Lately we’ve been hearing lots about the “sequester” – Washington-ese for automatic budget cuts resulting from the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, itself a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011 passed to avert that year’s debt-ceiling crisis.
Understandably, that sentence reads as DC gibberish to all but the most obsessed political junkies and out-of-touch pols. But the “sequester” will affect everyone, including the LGBT community in Florida, which benefits from funding for things like HIV/AIDS services, mental health treatment, and substance abuse programs.
So how does the “sequester” relate to things like health services for at-risk populations like the LGBT community?
First, a primer on U.S. budget problems:
- Most years, Congress passes a budget with a deficit—it promises to spend more money than it takes in.
- In order to cover the gap, Congress lets the Treasury sell bonds as a way to borrow money from people who will buy them. These bonds are promises to pay back the money, mostly to governments of other countries, but also to municipalities, businesses, and people who are confident that the Treasury will pay them back.
- Because Congress almost always passes an unbalanced budget, the Treasury sells more and more bonds (read: more money is borrowed) every year in order to pay the bills Congress has said the country owes. This pile-up of bonds to be paid back is the national debt.
- To try to force itself to pass balanced budgets, Congress requires approval for the amount of piled-up debt. By law, the Treasury can’t sell bonds once this amount is reached.
- Incapable of passing balanced budgets, Congress has instead raised the debt limit almost every session, including seven times during the Bush administration.
Early in the Obama administration, due to a combination of a drop in tax revenue and an increase in the costs of services because of the collapsing economy, Congress approved some of the most unbalanced budgets in our nation’s history.
It also borrowed $800 billion in 2009 to pay for the Recovery Act. The deficit exploded, and the Treasury found itself approaching the debt limit faster than ever before.
Congress started to view the threat of refusing to raise the debt limit as a clever way to demand budget cuts in order to shrink the deficit. Refusing this demand would result in a breach in the debt limit, making the Treasury unable to pay the obligations Congress made.
All types of experts agree that this wouldn’t just devastate the economy today, as the government wouldn’t be able to pay for basic services budgeted by Congress, but also in the future, as people would be afraid to buy U.S. treasury bonds, since they would no longer be guaranteed to be paid back on time. In effect, the government would be more likely to be denied loans.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011, and Congress and the President are at an impasse over raising the fast approaching debt limit. Republicans control the House and decide which bills come to a vote, and they refuse to allow a vote on a debt limit increase unless they can also pass large budget cuts in order to shrink the budget shortfall and slow the growth of the national debt.
The President refused, arguing that cuts would hurt the economy and cause more of the same issues that made the deficit explode in the first place. A last-minute compromise was reached: the debt ceiling was raised until 2013, but large automatic budget cuts known as the “fiscal cliff” were scheduled at the end of 2012. Under pressure to find a “better solution” after the President’s re-election, Congress again kicked the can down the road to March, and the cuts now became known as the “sequester.”
So here we are. March is two days away, with no “better solution” in sight. In all likelihood, the “sequester” will become a reality.
That brings us back to the original question: How does this relate to services for the LGBT community in Florida?
According to a White House report issued this Sunday, the budget cuts mean huge hits to services the LGBT community desperately needs. Per the White House, impacts will include:
- $275 million in cuts to the Mental Health Block Grant program resulting in over 373,000 seriously mentally ill adults and seriously emotionally disturbed children not receiving needed mental health services.
- Cuts to the AIDS Drug Assistance Program resulting in 7,400 fewer patients having access to life-saving HIV medications
- $1.4 million in cuts to the Florida Health Department, resulting in 35,900 fewer HIV tests administered
- $5 million in cuts to grants for substance-abuse programs, resulting in 4,500 fewer admitted for treatment
With some studies finding LGBT individuals at higher-risk of developing discrimination-fueled mental health and substance-abuse issues, and the CDC finding that gay men are at the highest risk for contracting and transmitting HIV, it is clear the “sequester” would be a devastating blow to the LGBT community.
We urge you to call or tweet your representatives in Congress and urge them to work on a more balanced solution to our nation’s deficit problem, one which combines new revenues with more targeted budget cuts in order to achieve a balanced budget. If everyone participates, we can all be hopeful for a more sensible outcome.