Child protection among losers in first round of budget cutsby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Leaders of the the new Republican majorities in the Minnesota Legislature have pledged to balance the state budget by cutting spending.
They've also said those spending cuts would not impact the state's most vulnerable residents, but their first budget bill may break that promise.
Among a package of $900 million in cuts is $13 million a year in funding for Child and Community Service Assistance grants.
The House is scheduled to take up the measure this afternoon.
Counties rely on the funding for a variety of programs, but in the state's most populous county, it's used primarily for child protection.
"The state simply isn't stepping up to its responsibility in terms of funding the most vulnerable," said Deborah Huskins is the Human Services and Public Health Area Director for Hennepin County.
Hennepin County investigated 12,000 cases of alleged child abuse or neglect in 2009, she said, and it's being done with less money and fewer people. Since 2009, Huskins said her department has cut 90 staff members to deal with budget cuts on the state and county level.
"It continues to put a great squeeze on our county's ability to provide safety and child welfare services to the children and families in Minnesota," she said. "And this has been a five- to six-year trend."
For example, Huskins said Hennepin County's portion of the block grant went from $31 million a year in 2002 to $18 million a year this year. Her department is spending less time working with runaways and truants, she said.
Huskins said her office will continue to make child protection investigations a priority even if the latest cuts are made.
Dave Haley with Ramsey County worries fewer state dollars could mean there's a time lag in investigating complaints of child abuse or neglect.
"We used to talk around this department about being an agency that provides services that helps folks survive and also thrive," he said. "As this goes on, we're doing less thriving and more surviving."
Republicans have argued that the cuts to the block grants are a continuation of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's cuts from a few years ago, and that counties should already be prepared to absorb them.
Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the Child and Community Service Assistance grants are in the budget cutting bill because counties have shown an ability to do without the money.
"Last year, in the biennium 2010-2011, the CCSA money was actually used for a number of purposes. It was almost a slush fund," Abeler said. "They took it out to manage the GAMC population for the vulnerable, low-income, single adults. And they also used it to balance the budget. Neither of which I thought was a good idea at the time."
But county officials, including Keith Carlson with the Minnesota Inter-County Association, say a portion of the cuts were back-filled last year with federal stimulus money. Counties won't get federal funding next year, he said.
"There's nothing making up for it. This is a $13.7 million cut in each year of the coming biennium," he said.
If the cuts become law, officials from several counties said they will be forced to cut other programs or raise property taxes.
Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, suggested that those complaining about the cuts should be thankful it's not worse.
"If you look at the big picture, there's a whole lot of areas that would be happy with flat spending. It's all relative here," she said.
But county officials say their biggest concern is that social services programs will be on the chopping block again when Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature start dealing with the full budget deficit.
Dayton hasn't said whether he'll veto the budget bill but has expressed concern that lawmakers are taking a "piecemeal approach" to the budget problem.
Dayton will release his budget plan next week.
- Morning Edition, 02/09/2011, 7:07 a.m.