Gains, setbacks, risk, and hope: Highlights from a nonprofit policy briefing
In GCN’s latest CEO Forum, held on April 25 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, a roomful of nonprofit directors heard from two policy experts, who discussed currents in federal and state policy that require the sector’s attention, and possible intervention, for their potential to affect our work. Addressing the gathered executives, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute Deputy Director Jennifer Owens said, “You are the most authentic messengers on this front, much more convincing than budget and policy wonks like me.”
Regarding the state’s legislative and spending agenda, Owens reported that, despite a record-breaking $25 billion budget, spending per capita remains below pre-recession levels. Still, progress is being made to shore up education and healthcare spending that had been slashed in previous years, and important new investments in child welfare also made it into the budget.
On the other hand, two bills caused concern in the immigrant and refugee community, one cutting off state funds for sanctuary campuses and another creating a registry for non-citizens released from federal custody; a much-needed update of the adoption code failed due to a late amendment barring same-sex couples from adopting; and a tax package promising to help low-income families also failed to pass. Looking ahead, said Owens, changes under consideration for federal Medicaid funding could mean painful cuts for children and the disabled.
The good news? “There’s a growing understanding among leaders that families and children need more help from the state,” said Owens. She encouraged the crowd to start talking to their elected leaders about what they see on the ground between now and January 2018: ““Because bills which didn’t pass in 2017 are still eligible next year, it’s important to engage policymakers regarding those that are important to you.”
Calling in from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in Washington, D.C., Senior Fellow and Senior Counselor Sharon Parrott spoke about her top areas of concern regarding federal policy, including health and tax reform, funding for non-defense discretionary programs, and potential cuts in core safety-net programs. “I’m not the most optimistic I’ve ever been, but that’s where we are,” said Parrott.
The initial budget plan released by the White House in March proposes accelerating cuts in areas like economic development, environmental protection, and assistance for struggling families, beyond even what has been wrought in past years by “sequestration” laws (automatic, across-the-board spending cuts triggered when Congress failed to meet deficit reduction targets). “Though certain members disagree, Congress has come together to reduce the level of cuts every year since 2013, and done so evenly between defense and non-defense spending,” said Parrott. “By contrast, the Trump budget says we’re going to eliminate sequestration for defense and double down on sequestration for non-defense spending.”
Other “risk points” for 2017 identified by the CBPP include tax reform legislation that could create real problems for working families; debt ceiling negotiations that could involve further cuts; funding changes for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, with the potential for harming Medicaid recipients; and healthcare reform legislation, which could mean lost and diminished coverage for millions.
“There are enormous risks going forward, but in more than 20 years of doing this, I have never seen the public so ready to engage policy makers,” said Parrott. Many believed the ACA would be repealed—without any replacement—by February. One critical reason it didn’t? “People understood that 24 million would lose coverage, and that insurance would become more expensive and skimpier. Only 17 percent of the public approved, and that, fundamentally, is why the ACA remains the law of the land.”
The American public’s unprecedented level of interest in policy discussions isn’t just reason for hope, said Parrott, but also a call to action: “Our marching orders are to stick with this debate, in every area. When we’re engaged, and have the facts on our side, bad legislation cannot squeeze through.”
Marc Schultz is contributing editor for GCN.