Pitting poor against poor

Pub date April 28, 2009
WriterJames Tracy
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION In 2004, California voters passed Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), to fund the expansion of community-based mental health services. MHSA is funded through a 1 percent tax on the portion of a taxpayer’s income in excess of $1 million. It was a form of uniquely appropriate progressive taxation, making the rich pay for all the ways they test our sanity, made especially acute today in the wake of foreclosures and job losses.

Today, Gov. Schwarzenegger is leading a bipartisan assault on Prop. 63, which funds an array of needed services in California and San Francisco. By placing Proposition 1E on the May ballot, the governor is asking voters to divert MHSA money to pay for the budget deficit. This maneuver ignores the fact that California is a safer, saner place because of the act — 200,000 people are now enrolled in mental health services who were not in 2004.

The proposition pits the poor against the poor, making mental health consumers pay the price for the budget deadlock in Sacramento. Mental health services are designed to improve the lives of communities by minimizing the potential for homelessness and hospitalization. Prop. 1E, pitched as a two-year measure, leaves effective programs in the lurch, threatening resources in every neighborhood.

MHSA funds programs for youth and families affected by street and gang violence, queer youth showing early signs of mental health issues, and residents in supportive housing. One of its key accomplishments has been the expansion of resources designed to reach consumers in culturally appropriate ways, with an open process, allowing communities to design solutions to their own problems.

"After Prop. 63 was passed, people with untreated mental health needs saw a glimmer of hope," remarked James Keyes, who serves as a member of the San Francisco Mental Health Board. "In San Francisco alone, we were able to do workforce training, prevention, and housing retention among people with mental health concerns. These innovative programs might not be with us if Prop. 1E passes."

For whatever short-term savings Prop. 1E might provide, the long-term consequences are disastrous. The costs of untreated mental illnesses affect our public health system. Those who never get care, or who lose care, will likely find their jobs, housing, and relationships in peril, and will rely on the remaining (and much more expensive) threads of the social safety net.

Vote No on 1E and send a message to the state government that long-term budget solutions start with Prop. 63’s logic — progressive taxation on those with the most ability to pay. Letting the governor and the legislature cut essential survival services to balance the budget sets a horrible precedent. If voters let them get away with it, they will surely target poor people every time the budget is deadlocked. *

James Tracy works with Community Housing Partnership.