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Shawn Vestal: Disability ‘lifestyle’ must not apply to senator

Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Ever wonder who, exactly, “the most vulnerable” are?

We’ve all heard of them. The “most vulnerable” are the folks who Republican budgeteers in Olympia vow to protect while they cut programs. The “most vulnerable” are the folks who Republican budgeteers in Washington, D.C., say they’re going to take care of while they “repair” the social safety net with massive, historic proposed cuts in social services, combined with tax cuts for the least vulnerable. “Most vulnerable” means “most deserving,” and fortunately for the consciences of the cutters, there are hardly any of them.

But just who are they, these most vulnerable? Is there some border – a Mendoza line of vulnerability – that divides the wastrels and cheaters from that tiny group of deserving poor?

Last week brought us a clue, in the form of Senator Joseph Zarelli. Senator Joseph Zarelli is what you call a “budget hawk.” He’s hell on the misuse, or even just the use, of taxpayer money. He’s been zealous this session in pursuit of “reform.” He has a particular taste for cutting state spending that goes to the supposedly needy, and he’s been among the most powerful dudes in the Statehouse this year, writing the Senate budget that cut education less than it cut everything else, which is what you call “making education our top priority.” Three Democrats crossed over to support that budget, and that particular battle continues.

But Senator Joseph Zarelli, it turns out, knows quite well who the most vulnerable are, and are not.

Because he is one.

Senator Joseph Zarelli draws $600 a month in government disability payments for a back injury stemming from his peacetime service in the Navy in the 1980s. This disability has been calculated at 40 percent. It does not typically prevent Senator Joseph Zarelli from golfing or hiking or fishing or working on the six acres he owns in Vancouver, according to the Associated Press.

“For a while,” he told the AP, “every so often, my back would simply go out on me and I couldn’t move.”

Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Zarelli figures that people who get help through Washington’s Medical Care Services are not quite as vulnerable as they need to be. And even if they are vulnerable, well, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves because of their “lifestyle choices.”

“What I do know from those types of so-called disabilities is that aiding and abetting them does not make them better,” Senator Joseph Zarelli said. “If you enable people to participate in that type of a lifestyle – you support it and make it more comfortable for them – all you are doing is aiding in their demise.”

So-called disabilities. That might sound a bizarre statement from a man who receives a monthly government handout for a partial back disability that infrequently limits his ability to golf – that helping someone who struggles to hold a job because they have, say, paranoid schizophrenia is actually akin to slowly killing them, but you’re probably less experienced with the vulnerability spectrum than Senator Joseph Zarelli.

The Medical Care Services program provides – or, depending on how things go in Olympia, used to provide – health care, temporary housing, and other assistance to people who can’t work because of a disability. Some 60 percent of the people who received assistance last year through the Medical Care Service had so-called mental illnesses. No one qualifies for being an addict, and if people on the program are addicts, they’re required to get treatment, under the Department of Social and Health Services guidelines.

Forty percent don’t have a place to live – the so-called homeless. One thousand people were pregnant, if you want to call it that. Nine hundred had cancer.

You might make the mistake of getting all sympathetic about people with cancer, but Senator Joseph Zarelli knows better. If you help someone who can’t work because they have cancer, all you’re doing is aiding and abetting their cancer.

You might as well kill them with your bare hands.

Bleeding hearts like to act like budget hawks just don’t care about non-business-owning people. Bleeding hearts complain about the constant stench of Orwellian dishonesty that surrounds our recent budget cuts – the way they’re cloaked in soft, palliative language meant to hide their reality. Repairing the social safety net. Caring for the most vulnerable.

But it’s unfair, this harsh talk. Senator Joseph Zarelli and his 40-percent-bad back show us how wrong it is. Senator Joseph Zarelli does support the “most vulnerable.” And it’s not just the partially back-injured – sometimes, in a minority of cases, the unemployed really are human beings deserving of assistance and not simply the beneficiaries of government rewards for poor lifestyle choices.

Just ask Senator Joseph Zarelli, who found himself in need of unemployment benefits 10 short years ago.

For 10 months during 2001 and 2002, he accepted unemployment benefits after losing his job. He understood better than anyone how difficult it can be when you have a family to raise and no income. Well, no income other than the $33,000 a year you’re paid as a member of the state Senate. Plus the $82 per diem. And the health insurance. And the pension.

Other than that, though, he was most vulnerable.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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