Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Maryland advocates campaign to reverse state budget cuts for people with disabilities

From The Baltimore Sun:

Advocates for people with severe disabilities have launched a campaign to reverse $29 million in recent state budget cuts that they contend are hurting an already underfunded, vulnerable community.

Supporters are organizing a series of nine public meetings around Maryland and are taking their case to top officials.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who met with advocates for the developmentally disabled this week, has repeatedly pared spending for state agencies and services to keep the budget balanced, and he must close another $2 billion shortfall next year. The process has spurred criticism from affected groups.

A round of budget-cutting in August reduced funding for emergency care for disabled children when a parent is hospitalized and wages for workers who help homebound disabled people feed, dress and clean themselves. The advocates say more than 20,000 Maryland residents and their families are affected. They hope O'Malley will restore some funding in next year's budget.

"In good times, we don't get our share. In bad times, we shouldn't have to give back," said Carol Beatty, executive director of the ARC of Howard County.

The state spends about $425 million yearly on community services for the developmentally disabled.

The group organized a meeting at an Ellicott City church Thursday night that featured personal hardship stories and drew more than 200 people, including state Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, and Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority leader. Another meeting is scheduled Monday in Anne Arundel County, and more are planned in Baltimore, Harford, Frederick and Montgomery counties, as well as in Southern Maryland.

O'Malley, who declared October Disability Employment Awareness Month, said he's hoping for more federal help, and warned that deep state budget cuts nationwide could negate economic gains in these early stages of recovery.

"I know how painful these cuts are," O'Malley said. "We're not doing these things because we think no one will be affected adversely. At this point, anything we cut is core mission."

John Dumas, director of Frederick-based Service Coordinators, which provides workers who help the disabled, said his agency eliminated 74 of 335 positions this month, including 40 layoffs. Remaining workers are seeing cuts to their $10-an-hour wages, as well as reduced mileage expenses and less training.

That affects the kind of help received by people such as Matt Matheson, 39, who cannot speak, feed or dress himself, but who enjoys activities provided by care workers who go to his Clarksville home five days a week.

His mother, Pam, 58, who uses a wheelchair after an auto accident, said the help is vital to his care because of her own physical limits. A former special-education teacher at the state's Rosewood Hospital Center, she met Mattheson there when he was 7, took him into her family and later adopted him.

Without the care the state provides, "he gets very frustrated and begins to self-abuse," she said. "I wish people who make final [budget] decisions can look into Matt's eyes."

Several legislators who attended the Ellicott City meeting said that even though the state faces a fiscal crisis, the cuts to disabled services are too severe.

"I think we did too much damage," Kasemeyer said. "They definitely have been treated unfairly," Kittleman added, criticizing the O'Malley administration's use of state funds to buy large tracts of land for preservation when needy state residents are suffering.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, came away with a more personal impression.

"This put a human face on each story. When I go back to Annapolis, I will remember that," she said.