To their credit, state lawmakers have tried in recent years to reduce, if not eliminate, the waiting lists for in-home services for disabled Kansans, sometimes swooping in to save the day with more dollars just as the Legislature adjourns. But they fell short this year, closing a ghastly budget gap by forcing cuts in those and most state services.
As a result, the physical disability waiting list has grown from zero to 1,382 in just 10 months. The long-standing list for home- and community-based services for those with developmental disabilities contains 2,138 names, including some who've been waiting several years. Many more are receiving some services but eligible and waiting for more. Meanwhile, a program that began last year for autistic children has a waiting list of 275.
Gov. Mark Parkinson should try to spare social services, including home- and community-based services, from any additional cuts he is forced to make between now and the start of the 2010 legislative session in January.
And when lawmakers return, they should redouble their efforts to eliminate the wait for these cost-effective and humane in-home services.
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One idea, to be discussed next month by a legislative committee, would be to ask parents of children eligible for services to help cover the cost on a sliding-fee scale. At some point lawmakers also should dust off their own 2006 study recommending that the state invest $70 million more to eliminate the waiting lists, raise direct-care workers' salaries and otherwise fortify the community-based system.
Of course, lawmakers' efforts to do anything may be even harder in 2010 than in 2009, given the unlikelihood of another federal stimulus package.
"It's a tough year for the state's budget, obviously," Matt Fletcher, associate director of the developmental disabilities advocacy group InterHab, told The Eagle editorial board, but "the funding has not been a priority for the Legislature regardless of whether we were in times of financial prosperity or tighter times." Mentioning the $11 billion in tax cuts the Legislature has made since 1995, he added: "It really becomes a question of what the state's priorities are."
Meanwhile, those individuals capable of living independently with a little in-home help from the state risk ending up in nursing homes, which cost taxpayers far more.
Nobody thinks tax increases are a good idea anytime, least of all during the worst downturn in decades.
But what does it say about our state lawmakers' values that they proceeded with the scheduled phase-out of the corporate franchise and estate taxes last spring, for example, rather than put that revenue into social services or some other vital state program?
That's a question for Kansas voters to answer during next year's legislative election.