Politicians have a reputation for promising more than they seriously intend to deliver. It is easy and politically savvy to propose new programs; the news media heralds each initiative whether it includes a realistic source of funding or not. Consequently, a "no new taxes" governor can appear caring and compassionate just by offering generous new programs.
Governor Tim Pawlenty recently unveiled a plan to end long-term homelessness in Minnesota. Although the initiative only addresses a small portion of those who are homeless at any given time, the long-term homeless are a particularly difficult population to deal with. Many of them are suffering from mental illness or addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Addressing their needs is the right thing to do, and the governor is right to propose a plan to do so.
Pawlenty held a big news conference to proudly announce his new plan. He proposed borrowing $20 million to build some new housing now, and in future years finding a significant amount of additional money to operate the programs and provide necessary support services, such as chemical dependency treatment.
It is a big commitment and a worthy one. The administration pointed out that such an effort would also save money in the long run. Pawlenty's Commissioner of the Housing Finance Agency said "this population disproportionately uses very expensive crisis services--shelters, emergency rooms, detox, and law enforcement and corrections." They are correct. Treating mental illness and chemical dependency saves money by reducing the need for expensive crisis services.
For the new initiative to succeed, the administration says it will need an additional $400 million over the next seven years. Unfortunately, the governor did not specify where this new funding might be coming from. With continuing budget problems and no new taxes, there is no way to get the new money -- other than to further reduce funding for other programs.
Last year, the Pawlenty administration proposed cuts of about a billion dollars from human services programs, including taking $70 million from the previous budget's allotment for affordable housing and homeless prevention programs. Pawlenty said the cuts were necessary to balance the budget without raising taxes.
The administration said not to worry. They claimed that even after the cuts, Minnesota was still more generous than other states. But to families struggling to find housing, or even just a shelter to spend the night in, this hardly feels generous.
The critical question is, where does the new money for Pawlenty's initiative come from? With no new taxes, do we continue Pawlenty's direction of making further cuts to domestic abuse shelters? Further cuts for homeless teens?
Most people and families are homeless for a relatively short period of time after some crisis -- a layoff, domestic abuse, divorce, or perhaps a health emergency -- leaves them unable to pay the rent or mortgage. These short-term homeless need services too. Minnesota's affordable housing programs didn't meet the needs before the cuts. Now they fall even further short of the need.
Why does the governor's new program deserve support? And why do other programs for the homeless also deserve more funding? As the administration's press release said, to "replace crisis and despair with opportunity and hope." Even more than that, to save lives.
In my office, I have a small wooden, crudely hand-painted sign from last year's memorial service for Minnesotans who died while homeless. The plaque reads simply: "Marley, (age) 3 months." I never met Marley. I'm sure Governor Pawlenty never met Marley either.
But perhaps Marley's mother would be comforted to know that Pawlenty's new initiative to address homelessness will really be funded. With real money; not money taken from other families in need. Even if it means new taxes to pay for it.