Sherry Harris. David Grace photo.
KINGSPORT — Emotional appeals were directed Friday at Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state Sen. Mike Faulk to maintain funding for a state program serving home-based family members with severe disabilities.
About 20 families with disabled loved ones filed into the auditorium at the Kingsport Public Library to testify on behalf of keeping the Family Support Program in the state budget.
Last month, Tennessee Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Jim Henry proposed the $7 million program be cut from the state budget for the coming fiscal year.
The program, run in Northeast Tennessee by The Arc of Washington County, provides support services such as respite care, day care, home modifications, equipment, nursing and counseling.
No additional lawmakers were at the meeting, where Ramsey and Faulk were told the program does things like providing a disabled child with an iPad to help with speech therapy.
One home makeover helped David Gardner, the former golf professional at Ridgefields Country Club, with wheelchair access in his house after he was struck in March 2010 with a rare disorder similar to a stroke.
“He could not communicate for an entire year. ... With rehabilitative therapy Dad is now pulling himself into standing, talking, eating and living commonly every single day,” Gardner’s daughter, Kelly, told Ramsey and Faulk. “(The program) helped with renovating a room on the main level of the house. ... We had no wheelchair access in our home whatsoever.”
Blind Kingsport resident Patty Fletcher said that without the program, she had no one to read mail and no way to pay her bills.
“What would you do if you were disabled and needed these services yourself?” she asked the two lawmakers.
The program, which serves 215 families in Northeast Tennessee and more than 4,000 statewide, has been funded the past two years by federal stimulus funds and the state’s Rainy Day Fund, according to advocates.
Maximum allowable direct aid per person is $4,000 each year, and the statewide average aid allocation was $1,387 in the last fiscal year, according to the program.
The program is also not billed as a substitute for more comprehensive services provided under other health care initiatives, such as Medicare or TennCare, the state’s Medicaid plan.
Henry’s proposal to cut the program occurred during an initial round of budget hearings put together by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.
“The budget hearings were an opportunity for agencies to present to the governor their proposals for his final recommendation, which will come at the end of January. At this point, no decisions have been made,” Department of Finance and Administration spokeswoman Lola Potter said in an e-mail.
Ramsey, R-Blountville, pointed out state lawmakers cut $1.2 billion from last year’s budget and still funded the program.
“If we can’t find a way out of a $30 billion budget to find $7.2 million for you, you ought to send us home,” Ramsey told the families.
Before the meeting started, Ramsey also noted: “From the bottom of my heart, I’m going to make sure we make the least amount of cuts for the most vulnerable. I have meetings with constituent groups, but this is the toughest one. You want to help and do everything you can, but we can’t be like the federal government and borrow yourself into oblivion. We have to balance the budget. We will make those tough choices, but I hope there are no cuts for these people.”
Faulk, R-Church Hill, told the group that the program’s funding goes to help families trying to help themselves.
“That contrasts with a lot of other areas in state government where money is handed out to folks who are not necessarily trying to help themselves...” Faulk said to applause. “We hear you. We heard you before you spoke today because many of you and your problems and needs are near and dear to my heart and the lieutenant governor’s heart. ... Republicans are bashed all over the country as being cold-hearted, cruel, mean people because they cut budgets. In Tennessee for three consecutive years, the budgets have been cut because the money has not been there. ... We have to reprioritize.”
For more information about the program go to www.tn.gov/didd/family_support/index.html.