As legislators gather today for the beginning of the 2014 session, they will be met by an imperative, made clear by their leaders, to close a projected gap of $70 million in the budget for next year.
It is a familiar and discouraging position for them. Legislators who scoured every nook and cranny of state government to find savings each of the past few years must go back to the same nooks and crannies looking for more ways to save. Meanwhile, new problems demanding attention must compete with the continuing austerity required by the budget shortfall.
Republicans have been arguing for some time that the problem is a habitual pattern of overspending by Democrats. At the same time we continue to hear of problems caused by understaffing, particularly in the Agency of Human Services and of inadequate support for state pensions. It appears we are overspending, and we still are not spending enough. Meanwhile, leaders of both major parties pledge that they will not raise taxes to close the gap.
In recent weeks, leaders have described new programs that they hope to launch, even in the face of the budget squeeze. Gov. Peter Shumlin has listed several initiatives he hopes to pursue to address problems of homelessness and poverty. They would add up to about $2.5 million in new money. Also, legislative leaders have focused attention on the problem of drug abuse, especially the increased use of heroin and prescription opiates. Neither the governor nor legislators have said where they plan to get the money for these important initiatives.
It is worth considering the importance of addressing the drug problem. It is commonly acknowledged now that the war on drugs launched by President Nixon in the 1970s has failed. It has had many incarnations and “drug czars” leading the effort over the years.
And yet a recent article in The New Yorker magazine described how a team of Drug Enforcement Agency agents and Honduran police and soldiers, trying to intercept a shipment of cocaine on a Honduran river, inadvertently killed local villagers who happened to be traveling upriver. Our little teams of specially trained agents, in league with local law enforcement, are making barely a dent in the multi-billion drug trade. The collateral damage includes corruption and internal warfare in nations from Mexico to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in the United States, according to The New Yorker, 320,000 people are now being held in prison on drug charges. It is an enormous number. We know they aren’t all dangerous drug dealers.
Some steps are being taken. President Obama and members of Congress are pressing for more flexible sentencing laws, aware of the enormous financial burden caused by our American gulag. At the same time we also know that it is American demand for drugs that is creating havoc around the world. Policymakers are leaving behind the moralistic crusade and accepting the reality that helping drug users quit their habit rather than punishing them is the practical solution. Punishment is still in order for those who exploit and corrupt, but the war on drugs has largely been a war on ourselves, ruining lives, devastating neighborhoods.
Thus, stemming demand remains the key, and it must happen at the grass roots. That’s why emphasis on prevention and treatment of drug abuse is the place where public dollars must go. Medical staff opening a clinic in Rutland this fall estimated that 400 addicts a day would soon be showing up for methadone or other drugs to treat their addiction. That is a sign of great need.
Getting people off prohibited drugs saves lives and money and would help to curb the vast corrupting influence of America’s addictions. For legislators to find a way to address that problem while a $70 million budget shortfall stares them in the face is their 2014 dilemma.MORE IN Editorials
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