Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Arizonans protest cuts to programs for disabled children

From The Arizona Republic:

About 300 people filled Arizona State University's Memorial Union in Tempe Feb. 23 to protest state budget cuts that could affect children throughout the state.

Many of those who attended worried that the cuts could make life much more difficult for children with disabilities such as autism or Down's syndrome.

Jill Ressler of Scottsdale appeared with her 1-year-old daughter, Anabel, who has Down's syndrome, and said she had just received word that services for her child would be stopped.

"Not only will I be her advocate, but I want you to be her advocate, too," she told a panel of state lawmakers who held the hearing.

Suzanne Schunk, director of family support services for Southeast Human Development, said the cuts are likely to affect disabled children much more even than schools.

"What we did to DES (the Department of Economic Security) was a nuclear bomb," she said.

The public hearing was held by House and Senate Democrats, more than a dozen of whom attended the session. They included Tempe's delegation, Reps. Ed Ableser and David Schapira and Sen. Meg Burton Cahill.

State lawmakers cut about $1.6 billion from the fiscal 2009 budget to eliminate a budget deficit caused by the severe economic downturn. Arizona faces a much larger deficit for fiscal 2010. The Legislature must deal with that budget by the end of June.

Legislators left specific cuts up to state agencies. Some lawmakers expressed concern last week that agencies have chosen to to make unnecessarily severe reductions to elicit public sympathy. Representatives of agencies responded that they had no choice based on their directive from lawmakers and the governor.

Monday night's hearing lasted for 2 ½ hours, during which dozens of Valley residents expressed their concerns about the potential loss of services for their children or for children they assist. Some described the current budget situation as a turning point for Arizona that almost certainly will affect future generations.

"This will determine our character, how we treat the most vulnerable people in our society," said David Wright, senior research professional at ASU's LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science.