Alibi V.15 No.40 • Oct 5-11, 2006 

News Feature

Money Talks

Federal budget cuts hit home

Vanessa Monge is one of many UNM students who’s less than thrilled by proposed federal budget cuts.
Vanessa Monge is one of many UNM students who’s less than thrilled by proposed federal budget cuts.

By the time the House of Representatives gets around to voting on 2007’s federal budget on Nov. 13, the midterm elections will already be over. The pomp and circumstance that goes along with any election year will be an afterthought, replaced by the comparatively unsexy task of number-crunching and figuring out the government’s expenditures for next year.

“The budget will be finalized ... conveniently after the election,” says Mike Davis. He’s the communications director for Communities United to Strengthen America, a nonprofit grassroots organization devoted to demystifying complex topics like the federal budget for middle-class families, who need to know how the government’s decisions will affect their health care, retirement and personal economic outlook.

So how will the proposed federal budget cuts affect middle-class families here in New Mexico? According to Davis, those in the middle of the economic spectrum will continue being squeezed. It’s like an hourglass, he says, with the rich at the top, the poor at the bottom and everyone else in the shrinking center.

He cites one prime example. “You’re looking at a loss of manufacturing and service industry jobs ... the manufacturing is going to other countries. Where's that leave Americans?”

Davis points out one possible budget cut that will affect the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Called the MEP, it’s a network of nonprofit centers that provides small- to mid-size manufacturers with jobs. It serves as a counterbalance to overseas competition for jobs, and under the Bush administration’s budget, it will be reduced by almost 60 percent (according to Fiscal Planning Services, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based fiscal research company). With an already tight job market in New Mexico, the cuts will make finding a manufacturing job much more difficult.

As grim as that may sound, Davis says, it’s not the only issue that should concern middle-income families. In terms of education, the Bush administration’s cuts to loan programs such as Perkins Loans and Pell Grants will effect New Mexico students, perhaps drastically.

Vanessa Monge is one local student who stands to be affected by these cuts. She’s a first-generation student who is attending UNM thanks to a Pell Grant, a work-study position and the New Mexico Lottery Success Scholarship.

“My grant will work for this semester and the next one,” she says, sitting in the lobby of Mesa Vista Hall, where the junior-year speech and hearing sciences student works as an intern. “After that,” she says, “I’ll have to work more hours.”

Funding is a problem Monge faces every year--waiting to see if her grant money will come through--though she does get a little supplemental income from her work-study program. However, if the federal budget goes through as it is, Monge might not be able to rely on her tutoring job; she’d lose that safety net.

Asked what she’d do if her work-study program was cut, Monge says without hesitation, “I’d have to get an off-campus job.”

“I don’t live at home. In a work-study position, you don’t get paid much. [But] if I have to work more,” in an off-campus position, “I’ll have to cut back school hours.”

What’s happening to all the money getting cut out of programs? Davis notes that much of it is going toward increased military spending for Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers back up his claim: According to the Fiscal Overview of the President’s Budget (prepared by the House Committee on the Budget), the administration recommends a 6.9 percent increase in military spending over last year. At the same time, President Bush is proposing a 1.3 percent increase in Homeland Security spending, while calling for a hard freeze in nondefense and non-Homeland Security discretionary expenditures.

For some clarification about discretionary spending--and the federal budget in general--I visited Kate Krause, a UNM economics professor whose office is just a few earthtone-colored buildings away from the center where Monge mentors fellow undergrads.

Krause describes discretionary spending like this: A huge portion of the federal budget is not debatable. It’s a built-in function.

We can’t stop paying into Social Security, Krause says; thus, it’s not discretionary. However, Congress can enact laws that decide how much we pay out into other programs, making them discretionary.

Aspects of the federal budget (like education expenditures) are counted as discretionary spending. With Bush calling for a freeze, if not a reduction in programs like these, students like Monge will have to go elsewhere for college funding.

“They could borrow elsewhere,” Krause says. For example, they could go to the private sector.

Krause admits that sifting through the federal budget’s figures is not for the timid, though she does oblige me when asked to look at the Bush administration’s proposed budget, released last February.

After a few minutes of mouse-clicking, printing and reading the jargon-heavy official documents, she says, plainly, “The president wants to cut spending on medical care.”

That’s another complaint from Communities United’s Davis, himself the father of an 11-year-old.

“The budget next year cuts $20 million from National Family Caregiver Support,” he says, adding that the program provides funding for family members who provide at-home care for loved ones. In Bernalillo County, upward of 66,000 informal caregivers stand to be affected by the budget cuts.

But that’s not the only program that will be affected if the proposed budget goes through. The Children’s Hospitals Graduate Medical Education Payment, which provides money for students going into pediatrics, would also be thinned. Locally, Davis says, Carrie Tingley Hospital would lose $200,000, resulting in four less doctors trained here.