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Gazette editorial: How shall WV balance the budget? On the poorest?

Across America, conservatives endlessly try to reduce taxes on the wealthy. To offset the revenue loss, they constantly try to reduce government spending for safety net programs that help ordinary families, the aged, students, the poor, veterans and the disabled.

This “reverse Robin Hood” — rob the poor to help the rich — approach may hit West Virginia as the Republican-controlled Legislature tries to cope with an impending $350 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

Last month, the Joint Committee on Government Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency heard a right-wing expert suggest ways to slash $100 million from people-helping programs.

“Do we want our welfare programs to be paying people not to work?” Josh Archambault of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability asked legislators. He urged tougher policing of health insurance and food stamps.

If a poor family gets Medicaid coverage, he said, inspectors might find that they have gambling or lottery winnings that would disqualify them.

Whoa. Do Republican lawmakers understand what one-time money is? It’s not dependable every month.

Have they forgotten one of the tenets of the Republican-led welfare reform of the 1990s? Congress decoupled Medicaid from other benefits to give low-income families stability in their medical coverage. Losing your ability to take the kids to the doctor every other month as your earnings fluctuated was considered unhealthy, inefficient and a disincentive to accept low-wage jobs that paid enough to disqualify you for all welfare benefits, but not enough to afford medical care. The thinking was, keep the kids and parents enrolled in health care, and that is one less obstacle to working.

The same “expert” also said some low-income folks collect food stamps in several states — presumably by having fake addresses elsewhere than their homes. Of course, any fraudulent collections should be halted, but is this really such a big problem?

West Virginia is facing a budget hole partly because energy prices and revenues have been down. But the hole was also caused by about $300 million worth of corporate tax cuts back when the Democrats were still running the Legislature. Everyone knew at the time the revenue would have to be made up somewhere to avoid large and damaging cuts.

Now the question is whether West Virginia wants to raise revenue to make up for it, and where that revenue will come from, or whether it wants to cut things people need and cannot provide on their own. Is anyone surprised that expenditures that help the neediest people rise to the top of the priority cut list?

Modern democracies protect all citizens. Caring for the most vulnerable and least-privileged is a hallmark of decency. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said:

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

America’s safety net helps all these groups. It will be tragic if conservative West Virginia legislators — of any party — undermine the safety net to spare the wealthy from paying a fair share of taxes or to spare themselves the work of finding new sources of state revenue.

If compassion is not convincing, how about economics? People are better able to send kids to school and look for work — let alone go to work — when they have some breathing space between the next rent payment and utility bill. People who spend every day grasping to meet their family’s basic needs have no time or energy left to plan for tomorrow. Safety net programs that help with food, housing and medical care, for example, help families smooth over those rough patches.

Downsizing the safety net for average people won’t make West Virginia more prosperous. It would just make more West Virginians poorer, and less poised to grab opportunities when they do come along.

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