In the hallowed halls of the Michigan state Capitol this week, one of the biggest debates has been over slashing a program that gives clothes to orphans.
About 160,000 kids wouldn't receive their back-to-school clothing allowance under the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget passed by a House subcommittee. That saves $9.9 million (which will go a long way to pay for the $1.2 billion tax break we're handing businesses).
Chair Dave Agema (R-Grandville) -- best known for skipping the crucial 2007 tax hike votes to obliterate sheep with a shotgun in Siberia -- suggested that the money isn't being spent on clothes anyway by those greedy urchins.
"I think the hardship is negligible," he shrugged.
Over in the Senate, a subcommittee decided to make kiddies buy their wares at thrift stores, which the Michigan League for Human Services (MLHS) artfully suggested perhaps sent the "wrong message to children that they, too, are second hand."
Subcommittee Chair Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale), a hardworking retired educator, was genuinely confused at the outrage, and added retailers and faith-based resale shops when the bill was before the full Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
Even GOP former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema was taken aback by the move.
"I have to confess that I, personally, would be a little queasy about pursuing something like this," he told Michigan Radio on Thursday. "It just starts to look and feel like the Legislature is being unnecessarily punitive with poor people. And I just don't see a lot of reason or value in pursuing things like this, to be perfectly candid with you."
The orphans' fates ultimately will be decided when Agema, Caswell and four other lawmakers get together and hammer out a deal for the DHS budget in conference committee next month.
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"Unfortunately, we are leaving behind many in this budget, and they are all people who are easy to target. These are groups that do not have highly paid
lobbyists and expense accounts to wine and dine lawmakers,'" said Gilda Jacobs, MLHS president and CEO.
That's something she knows a little bit about, as a former lawmaker of 10 years.
So what's behind these moves by the Legislature? Well, the two DHS panel chairs both live in relatively homogeneous and very conservative enclaves in the state.
Caswell is a Calvinist who's never had to deal much with Democrats or people with other views on social issues, taxes or government services. He believes he's doing the right thing and rooting out inefficiencies in the budget.
Agema ... well, his general philosophy can be summed up in his solution for overworked welfare caseworkers. Rather than hire more workers or work to speed up paperwork processing times, the goat killer suggested that DHS employees be armed with guns to subdue any unruly welfare queens.
Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit) once flippantly described Republicans' attitude toward the poor and unemployed as: "Too bad. It sucks to be you."
Agema probably wouldn't dispute that, but most Republicans would. Many would like to believe that charities and churches can lift the downtrodden up with their untold resources when government steps away. In reality, nonprofits have suffered in the recession along with the rest of us.
Almost uniformly, Republicans believe the state is broke and nothing can be done about it, because raising taxes is verboten. Many still can't believe their Republican governor has asked them to do just that on pensions, but they're at least assuaged by the massive business tax cut. Of course, that means even less money for the state.
So the only thing they believe they can do is whack the holy hell out of the budget. Some are enjoying the process more than others.
We've already whacked the unemployed. If you're going to lose your job, it's best to do so before January, when your state jobless benefits will be cut from 26 to 20 weeks. But don't worry. All state money has been vaporized for adult education and No Worker Left Behind training in budgets so far, making it harder for you to get another job.
And don't think about going back to school unless your name is Rockefeller. Community colleges could be whacked by $10 to $44 million. And the state's 15 public universities look like they'll all get hit by at least 15 percent -- which means $43 million less for Michigan State University and $48 million less for the University of Michigan alone.
That means higher costs for you.
Should you have the dough to stay in school, we also don't care if you stick around after graduation. Gov. Snyder wanted $5 million for "quality of place" grants -- i.e. making cities places folks actually want to live in. That's gone. So is $25 million for economic development programs.
And Republican lawmakers are obsessed with killing the life sciences industry, forcing universities to report on embryonic stem cell research in hopes that the nascent, high-paying industry shrivels and dies. Because Right to Life says it's immoral.
Here are just a few more changes that could be coming to Michigan.
Poor people who can't afford to be buried are out of luck. The only thing the state will fund is cremating unclaimed bodies.
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which meant $432 more dollars for the average low-income family, was going to disappear. Now it looks like they'll at least get a measly $25 per child.
About 2,600 low-income women will not receive breast and cervical cancer
screening and access to Medicaid treatment if cancer is detected and
510 fewer low-income adults will receive colon cancer screening.
About 10,000 disabled adults without kids could see their benefits chopped from $269 to $175 a month.
The 48-month lifetime cap on welfare will kick about 15 percent of Michiganders to the curb -- 12,600. More than 90 percent of those families are
working, but they still qualify for assistance because of their pitiful wages.
So what is it that the poor, disabled and sick are supposed to do in the wake of these budget cuts and the slow economic recovery?
Well, that's a question nobody has taken the time to answer.