Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Budget Briefings:Corrections and Mental Health

As part of the on-going informational briefings for House and Senate members, legislative fiscal staff told us on Tuesday morning that the Department of Correction will likely need an additional 2,500 prison beds by 2011. The increase is due to growth in the rate of felony convictions and the length of sentences. The analysts said the General Assembly must make decisions on building new prisons this year, but added. Lawmakers could reform sentencing and work to reduce recidivism, or repeat offender, rates to narrow the number of beds needed.

On Wednesday the discussion shifted to our state’s mental health services and possible ways to make needed improvements in communities across the state. In North Carolina, nearly $3 billion in federal, state, and local money is spent each year on services for mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse. However, local and state spending on mental-health care in North Carolina varies widely from county to county, accentuating the gap between rural and urban areas in quality of care.

Legislative staff members described several large problems in the state’s mental-health system. The problems include the regional disparities in the quality of care and the state’s over reliance on psychiatric hospitals. Many rural areas are hit the hardest. In each county, a “Local Management Entity,” or LME, is set up to contract with private mental-health-care providers, but some rural counties simply do not have enough providers. Legislators approved $95 million in new funding for mental health services in the 2006-07 budget and are expected to continue working on additional reforms and improvements in the coming months.

In fact several new standing committees have been created, including one on mental health reform, which is a signal that a growing number of legislators want mental health services to be a priority in next year’s budget. All House committees are expected to be announced next week.

This week’s briefings were our first in-depth look at the state’s corrections and mental health systems and expected expenses in both areas as we begin our work to draft and approve a two-year budget during the next five months. Next week, we will receive briefings on public education and retiree health benefits.

Although the next budget cycle, which begins July 1, 2007, will be tight, no one is expecting anything like the “billion dollar plus” budget shortfalls from a few years ago when our state’s economy was in a recession and we lost tens of thousands of jobs. Legislators, who are expecting a budget shortfall of $200 to $500 million this year, will now begin the task of looking at all areas of state government and various programs to determine what can be made more efficient or cut entirely in order to meet the growing needs of our state and its citizens.

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