Home Virginia Politics Deeds’ Family Tragedy Highlights Egregious Example of Warped VA Budget Priorities

Deeds’ Family Tragedy Highlights Egregious Example of Warped VA Budget Priorities

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The tragedy involving State Senator Creigh Deeds and his son Gus is horrible enough as it is. But then, we heard the infuriating news that Gus – who apparently had a history of struggling with  mental illness –  was “evaluated Monday at Bath Community Hospital” but “released because no psychiatric bed could be located across a wide area of western Virginia.” And why was that the case? Here’s Think Progress on that part of the story:

…an ongoing trend of state governments slashing funds for mental health programs has greatly diminished the number of beds available to Americans with serious mental illnesses, including those who need emergency inpatient care.

“Many states appear to be effectively terminating a public psychiatric treatment system that has existed for nearly two centuries,” wrote researchers in a 2012 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a nonprofit group that examines mental health issues. “The system was originally created to protect both the patients and the public, and its termination is taking place with little regard for the consequences to either group.”

According to the report, Virginia eliminated 15 percent of its public psychiatric beds between 2005 and 2010. The state has just 17.6 such beds per 10,000 people – less than 40 percent of the recommended minimum 50 beds per 10,000 people. That didn’t stop Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) from proposing even more cuts to mental health programs in 2012.

There’s a lot of blame for this sad state of affairs to go around, and it doesn’t necessarily break down on pure partisan lines. Of course, the Great Recession that began in 2008 didn’t help matters, nor did foolish “austerity” policies – largely pushed by Republicans and the Tea Party – at the federal and state levels. Among these cutbacks were those that gutted social services, including mental health funding. For instance, check out what happened here in Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings, carried out by a severely mentally ill individual.

[Gov. Tim] Kaine added $42 million…in the budget lines dealing with the state’s mental health system in his 2008-2010 two year budget, which brought the totals to $327 million for mental health facilities and $155 million for community-based services.

That budget went into effect in July 2008. A few months later, the bottom fell out of the economy, plunging the nation into a recession and forcing Kaine to cut billions of dollars from his budget.

That included more than $57 million from the mental health budget.

The budget hits forced the closure of three of the state’s mental health facilities, including two that served children and adolescents. It reduced administrative costs by $7.8 million at the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services and cut administrative costs for Community Services Boards, which handle mental health issues at the local level, by $24.8 million.

Kaine could not be reached for comment, but in his December 2008 budget address to the General Assembly’s money committees, he downplayed the mental health cuts.

I’m not sure if that last sentence is an accurate description of Kaine’s comments, but I sure hope not. Because after what happened with Gus Deeds, it’s clear that this is not an issue that should be “downplayed” in any way. To the contrary, the upcoming General Assembly – and Gov.-elect McAuliffe – need to make increasing funds for mental health programs a TOP PRIORITY. No excuses; this has to be done – period.  

Of course, I fully understand that Gov. Kaine had to come up with a budget without enough money to pay for everything that needed to be done. That led to tough choices, of course. But cutting mental health services should not have been, and should never be, one of them. Unless, of course, we’re willing to have more tragedies like the Deeds’ family’s occur again and again. I know I’m not.

But, you ask, where will we get the money from? Here are a couple of suggestions. First of all, our legislature can pass bills like this one by Chap Petersen.

It’s been an exciting few days, with my constitutional limit on tax credits, SJ 281, passing P&E Committee last Tuesday and being on the floor today for final vote.

My proposal would have put an automatic five-year sunset on all state tax credits, which are currently costing Virginia over $2 billion in lost revenue. We have no idea whether those credits are worthwhile. In my experience, no tax credit has ever been repealed – or even audited for its effectiveness

Needless to say, my friends in the lobbying community were working overtime to make sure that the measure didn’t get any further. I answered every question on the floor and gave it the old college try, but we got crushed 27-12.

That’s right, we’re talking about $2 billion lost to Virginia’s budget, with no idea if those credits “are worthwhile.” Meanwhile, our state cut “more than $57 million from the mental health budget?” I’m sorry, but that’s utterly warped. Quick math: $2 billion is more than 30 times greater than $57 million, which means we could have cut the corporate welfare to $1.9 billion (or whatever) and restored the mental health funding. But noooo…

Another example of what I’m talking about? As I wrote back in 2012:

..the Virginia estate tax, which was repealed in 2006, costs us $120 million per year out of the general fund, in order to help around 871 super-rich Virginians. To date, it’s been about 5 years since the Virginia estate tax was eliminated, which means we’ve lost about $600 million so far. How much could we do with $600 million?

Actually, it’s now a year later so add another $120 million, bringing that total up to $720 million. Compare that $720 milion (going to a few super-rich Virginia families for absolutely no good public policy reason, but a lot of really bad ones) to the $57 million cut from Virginia mental health services, including beds for people like Gus Deeds. Yeah, that $720 million could make up many, many years of that $57 million cut. But again, frankly, our budget priorities are warped. And what are they warped by? As I wrote yesterday about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the warping is being done by making our government “government of the powerful, by the wealthy, for the corporations,” instead of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Until we get back to that, sad to say, we’re going to continue seeing the kind of garbage I’ve detailed above. Ugh.