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Emotional Turnout for JFAC Health and Welfare Hearing

Residents dependent on state services try to save programs

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With tears in her eyes, Republican Rep. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint summed up the collective worries of her fellow lawmakers: "What do we do next?"

After four hours of public testimony to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Keough and her fellow committee members were visibly moved by Idahoans who came to share their stories. Out of the 140 people who signed up to give a three-minute speech, a total of 82 testified.

They came from all over the state to speak out on Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's proposal to fill some of the $84 million hole in the 2012 budget. According to his proposal, cuts to the Department of Health and Welfare could range from $20-25 million--and that's if tax growth projections prove true.

In his State of the State address, Otter referred to moving the responsibilities of care to volunteer and church organizations.

"Catholic Charities of Idaho is now maxed out" Andrew Schumacher, a Catholic priest and chairman of the statewide CCI, told JFAC. "If Medicaid support is withdrawn from people with disabilities, what would happen to them? Will they be institutionalized? Or will they be hidden behind closed doors and ignored?"

Many citizens who stepped up to testify were a parent or adoptive parent of children with special needs.

Joni Sullivan, the mother of a 23-year-old son described how her son has Down's syndrome, but he also has a job, pays taxes and volunteers. "Some of his proudest moments are telling people we know in the community about how his life is going; how his job is going, his paycheck--he pays taxes--that he pays his bills," she said.

Some parents spoke for their young children, asking JFAC to understand that treatment doesn't end at adulthood.

"At 18, I was a dysfunctional mess. There were road blocks, but I was able to pass them," said Mark Reinhardt. "Without these services, I would be institutionalized and/or in prison."

That was the situation before current policies. Many members of the public pleaded for things not to return to the institutionalization of the '60s and '70s.

"I've been in two group homes, and believe me, it's not very fun," said Jack Hansen, representing Special Olympics athletes. "And I know for a fact that if you make these cuts, I will have to go back to a group home. I made a promise to myself you guys, that I would not go back, not without a fight. You guys are my only hope."

Applause erupted, to which Chairman Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert asked, "Please, please. Don't detract from it."

Overwhelmingly, the consensus was to find revenue to avoid cutting services. Some advocated for the proposed $1.25 cigarette tax increase. Other suggested reviewing tax exemptions or taxing Internet sales.

Curiously, House Speaker Lawrence Denney sidelined the Internet sales tax bill as testimony continued on Jan. 28.

Katherine Hansen of the Idaho Association of Developmental Disability Agencies said she has collected more than 14,000 signatures supporting a tax increase to spare cuts to services. She said she hopes to get more in the coming weeks.

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