February 4, 2009 in Idaho

Vocational rehab move delayed

State will study agency as reshuffling continues
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to trim the duties of the state Board of Education by moving a slew of agencies out from under its oversight has hit a snag: the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

The division turns out to be one of the highest-performing of its type in the nation, with stellar numbers for helping disabled Idahoans learn new skills and find jobs.

Administrator Michael Graham told lawmakers Tuesday that many of the agency’s clients have become taxpayers and are “adding real value to the state. That’s part of our mission.”

Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, said the rest of the reorganization plan for the State Board of Education is moving forward, but the administration will wait a year and study the situation before shifting the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation over to the state Department of Labor.

“We don’t want to do any harm,” Hammon said. “If it’s doing well, great. If it can be improved, better. … When we do it, we want to do it right.”

In 2008, Idaho’s vocational rehab division placed 2,083 disabled clients in jobs – 29.5 per counselor. That’s a higher number per counselor than any of nine surrounding states, and Idaho’s cost per client of $9,701 is the lowest of the 10 states. Washington’s comparable figure is $27,561.

Nationally, for each $1 million in federal vocational rehabilitation funds, about 51 people are successfully rehabilitated and moved into jobs. In Idaho, the figure is nearly 149 people.

“From Census data, we believe there are about 52,000 individuals in Idaho that have a disability that would make them eligible for our services,” Graham told lawmakers. Idaho has been able to reach about 9 percent of those, he said, compared with a national average of 5 percent.

Graham, who served as executive director for the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired before being appointed to his current position in 2003, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning: “Your agency of vocational rehabilitation is actually an outstanding agency if you compare it nationwide.”

Some of the agency’s successes are catalogued on its Web site. They include a man with serious mental illness who was comforted by being around plants; the agency helped him start his own nursery business. A woman who was left a paraplegic after an auto accident is successfully employed as an office worker. An ex-convict who had worked only unskilled labor jobs has become an auto body repairman.

Graham estimated that the Idaho economy gains $3.33 in taxes paid by newly employed clients who go through the agency for every $1 that’s spent.

Mike Rush, executive director of the State Board of Education, said it’s “an extremely well-managed agency – Idaho’s getting its money’s worth out of vocational rehabilitation.”

Rush said he’s not sorry to see the state take another year to move the agency out of his purview – it’s easy to oversee a well-run agency.

Vocational Rehabilitation will see budget cuts, however, like all other state agencies in the coming year. They include a proposed complete cut-off of funds for epilepsy services, for which Graham’s agency passes the funding through to the Idaho Epilepsy Foundation. That organization will close its Idaho Falls office as a result, ending its services in that region.

Otter is moving ahead with the rest of his reorganization plan, which will move four major state agencies or programs out from under the Board of Education. They include the Historical Society and the Commission for Libraries, which will become self-governing agencies; and standardized testing of Idaho schoolchildren and administration of a major federal college-readiness grant, both of which will move to the state Department of Education, which oversees public schools and is headed by the state’s elected superintendent of schools, Tom Luna. The library commission bill passed the Senate on Tuesday on a unanimous vote and now heads to the House.

Under the governor’s proposal, the trimmed-down Board of Education office would go from an original budget this year of $5.1 million in general funds and $14 million total, to just $2.4 million in general funds next year, and $4.2 million total. The governor says he wants the state board to return to its original mission of setting policy, rather than being involved in day-to-day operations of state programs.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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