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The Budget Cuts Get a Human Face

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They had three minutes to share their life stories. Just 180 seconds to describe all that had befallen them. The details were different. Some were parents of the mentally disabled, some ran group homes and treatment centers, others were dealing with severe mental illness or recovering from traumatic brain injuries. But they all came before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday and Thursday with the same message: Don’t cut funding for programs that are saving lives.

The sheer number of people signed up to provide public testimony on the health and human services section of Senate Bill 1—the draft state budget—necessitated a time limit of three minutes. More than 200 testified during nearly 15 hours spread over two days. Every legislative session, public testimony on the budget provides long days of emotionally intense hearings. But this year is different. State lawmakers face an unprecedented $27 billion budget shortfall, and Republican leaders have announced their intention to balance the budget without raising taxes, which means frightening cuts to programs for the state’s most vulnerable. And those vulnerable citizens—and their parents and caregivers and advocates—turned out to decry the draft Senate budget released last week. It was an outpouring of raw emotion—snapshots of human misery and triumph—the likes of which senators on the dais said they’d never seen.

Ruth Hansen took Wednesday off from her job as a secretary at an Austin elementary school and waited all day to speak her three minutes. Her daughter Andrea has down syndrome. Ruth and her husband had always cared for her at home. But as they grew older, they began to worry what would happen to Andrea when they were gone. They put her name on a waiting list for a state waiver program that would pay for Andrea to live in a group home. The demand for community-based care in Texas has long outstripped the available funds. And Andrea’s name lingered on that waiting list for 13 years.

Finally, in June 2008, Andrea, then 29, reached the top of the list. She gained a slot in a Medicaid waiver program that allowed her to live in an Austin group home with two other disabled women. She’s been there three years and couldn’t be happier, Ruth said. “They are very caring, very attentive. It’s almost like family.” Andrea goes to dances, has made friends, even met a boy. Ruth doesn’t know how long she and her husband, who’s been diagnosed with bladder cancer, will be around to care for her daughter. “We’re getting older,” Ruth said. “I know she has safe care, a beautiful life.”

The senators will decide if that continues. Andrea’s group home—like so many other providers in the state—is facing a 29-percent cut in funding under the proposed Senate budget. If the 29 percent cut goes into effect, Andrea’s group home—and many others around the state—will close. “Could your family survive on a 29-percent cut?” Ruth asked the senators.

The two days of testimony seemed to affect all the senators, both Republicans and Democrats. Committee Chair Steve Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, seemed especially moved by Wally and Peggy Van Wyk, a couple in their 80s who testified late Wednesday. They adopted their daughter Laura in 1958. Like many, they pleaded with senators not to cut funding for the community home where Laura, who has cerebral palsy, has lived happily for decades.

When the Van Wyks finished speaking, Ogden said he’d just read the couple’s written testimony and wanted to point out a section to the committee. He read aloud how the Van Wyks were told in 1958 that because of complications during birth, Laura would have cerebral palsy, damaged vision and a soft spot in her skull. She couldn’t walk or eat solid food for two years. But they had accepted her as she was. Ogden looked up from the paper. “Fifty-three years later, my hat’s off to y’all because you’re still fighting for her,” he said. Then he paused and added, “We’ll do our best to make sure we don’t harm her.”

Every senator said they couldn’t envision instituting cuts that would harm the disabled and mentally ill. But they will have to find billions to make up the shortfall. They can’t cut eligibility for Medicaid—that’s forbidden by the national health care reform—so one of their only options is to cut the rates paid to providers through Medicaid. That would affect treatment centers, group homes, ambulance services, doctors, nursing homes, you name it.

To avoid the rate cuts, senators will have to find more money somewhere. The Republicans on the panel said they refuse to raise taxes and are looking for government efficiencies. “If we find enough change in the cracks in the couch, it will really add up,” said Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls. There are certainly inefficiencies in Texas government, but most budget analysts don’t believe eliminating waste alone would save enough money to cover the shortfall.

Many of the advocates and parents, including self-described Republicans, argued for higher taxes. David Walker, the county attorney in the conservative Houston suburb of Montgomery County, testified that his county had just built a treatment center to divert mentally ill offenders from jail. “If there must be budget cuts, let’s not cut human beings,” he said. “My Lord Jesus tells me ‘What you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me.’ I believe that and that’s why I’m here. If it means raising taxes, then raise mine first.”

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.