exceed $400 billion.

McClellan, perhaps trying to make the plan sound more extensive than it is, proceeded to repeat points one and two before concluding: "We've got a plan to cut the deficit in half over the next five years. And we are on track to meet that goal." On track, huh? Last year, the deficit was $412 billion. This year, it's expected to hit $427 billion. At this pace, we'll cut it in half by -- hmm, let me pull out my calculator here -- approximately never.

Nor is this the first of the broken promises. Bush first said he would cut the deficit by half in five years in July of 2003. Now, 18 months later, his press secretary is still promising to cut the deficit by half "over the next five years." It seems that at any given point in time, the date of this promised halving is always five years away.

What the Bush administration's position on deficits most resembles -- aside from Michael Corleone's insincere desire to legitimize his crime family -- is the Bush administration's position on tyranny.

Rhetorically, Bush stands foursquare against tyranny, has pledged to make democracy the central feature of his relations with every leader in the world and insists that this principle has always guided his presidency.

In practice, though, he believes in democratization only when it does not conflict with some other strategic objective, hence his close relations with Pakistan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Russia, China and the Persian Gulf states.

Lately, his spokespeople have taken to insisting that Bush's inaugural promise to sweep away global tyranny was actually a suggestion for what future administrations might tackle.

Likewise, Bush believes strongly in fiscal responsibility. Unless it conflicts with his desire to cut taxes while fighting a major war. But rest assured that one day, the deficit will disappear, long after he's left office. He's trying, darling.

Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at the New Republic, wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.
windelina: (hungover)
Anyone who has listened to Gov. Tim Pawlenty discuss state finances lately has probably heard him use a peculiar new phrase, "welfare health care." It's no mystery why the governor wants to attach such a stigmatizing word to Minnesota's health insurance programs -- he wants them to furnish something like $450 million in savings over the next two years, by far the biggest piece of his budget-balancing plan.

But that doesn't mean Minnesotans should accept the governor's new formulation. It's a misleading way to describe who actually benefits from state health care, and it's an insult to thousands of working Minnesotans.

A quick look at the numbers shows how misleading the governor's phrase really is. Last year Minnesota's general fund spent some $2.9 billion on health care programs, a genuinely staggering sum. But 60 percent of that money went to elderly and disabled patients living in nursing homes or other long-term care settings. Moreover, these patients represent the fastest-growing piece of the health care budget. Does the governor really consider them "welfare" recipients?

Another 25 percent of state health care outlays went for indigent adults and children -- either families on cash welfare or childless adults who don't qualify for cash aid. They're welfare recipients by almost any definition. But they are also the cheapest patients in the system because mostly they receive low-cost preventive care, not costly institutional care.

Another 10 percent of health care spending went to MinnesotaCare, the subsidized health insurance plan which is the biggest target in Pawlenty's budget. Adults without children would lose eligibility entirely; adults with children would face much tighter eligibility standards.

But MinnesotaCare doesn't cover the welfare poor. It was created, by definition, to cover working people who can pay premiums. To be sure, their premiums are subsidized by state revenues. Some voters will consider that public assistance. But the whole point of MinnesotaCare was to help families move from welfare to work and for low-income workers to survive in the low-wage job market. And it worked: A 1996 study by the Department of Human Services found that MinnesotaCare kept more than 4,000 families off cash assistance because they could afford to stay in jobs with low wages and no fringe benefits. Shaving down MinnesotaCare is likely to increase the number of Minnesotans who really do qualify for welfare.

Pawlenty's proposal for MinnesotaCare also breaks faith with the state's doctors, dentists and insurance plans, who agreed in 1992 to start paying a small tax to fund the program, with the understanding that more of their patients would then have coverage to pay their bills. This worked too: Charity care at Minnesota hospitals is just one-third of the national average, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Now the governor is reneging on that deal, using the provider tax to cover a different state program while stripping thousands of adults of MinnesotaCare coverage.

Supporters of the governor's plan insist that Minnesota can't afford to cover anyone but the most vulnerable. It's true that Minnesota has been innovative and generous. But that doesn't mean that a large number of Minnesotans actually use the programs: State and federal statistics show that the share of Minnesotans on public coverage for low-income people, 10.2 percent, is actually below the national average.

In short, Minnesota over the last 15 years designed programs to promote low-cost preventive care, reduce high-cost emergency care and reduce the charity care that doctors and hospitals have to charge off to other customers. Unraveling that system will only weaken Minnesota, and using disparaging language to do it only makes the changes more demeaning to a proud state. This week the Legislature began hearings on Pawlenty's health-insurance proposals. Lawmakers surely can find a better way to balance the budget.

*****

I think we all know how much I despise Pawlenty and his cheap tricks to "balance" the budget by making the middle incomes pay up through increased property taxes and higher government fees.
So, here we have a program that has WORKED (much like Social Security), so of course he wants to get rid of it.
America, the land of opportunity - if you can afford it.

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