Today the Senate chambers are empty, thirty five chairs sit tucked under desks and snow falls outside. Snow is good, it means a slightly less stressful legislative session since dry hills and dry wells and ditches will not be plaguing the minds of my farming colleagues. At least perhaps water will not be as scare as dollars.
This week we begin to gather. The session starts officially on January 12th at noon. And then from Challis and Sagel, Bear Lake and Kuna we will assemble and the gavel will fall. We will begin the task of writing state law and of keeping the doors open in job training programs; dollars flowing for emergency medical care, for classrooms and doctor visits; for supervision, housing and treatment for those released from prison. We will decide who gets paid and how much, whether to cut all salaries or just those at the top. Whether the dollars saved by laying off or losing front-line state employees will be dwarfed by the increased cost of backlogs in child protection, the cost of new mental health and substance abuse crises, the cost of increased prison populations and greater demand for emergency medical care and more.
I wish I could say we will be wise and think ahead, weighing consequences with the costs, thinking about who can bear the losses and who, right now, can not. Just as more people fall on hard times, will we cut the services they need to feed their families?
With Governor Otter talking about this being a time to re-evaluate the size of government I can't help but fear that this economic downturn will be used as an excuse to gut disability, medical, mental health and substance abuse services permanently. I worry that we will lose sight of our growing understanding that it saves budget dollars if we prevent a mental health crisis, prevent addiction, prevent incarceration and offer preventative care to avoid the need for expensive emergency medical services.
The chambers feel hollow. I hope our coffers, our reasoning and forsight will not be.