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Joan Vennochi

'Inconsequential’ has consequences

After slashing firefighting budgets, Rick Perry has asked the president for more than $50 million to help battle wildfires. After slashing firefighting budgets, Rick Perry has asked the president for more than $50 million to help battle wildfires. (Associated Press)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 18, 2011

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AT ITS heart, the story of the 17-month-old Boston boy who died in a sweltering van is a story about responsibility: the driver’s, the daycare center’s, and society’s.

The driver realized six hours too late that little Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre was dead inside the van. The state-subsidized day care center never missed the child. State regulators weren’t keeping close enough tabs on the center, or the transportation system that provides services for 23,000 children.

The state’s role means this is also a story about what kind of country we want to be. One that believes in government or one that doesn’t? One that believes in regulation or one that considers it poison? One that understands that you get what you pay for, or one that just doesn’t want to pay?

The broader debate is playing out on the national stage as a cast of Republican presidential candidates stake their claim to the GOP nomination. Their collective zeal to reduce government is eloquently expressed by Texas Governor Rick Perry’s promise to make it “as inconsequential as possible’’ in our lives.

But there are consequences.

The question of consequences came up as a hypothetical during last week’s televised Republican debate. Representative Ron Paul of Texas was asked whether an uninsured 30-year-old working man in a coma should be treated promptly. “He should do whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,’’ said Paul. “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk.’’

At that point, the audience cheered. Then CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer went on to ask, “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?’’ A small number of audience members shouted “Yeah.’’ Paul responded that, in the past, “churches took care of them.’’

Perhaps in this case, rooting for hypothetical death over the added costs of caring for uninsured patients should be considered an extreme view expressed by a few people in the context of a heated political debate. On the other hand, if a majority of Americans do not want to subsidize the cost of medical care for the uninsured, some of the uninsured will die as a result. That’s not rhetorical overkill, that’s reality.

Following that logic, when financially pressed cities and states cut certain budgets, risks to life and property increase. That’s not a liberal scare tactic, that’s also reality.

In the midst of a presidential run that promises to shrink government, Perry has had to ask President Obama for more than $50 million in federal money to help fight raging wildfires. Meanwhile, under Perry’s leadership, Texas slashed funding for volunteer fire departments by 74 percent and cut the Texas Forest Service’s budget by 34 percent.

As homes burned, Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “It’s very frustrating that they don’t have the proper tools and resources to fight these fires. If fire departments had enough funding, if the forest service had enough funding, we wouldn’t be in this predicament each and every year.’’

As for the death of little Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre, the driver who forgot about him bears primary responsibility. There’s certainly no proof the child’s death had anything to do with money. But a flawed, under-funded system may have also contributed.

The state Registry of Motor Vehicles, which issues the certificates needed to drive children to and from day care, has endured millions in budget cuts. With the Registry forced to close multiple branches, is it any surprise it provides little if any oversight of drivers who get these certificates?

The little boy attended a subsidized program that falls under the authority of the state Department of Early Education and Care. State officials are now proposing tougher regulations aimed at preventing the communication breakdown that may have contributed to this tragedy. Good intentions, but who will enforce them? This is another state agency that has seen its funding plummet - it’s down by $104 million over the past two fiscal years, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Making government less consequential comes with its own costs.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.