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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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It’s different this time, in weight and in length. Michigan’s revenues are lower than they were in 1997. A report in New Jersey projects that state revenues will not return to 2008 levels until 2015. There is a growing feeling among municipal leaders in many states that lost revenues from the state are not coming back. Unprecedented cuts to popular and useful programs are being proposed, all coming to a head over the next several weeks and months as state budgets are cobbled together.

Several months ago, Illinois ($13 billion deficit) simply stopped making budgeted payments to social support services, including food banks, senior centers and preschools. One county, expecting an $800,000 payment that never came, just announced the closing of its maternal and child care programs.

A Utah State Senator has proposed that the state recover up to $60 million of its projected $700 million budget deficit by eliminating twelfth grade. Statements from other officials indicate that the idea is definitely on the table. For bonus points, the day before he announced the proposal, the Senator’s own local school district announced layoffs that will increase the average class size from 26 to 30.

In Nevada, Governor Gibbons has proposed that the state eliminate coverage for eyeglasses, dentures and hearing aids from the Medicaid program. The number of adult diapers allotted each month to indigent Seniors with continence problems would be reduced by 38 percent, saving $829,304. If the cuts are sustained, as expected, personal care assistants will have to purchase disposable gloves out of their own pockets. By the way, Nevada has no personal or corporate income tax. Bonus points.

A bunch of cities, including Pawtucket and Colorado Springs, are planning to turn off some of their street lights. In 2006, affluent Colorado Springs was named the Best Big City in which to live by Money Magazine. A few weeks ago, the city removed trash cans from its parks and is asking people to pack their own liter. Residents are also being asked to mow green spaces in their neighborhoods, and the city’s two police helicopters have been grounded and are being auctioned off (minimum bid for both together: $350,000).

States experiencing unprecedented declines in income tax revenues have made budget cuts and still find themselves facing growing deficits, despite all the yacking about “green shoots” and other semi-imaginary signs of “recovery.” In New York, now coming up against it, there is little serious talk among decision makers about rethinking and reforming the way we do or pay for our public business. The crisis is mostly one more prop being used by Democrats and Republicans to game each other in press releases. Worse, too much is happening behind tightly closed doors, at the exact moment we need unprecedented input and ideas from the public.

By the time you read this, it is possible that at least state legislators might see the actual list of over 100 parks and historic sites the state administration is considering closing. Draft lists have ended up in the hands of every newspaper in the state. Some of the choices seem stunningly inconsistent and fiscally counterproductive. No one knows why certain parks might close or how much money would be saved, if anything. Is it all just another attempt to apply pressure or score points? We don’t know. We are not meant to know in New York. We are not even meant to look.

Games. That is why even in good times we make weak choices, or no choices. This time, though, we’re not going to be able to punt or just ride it out until next year. This is next year. It is a time for adults to talk to adults about doing things in new, better ways.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: