JONATHAN COHN APRIL 25, 2012
You’ve probably heard about the radical reduction in federal spending that Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the Republican Party leadership has endorsed. But what would those cuts actually mean? How would they affect real people? To answer those questions, you should pay attention to what’s happening in Florida, where Republican Governor Rick Scott’s all-out assault on government has a new target: Funding for rape crisis centers.
On April 17, when Scott signed the budget for Florida’s new fiscal year, he used his line-item veto to cancel funding for about $143 million in programs that the legislature had approved—among them, $38 million in funding to health-related programs including $1.5 million for sexual violence treatment centers. A non-profit agency, the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, would have disbursed the money to centers across the state.
The cut has drawn national attention, thanks first to a story by Ashley Lopez in the Florida Independent and then follow-ups in the Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and MNSBC’s Maddowblog. In response to criticism, Scott’s office has said the funding was “duplicative,” because state already spends $6.5 million on “rape prevention and services” as well as an additional $29 million on domestic violence services. “In this difficult economy the demands are great everywhere,” Lane Wright, Scott’s spokesman, told me via e-mail. “We have to make sure we’re not spending money for services that duplicate what the state is already doing.”
But was the funding really so redundant? According to Jennifer Dritt, the Council’s executive director, funding that presently targets sexual violence focuses more on prevention: It may reduce the incidence of rape, but it doesn’t directly help rape victims. And while domestic violence centers care for people assaulted by intimate partners or family members, the majority of sexual violence cases will involve somebody else. As a result, those victims are unlikely to end up at domestic violence shelters.
(Wright says "These victims’ services do overlap. Many sexual assault victims find refuge in the domestic violence shelters, and are helped by the services offered by related programs." Dritt points to official state statistics showing that, between 1999 and 2009, no more than 23 percent of forcible sex offenses reported to law enforcement were incidents of domestic violence.)
With local, state, and federal support for sexual violence treatment falling, thanks to lower tax revenues and cuts to government programs at all levels, the Council and the centers that get funding through it had been counting on this new money to make up the shortfall—and, no less important, to deal with the vast unmet need for services. “One program covers eight counties and has just two centers … and if you don’t have a presence in a county, people frequently don’t know the services are even available,” Dritt told me. Last year, centers funded by the Council provided assistance to about 40,000 people. But, Dritt says, “our programs could easily have served 80,000, twice that number. … Some programs have one full-time person for two counties. And that person does the supportive counseling, answers the hotline, meets people at the hospital, and coordinates the community response. … [they] are beyond capacity now.”
Local administrators I interviewed on Wednesday agreed, citing services they would have to withhold or cut because the state funding won't materialize. “There is a huge unmet need,” said Jennifer Barton, executive director of Abuse Counseling and Treatment in Fort Myers. “This extra funding would assist us in providing the forensic examinations on rape victims as well as counseling services and would help with this budget.”
Yes, you'd expect people like Dritt and Barton to say that. No, I can't be sure that funding the centers should have been a priority, given other claims on state resources. But I can tell you that nobody, not even in the governor's office, seems to be denying that the centers do good work or to be suggesting the program is some sort of boondoggle. ("There's no sign that this program is waste," says Alan Stonecipher of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy.) I can also tell you that cutting appropriations for worthy, highly necessary public services would be entirely consistent with Scott's broader approach to governing.
Since taking office in early 2011, Scott has slashed funding for public education and Medicaid, while trying (with less success) to reduce taxes on corporations. Scott and his supporters claim the tax cuts will bolster Florida’s weak economy, naturally, and I'm sure many conservatives would agree. But remember that cuts to services, including sexual violence centers, are reducing employment now, while the cuts to education and other long-term investments will likely reduce employment in the future.
The best defense of Scott’s cuts is that Florida, among the states that suffered the most when the housing bubble burst, is in no position to plug budget holes right now—that what it really needs is more help from Washington, which isn't bound by balanced budget requirements, which has traditionally assisted states during times like these, and which historically has made the investments that states could or would not. But Scott is almost uniquely unqualified to make that argument. He has been a relentless advocate for smaller government, going so far as turn down federal money that would have funded high-speed train construction and would have reduced the number of Floridians without health insurance.
In this sense, Scott offers a preview of what's to come if Romney becomes president and, working with allies like Ryan, he carries out his plans for the federal budget. Romney hasn't called specifically for defunding sexual violence treatment or much of anything else. But, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out, Romney’s commitment to capping federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, while setting aside 4 percent for defense, would require “extraordinary cuts.”
The result would be dramatic reductions in some combination of safety net programs, education, and myriad smaller initiatives like the one in Florida that helps rape victims—even as the wealthiest Americans got tax cuts. The cuts would go well beyond any that President Obama and the Democrats have endorsed (although even some of those, for the record, have gone farther than I would have liked).
Romney won’t say that's his plan, of course. Instead, he’ll talk about cutting government and taxes in the abstract, just like Scott did when he was running for governor. What remains to be seen is whether American voters grasp the implications in time—or whether, as in Florida, they'll only learn when it's too late.
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Update: On Wednesday, the University of Florida appeared to back off plans, mentioned originally in the above item, that would have functionally eliminated its computer science department in the face of state budget cuts. Thanks to reader "rsalzberg" for bringing that to my attention—and for pointing out that, contrary to my original description, the university never planned to get rid of its engineering department, as well. Also, in my original article, I inexplicably had identified Jennifer Dritt as Jennifer Pritt.