October 26, 2009

Disabled push for restored funding, alcohol tax

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By Len Lazarick
len@MarylandReporter.com

Several hundred people, many standing and some in wheelchairs, packed an Ellicott City church Thursday to protest $29 million in state budget cuts for the developmentally disabled and a years-long waiting list for 19,000 people with multiple handicaps.

Advocates spoke, while politicians and state officials defended themselves in the second of at least seven town hall meetings around Maryland in the End the Wait Now campaign. The campaign is pushing for a hike in alcohol taxes to restore disability funding. Another town hall is set for Monday night in Severna Park.

Disabled people, their parents and caregivers told stories about their experiences, railing against the repeated cuts and flat appropriations that have left Maryland 43rd among the states in helping the developmentally disabled. Legislators from both parties laid the responsibility on the governor, and the leaders of their organizations agreed.

Judy Sims, one of the 16 Howard County residents who spoke, has been taking care of her son Jeff, but said that, “In the near future a residential placement is going to be needed.” Other parents told similar stories, saying their children are getting too old and difficult to handle at home. But the waiting list for services in Howard County has 815 people. That number has doubled in five years, as has the state’s list.

Amanda Cheong said she wonders what will happen to her daughter Kristin, 20, after she graduates from a special needs school soon.

“It takes two people to lift my daughter safely,” Cheong said. She added that Kristin also needs outside interaction with peers, a point other parents raised.

Tonia Lewis, a special education worker with her own special needs children, said she can’t get help when she needs to take one of them to the doctor.

“I’m mad,” said Lewis, a single parent. ” I’m angry.”

Tracey Eberhardt of Highland said with her daughter, “you don’t know if she’s going to hit you or hug you,” eat her food or throw it. She said the battle for increased aid is crucial.

“If this isn’t a civil rights movement, I don’t know what it is,” Eberhardt told the crowd.

Pam Matheson of Clarksville uses a wheelchair herself, and brought her 39-year-old son Matthew to the front of the Assembly of God sanctuary in his wheel chair. Matthew cannot speak or dress himself.

“He used to live in Rosewood,” Matheson said. “He hated Rosewood.” She said Matthew needs many special services, some of which have been cut back.

Like other parents who need occasional relief from around-the-clock care, Kim Nupp said she has trouble getting services. Her two boys with special conditions “don’t sleep through the night,” Nupp said, “and we really need respite care.”

Richard Lawry, one of dozens of people with developmental issues in the room, said he is weary of spending reductions.

“No more cuts to the budget,” Lawry said. “We’re getting tired of hearing of it.”

The people who care for the disabled say they are equally distressed. Stephanie White, a caregiver with eMerge Inc., said she “works two jobs with four days off per month” to make ends meet. Five of her co-workers have been let go, and three others are in foreclosure on their homes.

“We’re talking basic necessities to live,” White said.

Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services, said “a fragile system of low-wage workers” care for 22,000 people, mostly through nonprofit organizations. Direct support workers make about $10 per hour, and the state reimburses their nonprofits about $9 per hour. There was a 15 percent cut in service coordinators, and $1 million cut from respite care, she said.

Many at the meeting appeared angry at political leadership, blaming legislators as well as the governor for cuts. But Cristine Marchand, executive director of the Arc of Maryland, went out of her way to defend Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, chair of the of Senate subcommittee overseeing the disabilities budget, saying he had fought for increased funding. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, is also the Senate majority leader and the vice-chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee.

“We don’t and haven’t played any role” in the most recent cuts, Kasemeyer told the crowd. “We have expressed to the governor our concerns.”

There is  “a unanimity of support” in the Howard County delegation for increased funding, he said, telling the crowd that the recent cuts have been “inappropriately directed to you”.

The sentiment was bipartisan.

“I want to apologize to you,” said Sen. Allan Kittleman, the Senate Republican leader who represents Howard County. “We have neglected you.”

“Our priorities are skewed,” Kittleman said. “Why are we buying a thousand acres of swampland in Dorchester County?” referring to a $3 million purchase approved the day before by the Board of Public Work.

He said the state should be “taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves.”

“We’ve worked in the [House] Appropriations Committee to keep your funding,” said Del. Gail Bates, the ranking Republican on the panel.

The new campaign supports a “five-cent per drink” hike in Maryland’s alcohol taxes dedicated to aid the developmentally disabled. A Gonzales Research poll found broad support for the move by Maryland voters regardless of party or region. Maryland alcohol taxes are the second lowest in the nation, and haven’t been raised more than 50 years for spirits and 30 years for beer.

Sen. Jim Robey, a Howard County Democrat on the Budget & Taxation Committee, said, “If the alcohol tax gets out of committee, and it goes to DDA, I will vote for it.”

Kittleman said the focus should not be on new taxes.

“The issue is priorities,” he said. “It’s not revenues.”

“The easy budget cuts have been made,” said Disabilities Secretary Cathy Raggio, who also uses a wheelchair. “We know that the DDA cuts have been very painful.”

“These cuts have not been taken without serious and thoughtful deliberation,” said State Deputy Health Secretary Renata Henry. “Given any other point in time, we wouldn’t be making these cuts.”

In a follow-up story, O’Malley, who reportedly met with advocates, told The Baltimore Sun he’s aware the cuts hurt people and is hoping for more federal aid. The Columbia Flier also posted a story about Thursday night’s meeting.

The first End the Wait Now rally attracted 300 people Oct. 5 in Montgomery County, according to Sean Sedam at the Gazette.