With the sobering news about our state's massive budget deficit, it is clear that this legislative session will involve numerous budget cuts.
Unfortunately, the options here are poor – raise revenues, cut funding, or both. Governor Pawlenty, looking to score political points, says he will use nothing but cuts and he hints that the deepest cuts will come in human services. But many of his likely cuts, in addition to causing real human suffering, are fiscally irresponsible and will cost taxpayers more in the long run.
We can learn from past mistakes. If we had invested in aggressively tackling certain social problems a decade ago when we had a budget surplus, we would not be facing the great expense of dealing with the impact of those problems now.
I can think of no better example of this shortsighted approach than the issue of domestic violence.
A decade ago, many women and children who were being abused had no place to go – no safe housing and no counseling or other services. Many women did not know of any way out, so they remained with their abusers. And few abusers received any intervention or psychological counseling to stop their abusive behavior.
We know that many abusers were themselves, victims of abuse when they were children. Abuse victims grow up to become abusers. They in turn, use violence on their partners and children who then become another generation of abusers. It is a cycle of violence that must be stopped.
Why didn't Minnesota do more? It was a simple budget matter. The state chose not to invest the resources. Instead, the governor and legislators determined that money that could have been used for domestic violence or other problems was "surplus" to be used to cut taxes.
In 2003, facing a budget shortfall, Governor Pawlenty and the legislature made deep cuts in the already insufficient funding for battered women's shelters and services. Although some funding was later restored, the programs are still below the 2003 level. Many women still know of no place where they and their children can go to escape violence.
Unfortunately, when we fail to address a problem like domestic abuse, the problem doesn't go away, it gets worse. Now we are facing the consequences of those decisions.
Each year, for about 30 Minnesota women and children, domestic violence is fatal. About 800 more are hospitalized. Take a minute to think about this. Think of the families missing a daughter or a grandchild – thirty people killed every year and countless others living in fear and pain.
In addition to the human suffering, the economic implications of domestic abuse are huge. Our state and county budgets absorb much of the medical costs for the hundreds who are hospitalized from abuse. Taxpayers also pay the out-of-home placement costs for children removed from these homes. When there is a domestic murder, the state spends more than a quarter million dollars to lock up the murderer for each decade behind bars, plus the costs for arrest and prosecution.
The 2003 cuts in domestic violence programs have not saved money. Instead, the violence continues and the state is forced to spend tens of millions of dollars to lock up a continuing stream of new abusers and to pay medical costs for the victims. These costs far outweigh the price of prevention and services for abuse victims up-front.
Similarly, there are other areas of the state budget where a cut this year might cost the state three or four times as much in the future – early childhood education, preventive healthcare, chemical dependency treatment, or teen pregnancy prevention, to name a few.
This should teach us a lesson. We cannot undo the harm caused by our previous failures to tackle social problems. But we don't need to repeat those mistakes.
In his recent state of the state address, Governor Pawlenty said he wants to handle the entire budget problem with no increases in revenue; in fact he proposes cutting corporate taxes, which would make the deficit even larger. The governor dismisses large cuts in spending as if they are simply a matter of accounting; as if the cuts will be painless to ordinary Minnesotans. But these cuts are not just a bunch of numbers or statistics; they are real people with real needs.
We know there will be budget cuts this year. But as we address the budget deficit, Minnesota needs to recognize that a further cut in services for domestic violence victims is not only wrong, it's costly too.