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With the Arizona Legislature Signing Off on $1.6 Billion in Budget Cuts, How Can We Justify Music Therapy?

It was the music therapy that pushed me over the edge.

For the past month, I've been getting an endless series of pleas, begging me to lobby the government not to ax this program or that. I've been asked to fight against cuts to education, the closure of state parks, and the reduction of hours at senior centers. After-school programs are being slashed — and yet don't we all believe that children are the future? Libraries are closing on Sunday — but surely people need computer access for their job searches!

Everybody's suffering. Everybody needs help. And everybody is tapped out. What can you feel in the face of such hopelessness except a certain numbed depression?

Personally, I've been hunkered down, trying to spend less money. Sure, I've written the occasional small check to do my part for the really urgent cases, but mostly I just feel helpless and sad for everybody.

Then came the e-mail about music therapy.

The Arizona Legislature has been forced to sign off on a staggering $1.6 billion in cuts, just to get the budget on track before the end of the fiscal year in June. (They're now trying to find places to cut another $425 million from next year's budget, although that could change, thanks to the federal stimulus plan.)

Turns out, as part of this fiscal year's cuts, the reimbursement rate for private therapy providers is being slashed. If you have a developmentally disabled kid, the state will still pick up the cost of therapy — but now it's demanding a 10 percent rate cut from its providers. For music therapy, the state is cutting rates by 55 percent.

Now, I'd never argue that the state shouldn't be in the business of supplying necessary therapies to disabled kids. Speech therapy, physical therapy — that's important stuff.

But did you know that we've been paying for trained professionals to help kids express their feelings through music? And it's not just that we foot the bill for underprivileged families. (That I would understand.) But we're doing it regardless of income. In Arizona, it's considered a way to teach "socialization" — and the state subsidizes it without regard for need.

Naturally, there's an Arizona Music Therapy Association. And naturally, it's been organizing the parents who use its services — the parents of developmentally disabled children — to protest those cuts.

Now, as any reporter or legislator could tell you, there are no better advocates than the parents of disabled children. They've had to fight for their kids from birth; many become proficient at fighting simply because they have to. (I wasn't surprised to learn that some plucky parent managed to get President Barack Obama's ear to talk about music therapy during his visit to Dobson High last week.)

But really.

Without the cuts, we were expected to finish the year $1.6 billion in the hole. Billion! And now, thanks to cuts to its budget, CPS says it no longer has enough money to investigate all the complaints it receives alleging abuse and neglect.

Do you realize what that means? Some kid somewhere is going to get hurt and no one's going to be there to check up and make sure he's okay.

Longtime readers of this paper know I'm no fan of CPS. Unlike former Governor Janet Napolitano, I believe the state should err on the side of keeping kids with their families in all but the most clear-cut cases of abuse and neglect. But the fact that some neighbor, or teacher, is upset enough about the way a child is being treated to call CPS, and no one's even going to stop by to check out the child and put the caregivers on notice? That's shameful.

In light of that, it's pretty hard to get upset because the state is no longer picking up the entire bill for music therapy.

I hate to be the one to break the news, but we're in terrible economic times. Meanwhile, Governor Napolitano didn't just fail to save for this rainy day; she actually raided the "rainy day fund" long before it started pouring.

Now we have to make some unpleasant choices. And any middle-class parents whining about how their kid isn't going to be socialized through music therapy had better not expect a lick of sympathy from me.


I know I'm not alone in this, if only because the nation is having a collective anti-OctoMom meltdown. Not since Ronald Reagan inveighed against welfare queens have we felt so damn tired of being forced to subsidize our brother's various keepers (and bail out his five-bedroom McMansion while we're at it).

I'm looking at my tax return and they've taken out thousands of dollars — to give the Iraqis freedom, to pay for healthcare for poor kids, to finance federal grants so the government can encourage us all to stop being so obese. Apparently, I'm also paying to help finance $490 a month for food stamps for Nadya Suleman and her growing brood. And bankrolling all those idiots who thought the great real estate bubble would never burst. And helping Detroit to continue to make cars that I wouldn't drive if they were giving them away.

 

No wonder the Chicago Tea Party idea is generating such a buzz!

Now, I know that we're supposed to be our brother's keeper. As a good Catholic — actually, make that a serious Catholic, if not always a good one — I understand the importance of feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, even picking up the Medicare tab for the sick.

I have a harder time with music therapy. And glossy TV commercials urging kids not to do meth. And grants for Arizona farmers, so they can study the effects of conserving parts of their acreage.

Apparently, I've been paying for all of the above.

Fact is, most of us didn't really pay attention at the time to whether such causes were worth the money. Why worry?

In hindsight, it's clear that rather than saving up for an inevitable downturn — or even just holding out for truly worthy programs — the state went on a spending spree.

From fiscal year 2003 to 2007, general fund expenditures in Arizona increased by nearly 70 percent — from $6 billion to $10.2 billion. Sure, the state was adding residents every day, but even when you factor that in and account for inflation, state spending was still through the roof. Over those four years, spending rose at an average of 8 percent annually, even when adjusted for both population growth and inflation. (Those figures come from the non-partisan Joint Legislative Budget Committee, in case you were wondering.) How many households do you think were able to raise their spending at a similar clip?

Of course, many worthy programs were funded during that time. But Ronald Reagan had it right when he wrote, "Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets."

The boom years meant that we, the taxpayers, could foot the bill for music therapy for disabled kids — even if those kids were in wealthy families. They meant that, between the state and various counties, $6.35 million could go to a high-profile ad campaign that warned children of the dangers of meth, even though that same campaign had shown dubious results in Montana. They meant that a high-powered lobbyist could beg the Legislature to appropriate funding for a controversial California-based treatment program, which she thought would help her autistic child — and we the taxpayers ended up giving the company $5.4 million to come to Arizona.

The boom years also meant Arizona Department of Agriculture videos touting the tastiness of Arizona grains. Meanwhile, the Arizona Game and Fish Department gave $50,000 in grants to local "sportsmen's groups" — which are apparently hunting and fishing clubs — to aid them in recruiting new members. Yeah, that's a necessary function of government.

What the heck: The money was there. As the Gipper so rightly predicted, the government found a way to spend it.

None of these expenditures is huge in the big picture. And none makes or breaks $1.4 billion in cuts. It's the carelessness that's offensive.

Take the Department of Commerce, an agency where the reigning political party is notorious for placing apparatchiks. Under Napolitano, the department's funding more than quadrupled, from $3.1 million in 2004 to $14 million in 2008.

The Department of Commerce is supposed to market Arizona to out-of-state companies, but it's long seemed more interested in justifying its own existence. A few years ago, the department's bigwigs actually hired an outside firm for a branding campaign. Not to brand Arizona, mind you — to brand itself, the Department of freakin' Commerce. The firm was actually paid to replace the department's longtime slogan, "Our Job Is Jobs," with "The Center for Economic Advancement." The cost of the branding campaign: $35,225.

On that note, did you know that just about every agency in the state has its own lobbyist? So do most big cities and counties.

Yep, we're paying the government to lobby itself.

The Goldwater Institute published a great study on this issue a few years ago. Just the handful of counties and cities that it surveyed managed to tally up a combined $6 million in lobbying expenses over a five-year period. State agencies spent another $3.3 million during that period.

And don't even get me started on all the money that the government is spending to sue . . . the government. I don't blame the cities one bit for suing the state over the Napolitano-era edict that they kick in more money (they won, after all), but we taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for both sets of lawyers. On the county level, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has now sued his own client, the board of supervisors, twice.

 

Don't you think we could be better spend that money investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect?

It's kind of funny. While I was researching this column, I stumbled onto a telling quote in a January 2008 issue of Arizona Capitol Times. Governor Janet Napolitano was trying to persuade the Legislature not only to eschew cuts, but to spend even more. She actually wanted to offer free tuition at state universities to any student who maintained a B average in high school.

That plan seems crazy today. But at the time, just one year ago, Napolitano was convinced the state was downright flush. She told the Cap Times, "We must remember that Arizonans years from now won't ask how we balanced the budget. Instead, they'll ask how we improved education, ensured their safety, built a prosperous economy, and planned for explosive growth."

In late January, the Arizona Department of Administration sent out a memo to all state agencies, telling them that employees are now required to turn off the lights when they leave the building at night. Which leads to my question for Governor Napolitano.

Unlike what Napolitano suggested to the Cap Times, I'm not asking, "Gee, Governor, how did you do such a great job improving education?"

I'm asking, why didn't we turn off the lights years ago? What did Commerce do with $14 million in 2008?

And what's up with the music therapy?


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