In Topeka, some protesters decry cuts; others blast spending

04/29/2010 6:01 AM

04/29/2010 6:01 AM

TOPEKA — You didn't need to stray from the south lawn of the Kansas Capitol to see the opposite poles of the state budget debate Wednesday.

In the morning, hundreds of people with developmental disabilities and their supporters in "Can you see me now?" T-shirts tied more than 4,000 blue ribbons on a fence, urging lawmakers to raise taxes to restore funding cuts and reduce waiting lists for disability services.

In the afternoon, the blue ribbons and T-shirts had vanished, and the lawn was peopled with demonstrators from Americans for Prosperity sporting yellow "No new taxes" buttons and waving signs decrying state spending.

Wednesday marked the start of the annual legislative wrap-up session, with lawmakers facing the need to close a $510 million budget gap they couldn't deal with during their regular session.

It also was the start of demonstrations seeking to push lawmakers in one of two directions: increase revenue or decrease spending.

The supporters of disabled people argue that their problems can be solved by backing off some past tax cuts and increasing the state sales tax by a percentage point, as proposed by Gov. Mark Parkinson.

They tied 4,372 blue ribbons to a construction fence surrounding the capitol restoration project — one ribbon for each person on the state waiting list for disability services.

"If there were 4,000 kids waiting for kindergarten, they'd address it," said Tom Laing, executive director of Interhab, a statewide advocacy group for mentally disabled people, their families and service providers.

Not far away at the Maner Conference Center, Americans for Prosperity was gearing up for its turn on the south lawn with a rally featuring author P.J. O'Rourke and blogger and commentator Michelle Malkin.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, told the group that there are options other than raising taxes, such as selling off unneeded state property. He urged them to carry that message.

"We need you out there counteracting that public discussion that says somehow we have to do this (raise taxes) or people will be hurt," Masterson said. "It is a spending problem that we have."

It was a theme echoed throughout the afternoon demonstration.

"It was a good message. I just hope the governor and the legislators listen," said Linda McGinnis of Topeka.

She carried a handmade sign reading "Governments that govern least govern best," quoting Thomas Jefferson.

Her friend Marcia Goswick, visiting from Springfield, Mo., has been to several tea party protests and keeps the signs in her car.

Back at the rally for people with disabilities, the overriding perspective was that disabled people already have been hurt and further cuts will hurt more.

Ron Pasmore, president and chief executive of the Wichita service provider KETCH, said funding cuts have forced his organization to pare back services for the approximately 150 people in its residential care programs.

For example, he said, in the past, aides would usually take disabled clients out to buy groceries. Now, the aides often have to do the shopping themselves because it takes less time.

"They (the people with disabilities) are not learning to be independent, so it's kind of taking us back a step," he said.

More government money isn't the answer, countered Larry Halloran of Wichita, one of the Americans for Prosperity demonstrators.

"We could help them a lot more with less taxes and more personal responsibility," said Halloran, state director of the Independence Caucus and Wichita-area leader of the 9-12 Group — the national organization begun by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck.

Lower taxes would mean more money to donate to charities that help the disabled, Halloran said.

"I don't believe that (a government official) is the best person to decide how much I can give based on my W-2 form when they don't know how much I need to meet my obligations at home to my own family," he said.

Allison Lemon came to the Capitol with her brother, Charles Karslake, to participate in the rally for disabled people.

She said he had lost his services once because of state cuts and she had to get him signed up with a different program. She's concerned further cuts could dry up that source, too.

"It would be a disaster," she said. "I'm 63 years old. Any one single family can't provide him with the services he needs."

Lemon said daily activity has kept Karslake from lapsing into profound depression, which once put him in a mental hospital for seven months.

Karslake said he goes to programs at the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation three days a week and Catholic Charities two days.

"It gets me out," he said. Otherwise, he added, "I end up sleeping all day.

Both groups exhorted their followers to go into the Statehouse and make their views known to lawmakers.

"Who does this house belong to? Us!" was the rallying cry for the disability protest.

A few hours later at the Americans For Prosperity demonstration, the mantra was "November is coming," referring to Election Day.

Asked what he would have told the disabled demonstrators if he'd had the chance, Derrick Sontag, executive director of Americans For Prosperity Kansas, replied that he would have said that "a lot of the services they receive are essential services the state provides."

But he said he'd also have asked "whether or not they think all the waste and inefficiency has been removed from government."

Laing said he would have told the Americans For Prosperity demonstrators "the future of our state depends more on how we take care of each other, not how we take care of ourselves."

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