Blog Post

TBT: Public Stories, Private Pain, and the State Budget

This evening, the Appropriations Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly will hold a public hearing on the governor’s proposed human services budget, which includes many health and human service programs that are part of the safety net and important to health equity.

So it is fitting to re-post this guest commentary, originally shared during the 2013 legislative session, on the private pain that recipients of health and human service programs publicly share to protect funding that supports their quality of life.

Guest post by Alison Johnson, policy and budget consultant to CT Health

It is often said that a state budget document is a statement of priorities. Show me the budget, and I’ll show you what Connecticut values as a public community. But let’s pause to consider one aspect of how those priorities are arrived at — stories.

We start with the budget narrative outlined by the governor, and then legislators listen to stories told by those affected by the budget. Stories from mayors, from hospital executives, from small business owners, from large corporations, and from everyday people. Of course, relevant numbers are shared, and charts are presented, but stories are often cited as the most powerful and long lasting testimony at the capitol. Legislators, being human, often look to the details from that testimony – those stories – to help them reach the best possible plan for how we raise and spend our precious tax dollars.

But here’s the catch: there is a noticeable, and persistent, disparity in what information we ask to be revealed publicly, and by whom. When it comes to health and humans services, we expect recipients of state-funded human services to come testify before the Appropriations Committee in a grueling yearly dance. We ask them to reveal intimate details about their medications, disabilities, mental health struggles, failures with their children. And they do, in what has become a heart wrenching annual ritual.

By contrast, what do we ask of recipients of tax credits and exemptions? Representatives typically come before the Finance Committee to make their case – most often just once. The presumption is that a tax exemption, once passed, has lasting value. The story of an industry’s need for tax relief is typically not replayed each year.

Yet “real people”, as recipients of services are often called, come to the Legislative Office Building and wait for hours to share the details of their personal stories – details that in a physician’s office would be protected by HIPAA. Legislators often do their best to cushion the impact of testifying in such an intimidating atmosphere, but the parade of misfortune continues, year after year.

The need for legislators to understand state funded programs and services is real, as is the need to understand the justification for a tax exemption. Is there a better way to gather information from the public in support of human services? And how can we increase respect for “real people” and their stories while ensuring accountability across the board?