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November 28, 2003

Plan to limit aid alarms advocates for disabled

From: Sacramento Bee, CA - Nov 28, 2003

By Alexa H. Bluth -- Bee Capitol Bureau

Advocates for the disabled are calling it an ominous sign that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed the first-ever suspension of a 35-year-old state law designed to protect services for the state's disabled residents and their caretakers.

Schwarzenegger made the suggestion as part of a sweeping package of midyear budget cuts to help shrink a multibillion-dollar deficit. Program supporters and their families, who plan to rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, say the cuts would create long waiting lists for services and devastate those caring for disabled relatives in their homes.

"For this administration to propose it out of the gate is cause for great alarm for people with disabilities and their families and their advocates," said Virginia Knowlton of Protection and Advocacy, a private, nonprofit law firm focusing on the civil rights of disabled people.

The new Republican governor is not the first to propose cutting back services for the disabled. But he is the first to call for the suspension of the Lanterman Act, which was written by former Republican Assemblyman Frank Lanterman and signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, also a Republican.

Advocates call the law a "civil rights act" for the disabled.

"It was a promise that the state was going to be there to support these people and their families in their home communities," Knowlton said.

Schwarzenegger, who wants lawmakers to cut $3.8 billion from the current and coming state budgets, is asking the Legislature to suspend the act to enable cuts to limit the number of residents who receive benefits under the act.

The move would cap caseloads for 21 regional centers that offer services for those who are caring for disabled people at home. The proposed cuts also include prohibiting the regional centers from providing what the administration calls "non-core" services, including respite care, art therapy, equestrian therapy and camping expenses.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said state budgets for the regional centers have grown 166 percent -- from $600 million to $1.7 billion -- in a five-year span.

"That is dramatic growth in costs," Palmer said. "That is why we believe that we need to suspend the act in order to be able to place a cap on the caseload and to begin to be able to contain and control costs in these programs."

Welfare-to-work grants, college outreach programs and projects to relieve traffic congestion would all take cuts under the Schwarzenegger plans, which have already met resistance from the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"The fiscal hole that was dug by the previous administration was deeper than anyone had imagined, and the depth of the problem requires immediate action," Palmer said.

"No one is operating under any illusions that this is not going to be an extremely difficult process to go through in such a short time frame," he said. "But the alternative -- failing to take action -- is not an option."

At least one powerful Democratic lawmaker and advocate for the poor and disabled, however, has already pledged to block the money-saving measure.

"I'm not going to allow it to be suspended," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco.

The respite care services allow caretakers time to leave their home for a variety of purposes -- ranging from working and errands to going to a doctor's appointment or seeing a movie.

"We are talking about a much-needed break so that families can keep doing what they need to do," Knowlton said. "There are so many families that are stretched to the breaking point ... they are going to be seeking institutional care."

Terry Boisot of Santa Barbara said hers is one of those families. She cares for her 14-year-old son, Ben, who is deaf and blind and uses a wheelchair.

"It allows him to stay at home. Without the vision of the Lanterman Act, he would be institutionalized," Boisot said.

Sacramento mother Kathleen Berry said she, too, relies on respite care to help raise two children with autism at home.

"Even the most basic chores around the house -- grocery shopping, that sort of thing -- are very difficult to perform when you have a child that often has to have very close supervision," Berry said.

Berry said that many people think of respite care as nonessential, but they don't consider the alternative: sending more disabled residents to institutions at a higher cost to the government.

"This is a far preferred alternative," she said.

Marty Omoto, legislative director of the California Coalition of United Cerebral Palsy Associations, said he fears that the proposal to suspend the act is a sign of more cuts to come.

"The door is not just opened up a crack," he said. "It's now thrown open completely to all kids of cuts and reductions to people with disabilities."

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