May 5, 2013

Cutbacks fall most heavily on the needy

The elderly, disabled and low-income Mainers are bearing a disproportionate share of the pain from federal budget cuts.

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Susan Collins
click image to enlarge

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is pushing a proposal that would give the White House more flexibility to work with Congress to approve targeted spending cuts.

2013 file photo/The Associated Press

Other programs serving the elderly and the disabled are taking hits as well.

Maine's Agencies on Aging -- which provide Meals on Wheels, outreach and educational programs largely to senior citizens -- have made significant cuts to services as they brace for an anticipated $330,000 loss.

Hallowell-based Spectrum Generations, which serves central Maine, went from delivering meals twice a week to only once a week and began putting people on a waiting list for the first time.

Eastern Agency on Aging in Bangor, meanwhile, closed its office one day a week and sent employees home without pay to absorb its anticipated $77,000 share of the cuts. It had already dropped to once-a-week deliveries for Meals on Wheels, so scaling back more wasn't an option.

"We have been cutting the nutritional program over the years because the demand is so great but there is so little money," executive director Noelle Merrill said. "I couldn't cut it again."

Also, Merrill and staff at other agencies have been told that federal payments to states could be delayed until June, forcing her to once again seek a larger line of credit at the bank.

"It's so bad that every year we are borrowing money to pay our expenses while we wait for (federal) money," she said. "But this is even worse."

The effects of the budget cuts on lower-income Americans have not gone unheeded in Washington.

President Obama and some lawmakers -- primarily from the Democratic side of the aisle -- often cite the impacts on Head Start, Meals on Wheels and housing assistance programs as they call for a more wholesale approach to "fixing the sequester" rather than case-by-case fixes like those for the FAA.

The president's Fiscal Year 2014 budget would eliminate the across-the-board cuts, as would a more recent proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who proposed offsetting the cuts with money saved from the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Neither plan is expected to go far, however.


Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado have also been pushing a proposal that would give the White House more flexibility to work with Congress to approve targeted cuts.

"Our plan shows that it is possible to work together on a responsible, thoughtful plan to reduce our deficit, protect the jobs of hardworking Americans, and avoid mindless, meat-ax spending cuts that do not distinguish between vital programs and those that should be cut or eliminated," Collins said in a statement issued immediately after the president signed the FAA bill.

But while some hope Congress' prompt action on air traffic controllers means lawmakers are open to other exemptions, observers say there are relatively few quick fixes.

Congress did not give the FAA additional money, but instead directed the agency to tap into a pool of ready cash in its "capital improvement" fund to end the air traffic controller furloughs. But there is no such flexibility within the Department of Health and Human Services, noted Sharon Parrott, a vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

One-third of the DHHS sequestration cuts come from three areas: Head Start, the National Institutes of Health and programs for the elderly such as Meals on Wheels. Reinstating cuts to those programs -- without giving the department more money -- would necessitate doubling cuts in other areas such as food safety and drug safety, HIV/AIDS programs and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Parrot wrote in a recent online column.

"The reality is that if we are going to address the sequestration cuts not only this year but also in the following eight years that sequestration is in place, Congress is going to have to take a broader view and address it more systematically than in a piecemeal fashion," Parrott said in an interview.

That would involve a combination of targeted cuts and "new revenue" -- code words in Washington for tax increases, elimination of tax deductions or other mechanisms to pump up the federal coffers.

"So we just don't know whether Congress and the president will work together to come up with a better solution for deficit reduction," Parrott said.

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC


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