POSTED ON NOVEMBER 4, 2009:
No Senior Left Behind?
Hot meals for elderly likely to feel sting of budget cuts
So it turns out Marie Antoinette probably never did utter the infamously dismissive, "let them eat cake."
Neither, so far as we know, did Oklahoma's top elected officials -- but they might as well have.
Their appalling indifference to deepening budget cuts that eliminated thousands of hot meals provided to low-income, often immobile seniors is undoubtedly the blackest eye in a series of black eyes besmirching Oklahoma's reputation.
You're telling me Gov. Brad Henry, House Speaker Chris Benge and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee can't find $7.4 million -- out of a $7.2 billion budget plus hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars -- to help the least among us, especially as we enter cold weather season?
As the late Minnesota Senator and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once put it, the "moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."
You can chalk all this up to a liberal's rant, if you like, but before you do, consider this: It costs about $25 a week to provide the average Oklahoma senior five hot meals -- most delivered by volunteers whose efforts don't cost the taxpayers a red cent.
Further, the $25 spent by the state is matched dollar-for-dollar by the feds, stretching our humanitarian efforts even further.
What happens if we let these seniors slip deeper into "the shadows?" For some, physical and mental health could decline to the point that they no longer are able to live independently. Next stop: a nursing home.
Think very many of these poor, elderly Oklahomans could afford the cost of such care? Not likely. Who picks up the tab? The taxpayers. The cost? An average $910 per week.
Here we go again -- state leaders unable or unwilling to make the tough, but necessary choices now, even though the long-term savings potentially are astronomical.
It defies logic, except when viewed through the prism of power politics.
Although seniors typically vote in higher percentages than most other groups, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for many of these lower-income, mobility-challenged seniors to get to the polls. Strike one.
Their meager financial resources relegate them to an after-thought in a political world where sizeable campaign contributions are necessary to open doors and guarantee face time with elected officials. Strike two.
Finally, lower-income seniors tend to vote Democratic, making them a group whose turnout surging Republicans are hardly interested in encouraging. Strike three.
Lest you think all at the statehouse are motivated by such hardball calculations, it's worth noting that lawmakers from both parties are imploring their leaders and the governor to resolve a dire situation that not only affects meals-on-wheels-type programs, but also senior nutrition centers and transportation services.
Republican Sen. Patrick Anderson of Enid is a hero in this fight. He's challenged Henry to redirect a sliver of $105.2 million in federal stimulus discretionary funds in order to fund senior programs between November and February, when lawmakers return to regular session and can address the problem.
The governor's office first brushed aside the request, claiming discretionary funds were intended to be spent on one-time projects -- since there is no guarantee the money will be available next year. The following week, the story evolved into this: the governor's discretionary funds already had been spent.
Democratic Rep. Wallace Collins of Norman also took up the cause, pointing out the state House is sitting on a $6.4 million discretionary fund that previously was used to remodel legislators' offices, among other things. Collins figures the Senate and House are hoarding more than enough money to fund the vital senior programs until February.
"Last year, the House and Senate spent millions of dollars to upgrade their electronics to include the purchase of several large-screen television sets and additional surveillance cameras in hallways and meeting rooms," Collins said. "Having the latest technology to present bills and count votes is nice, but is it worth the sacrifice being made by older Oklahomans? I think not."
There's no way to put a value on the regular arrival at a shut-in's doorstep of a smiling, interested volunteer. It's a window to the world. It's a reason to get out of bed. It's often the difference between independence and costly nursing home care.
"There are many worthy programs across the state that are suffering because of budget cuts," Anderson said. "But the senior nutrition program is different in that it provides a daily meal directly to those who need it most. During this time of economic turmoil, the senior nutrition program is needed now more than ever."
Don Hudman, executive director of Oklahoma City's Areawide Aging Agency, said the 11 such agencies statewide won't be able to provide more than half a million daily meals between now and the end of the fiscal year June 30 unless funding is restored. Failure to do so, he said, is "nothing short of criminal."
How did we reach a point where thousands of Oklahoma seniors suddenly are at risk of being denied their one hot meal of the day? Yes, the recession is a culprit -- but not the primary one. The truth is, the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature have no one but themselves to blame. When oil and gas tax revenues were booming earlier this decade, they couldn't resist the temptation to pander to the greedy elite and hoodwink the masses, enacting $770 million in tax cuts.
Oklahoma's largest newspaper, the Daily Disappointment, recently opined that the state's budget crisis -- revenues were 26 percent less than anticipated in the first quarter -- has nothing to do with the tax cuts. Do they think Oklahomans are stupid? Do they think $770 million wouldn't come in handy now in the lean times that always come?
Hubert Humphrey had it right: We'll be judged by how we treat the least among us. Is Oklahoma up to the challenge?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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