March 6, 2011; Source: Las Vegas Sun | Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has a not unusual, but very troubling idea for dealing with state budget cuts. He has proposed eliminating funding for purchasing eyeglasses for the poor. Currently, 7,833 state residents wear glasses paid for by the state's Medicaid fund.

His budget proposes to continue Medicaid funding to help the poor see optometrists and get prescriptions, but no money for purchasing their spectacles. The cost is only $1.7 million out of $270 million in the governor's proposed budget cuts. So who would help pay for the eyeglasses?

State Senator Barbara Cegavske (R-Las Vegas) suggested that the state could ask nonprofit groups such as the Lions Club to foot the bill. The state Medicaid administrator said he would ask nonprofits for help, but observed that "there are going to be people who won't have eyeglasses."

Is this an isolated incident? State Senator Sheila Leslie (D-Reno) said that she has heard the suggestion of having the private sector fill the budget holes more during this legislative session than ever before. Republicans are suggesting that charity and philanthropy should fill the gaps "on everything from mental health services to early childhood education."

Let's be clear that this line of thinking wasn't invented in the Nevada senate. All levels of government, right up to the White House, have been aiming since the nation's economic implosion to leverage philanthropic resources to supplement and now supplant (and sometimes camouflage) the inadequacy of public sector funding. Maybe in a crunch, the goodwill and generosity of Americans will come to the fore for their neighbors who suffer the ravages of poverty exacerbated by a vicious, prolonged recession. But for the long term, Governor Sandoval's and Senator Cegavske's idea is troubling.

As governments become increasingly accustomed to being able to count on off-budget nonprofit contributions to plug budget gaps, what would make them go back to the status quo ante when the recession ends? Government shouldn't be allowed to get used to counting on charitable giving to fill budget gaps. Charity shouldn't get trapped into being turned to as an automatic safety valve for government's inability to come to grips with structural deficits, particularly if the budget-cutting choice du jour is to whack services for the poor.—Rick Cohen