(888) 277-4253

Fed budget numbers fall short, disappointing LGBT leaders

WASHINGTON _ President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2011 isn’t anywhere near as much as LGBT and AIDS groups had sought, but there are few complaints. The consensus seems to be that modest increases _ and in some places no increases _ however insufficient, are laudable in the current miserable economy.
 
The Human Rights Campaign criticized the budget, released Feb. 1, because it “does not provide the increases that HIV/AIDS programs need to overcome years of underfunding, a continuing epidemic, and severe reductions in state programs.” But overall, said the HRC statement, the president’s budget “still commits more dollars for a number of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs, supports the new hate-crimes law with funds for enforcement and education efforts, and uses scarce federal resources to support evidence-based sex education instead of disproven abstinence-only programs.”
 
In releasing its proposed budget for fiscal 2011, the Obama administration prepared a two-page statement that highlights proposed spending “to support the needs of the LGBT community.”
 
The summary notes an “11 percent increase in funding to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division” _ an increase the statement says will help with implementation of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The president signed the hate crimes act last October.
 
The statement also expresses support _ but no numbers _ for the Federal Employee Domestic Partner Benefits Act, a bill that would, if passed, provide gay federal employees and their domestic partners with the same benefits currently enjoyed by straight federal employees and their married spouses. A Congressional Budget Office report last December estimated HR 2517 would add only about $24 million to the $3.8 trillion outlays proposed for fiscal 2011.
 
The funds, if allocated, would come under the Federal Employee Health Benefits program.

Like previous administrations, the Obama administration relies on some smoke-and-mirrors when it comes to presenting its budget to the public, including the LGBT public. For instance, under a heading of “Support a Fair and Accurate 2010 Census,” the summary discusses at length its plan this year to count the number of same-sex couples who identify themselves as “married.” In previous Census surveys, such couples have been “re-coded” as unmarried partners or even as a heterosexual couple.  Then the summary notes the federal government will spend $1.3 billion in fiscal 2011. This is accurate, if one is talking about all the expenditures involved with the Census survey in fiscal 2011; but, the LGBT-specific costs will be a decidedly smaller number.
 
Of the seven points included in the LGBT budget summary, two could have gone in pretty much any budget summary. One talks about expanding employment-based retirement plans generally, the other talks about helping more states offer paid family leave, and neither mentions any LGBT applications specifically.
 
The summary also includes its entire HIV/AIDS budget under the LGBT summary. Men having sex with men do account for the largest percentage (48 percent) of people with HIV (more than 1 million); and they do account for more than half (53 percent) of new infections (almost 58,000) each year.
 
The summary indicates the budget will add 10,000 more people with HIV and low incomes under the Ryan White CARE Act and that it will continue a five-year $45 million AIDS prevention campaign.
 
But what it doesn’t say is that groups such as the Communities Advocating Emergency AIDS Relief (CAEAR) Coalition urged much higher numbers than the budget proposes. For instance, the budget calls for an approximate four percent increase ($31 million) for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s work in the prevention and surveillance of HIV infection and disease. The coalition had pushed for an $878 million increase.
 
The administration’s budget calls for $2.3 billion on Ryan White CARE Act programs, where the coalition urged $3 billion.
 
The proposed fiscal 2011 budget is “below the community’s request and well below what is needed,” said Ronald Johnson, deputy director of the AIDS Action Council. “But we have to put in the context of the economic realities and the very hard decisions the president and his administration had to make. In that context, we think the increase, as modest as it may be in terms of overall needs, is noteworthy and reflects a commitment” by the Obama administration to fighting AIDS.
 
Others agreed.
 
“We think that President Obama has some very difficult decisions to make in an abysmal economic climate,” said Nathan Schaefer, director of public policy for New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “And though the budget proposal does not address all the needs, to see some modest increase has been very encouraging. It’s a step in the right direction.”
 
In concrete terms, the administration’s budget is about $40 million higher on Ryan White CARE Act funds than the current fiscal year’s numbers.
 
There was some expression of worry and disappointment nonetheless.
 
Carl Schmid, deputy director of The AIDS Institute, told the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) on Feb. 2, during its first meeting with newly sworn in members, that the budget numbers proposed for HIV are “far from what is needed.” In particular, he noted that there are people on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting list, including 143 people in Kentucky, 64 in Utah and 154 in eight other states.
 
Schmid noted that the budget proposal calls for a $20 million increase for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which helps ensure that people with HIV can afford life-sustaining medications. The $20 million increase in ADAP, said Schmid, “is far from the increase of $370 million for ADAP that is needed.”
 
Nancy Bernstine, executive director of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, told the council that the need for housing for people with HIV and low incomes is a “matter of urgency” and that housing alternatives are simply “not available.”
 
According to The AIDS Institute, the president’s budget includes only a 4 percent increase ($31 million) for HIV prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 
“This is far from the increase of $878 million the CDC estimates that is needed to bring down the number of new infections,” Schmid said.

But even LGBT community institutions on the frontlines of the battle against HIV and to support “the needs of the LGBT community” found it hard to criticize the president’s budget. In part, it is a willingness to look at the LGBT-related budget items in context of the nation’s overall economic woes, and in part it is a lingering memory of budget disappointments during the administration of President George W. Bush.
 
Darrel Cummings, chief of staff for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said their experience with funding from the Obama administration represents a stark improvement over the Bush administration.
 
“It's night and day when compared to the previous administration,” Cummings said, “and I would expect this to continue regardless of the impact of the ‘freeze’.” President Obama announced during his State of the Union address that he would propose a three-year freeze on discretionary spending beginning in 2011.