In early December, the Michigan Legislature met for a lame-duck session that should have been uncontroversial—just a bit of housework before the next body convened in 2013. Instead, the GOP majority used the period to enact a dream list of conservative priorities: abortion-rights restrictions, a phaseout of the personal--property tax, reductions to welfare. Its crowning achievement was the passage of a right-to-work bill prohibiting unions from collecting mandatory dues.
The last several years have been bleak for state governments. Most had to tap, if not drain, rainy-day funds—money set aside for emergencies. But that usually wasn’t enough to bridge shortfalls. Some raised taxes and other revenue, but for the most part, states relied on cuts. Since 2007, states have slashed nearly $300 billion from their budgets, with health care and education being hardest hit; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, over the last five years 23 states have made deep cuts to pre-K and public school spending, while 20 have made major cuts to health care.
Welfare systems exist to reduce the worst excesses of poverty. When poverty increases during recessions, the welfare state is supposed to rush into countercyclical action, providing a firewall against a growth in destitution.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s never been the case. In recent years in particular, the American welfare system has increasingly shed itself of this key obligation.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes the GOP's refusal to rest in its battle against food assistance for poor children:
House Republicans are proposing a cut in the WIC nutrition program that would force WIC to turn away 325,000 to 475,000 eligible low-income women and young children next year. This cut — part of the 2012 appropriations bill that Rep. Jack Kingston, chairman of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, unveiled today — would break a 15-year commitment by Administrations and Congresses of both parties to provide enough WIC funding to serve all eligible women, infants, and children who apply.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a nifty chart showing the huge impact of tax expenditures -- credits, loop holes, write-offs, etc. -- on the federal budget. Short story: In terms of overall spending, tax expenditures dwarf virtually everything else, including major entitlement programs:
Can Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue stand up to her Republican general assembly? (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
The big gains for Republicans in November's elections didn't stop with the U.S. House of Representatives: The GOP won governor's seats and other state-level races across the country. Nowhere were those gains more meaningful than in the South. In North Carolina and Alabama, Republicans gained control of statehouses for the first time in nearly a century. The only two states of the former confederacy where Democrats retained control of both houses of the legislature are Mississippi and Arkansas. Writing in Politico, Jonathan Martin noted those losses were exacerbated by at least 10 state legislators who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party after "concluding that there is no future in the party that once dominated the so-called Solid South."
Like Tim Fernholz, I'm at the joint conference on "how progressives should think about the deficit," put on by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for American Progress. Tim notes that the presence of Franklin Raines, former president of Fannie Mae, and Bob Rubin, formerly of Treasury and Citigroup might "offend those both on the left and the right."