January 28, 2011 in Idaho

Hundreds decry cuts for disabled in Idaho

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Betsy Russell photo

People line up to sign up to testify on Health & Welfare funding, before a public hearing on Friday morning. It’s the second-ever public hearing held by the Legislature’s joint budget committee; the first was last Friday on school funding.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

BOISE - Close to a thousand people flocked to Idaho’s state Capitol on Friday to plead with lawmakers not to cut services to disabled Idahoans, from their children to their clients to themselves.

“I’ve been in two group homes and I know for a fact that it’s not very fun,” Jack Hansen of Boise, a young man with developmental disabilities, told lawmakers. “You guys are my only hope. … If you make these cuts, I swear you’ll be making a huge mistake.”

Denise Wetzel of Coeur d’Alene, mother of a 10-year-old son with disabilities, said she’s grateful that the youngster has been able to attend his local public school and receive the developmental therapy that he needs.

“I never give up … on what he can accomplish and achieve,” she said. “I want to see my son as a taxpaying citizen in the state of Idaho.” But, she said, “He needs support from trained and professional providers.”

Faced with a recommendation from Gov. Butch Otter to cut $25.2 million in Medicaid services next year - and with Otter and legislative leaders on Friday saying the latest estimates show the state’s budget crunch may be even worse - lawmakers have been considering proposals including eliminating psychosocial rehabilitation services for the mentally ill, services provided to adults by developmental disability centers, and more.

More than 140 people signed up to testify at Friday’s hearing, and 82 people from all over the state testified. Hundreds more filled the state Capitol’s largest hearing room and five overflow rooms, and many more submitted written testimony.

Nearly all had the same message: The state won’t save money by cutting services to the disabled, because more will be forced into institutions. Instead, speaker after speaker called for preserving the services and considering tax increases, from going after sales taxes on online sales to raising taxes on cigarettes, beer and wine.

Ironically, as the hearing stretched for four hours, news came that House Speaker Lawerence Denney has single-handedly sidelined a pending measure to allow Idaho to take the first step toward taxing online sales. Denney buried the bill in a leadership-controlled committee that rarely meets.

Katherine Hansen of Boise presented the lawmakers with 13,740 petitions signed by Idahoans calling for consideration of a tax increase, rather than cuts to home- and community-based services for people with disabilities. The signers, she said, are “13,740 Idahoans from every county and every city in this great state. … The people who signed these petitions urge you to approach the current budget crisis in the same way they approach their budget crisis - everything needs to be on the table.”

A mom from Jerome, Terri Scarrow, told of caring for her once-promising daughter, profoundly disabled after being hit by a drunk driver at the age of 15, at home rather than putting her in a nursing home. She asked lawmakers, “Where would you want to be?”

Samuel Page of Homedale testified with his 21-year-old son, Jonathan, by his side in his wheelchair; the former 4.0 student, injured in a near-drowning accident as a teen, now goes daily to a developmental disability center. Page told lawmakers, “I’d just like for you to consider, and you have, all the Jonathans that can’t speak for themselves.”

The heart-wrenching testimony moved Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, to tears. “We had some very moving testimony from people that clearly have no other sources for assistance other than their government - that’s pretty compelling,” she said after the hearing. “I think that it would be less than human to sit here, with some of what we have heard this morning, and not be impacted. So the challenge will be, what do we do next?”

Keough said she was surprised to learn of Denney’s move, even as person after person testified to the committee that the state should go after online sales taxes or take other revenue-raising steps to avoid cuts.

“I don’t want to second-guess the speaker, because I have no idea what his intentions are, but it definitely was interesting timing,” Keough said. “In this session, everything’s on the table, from the services we provide to the structure of our tax system. Everything has to be on the table.”

Denney told the Associated Press he wants to re-examine why the online tax bill is winning support now when it’s been rejected in past years.

Friday’s hearing was only the second time in history that Idaho’s joint budget committee has taken public testimony; the first time was a week earlier, when hundreds came to the Capitol to testify on public school funding.

“It’s extremely painful,” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chair of the committee, said of Friday’s testimony and the task that awaits lawmakers.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the other co-chair, said, “I am always grateful to put a face with a number. … That face will always be before me.”


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