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Safe harbor necessary in budget storm

In the abstract, balancing the federal budget and reducing the deficit sound sensible and practical, not to mention the fact that they are becoming more politically attractive all the time.

Deficit spending shouldn't be a way of life. But when it has been for a number of years, as is the case with the federal government, stopping it means a drastic reduction in spending or huge tax increases to generate more income. And we all know tax cuts are the rage now in Washington, not tax increases.

So that leaves cutting spending, which is easier when it remains in the abstract. Eliminate a program here, cut a facility there, reduce the number served in yet another place. Is it as easy when the budget ax is suspended over a very concrete example?

Consider this one:

In the southeastern Louisiana town of Carville is an institution called the Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center. It is a hospital for lepers; Hansen's disease is leprosy. The hospital is known to most people by the name of its location, Carville, rather than Gillis W. Long. It is the only one of its kind left in the United States and it sits on 320 acres with dormitories and cottages, gardens and a pecan orchard, and even a golf course, according to a recent New York Times story.

The 101-year-old institution has seen its population dwindle from 500 to 130 residents whose average age is 67. In the first half of this century, families sent those afflicted with leprosy away forever, more for the protection of the family's reputation than for medical safety. So the banished remained at Carville for a lifetime, hiding their true identities so as not to disgrace their families. Eventually, this prison became their home, their refuge, as well as the hospital where they received necessary, specialized medical treatment. Having found some safe ground, the Carville residents who remain do not want to leave.

Carville costs $20-million a year to run, and because of the diminishing need for its services, it is a candidate for the budget-cutter's ax. Leprosy still is an incurable disease, but its spread is thought to be stopped. To those carving the budget, the most economical thing to do would be to move the remaining Carville residents to a smaller facility or disperse them among numerous institutions. That may jeopardize the specialized care that keeps their disease in remission, however. Probably worse, it will uproot some people who have spent decades at Carville, sent there by a society that cast them out. Now to correct the ways of some spend-now, pay-later politicians, the Carville residents may be cast out again.

Is this what we want to do, even in the name of fiscal responsibility?

No.

But neither do we want to go on and on spending beyond our means. The budget deficit is a looming thunderhead. Last year it totaled $200-billion. This country's total debt is in the $4-trillion range and the federal government last year spent $2,500 per household just to pay the interest on our debt. Imagine the federal government spending $2,500 per household on health care, or education, or better housing.

Bringing the deficit down and eventually balancing the budget are not only smart and practical; they also are actions needed to insure our children's futures. We do not want to mire them in our fiscal irresponsibility.

So, what happens to places like Carville?

Congress must temper its budget cutting zeal. It has been relentless in its use of the budget process to punish those it disapproves of, such as unwed mothers on welfare, and determined to hand out tax cuts, which in a time of budget balancing is ludicrous. Congress must find some compassion for a sad place like Carville until all the residents are gone. How can leaders agree to hand out $245-billion in tax cuts over seven years when there is a Carville?

Sharon Bond is an editorial writer for the Times.

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