THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 7, 2011 --
A hastily-assembled rally against cuts to programs that care for the developmentally disabled drew hundreds of people with disabilities, their families and caregivers to protest Gov. Rick Scott’s emergency order last week to slash payments to disability service providers by 15 percent through June 30.
Speakers said the cuts, due to their structure, would actually run 30 to 40 percent for many providers and drive dozens of group homes out of business. Throughout the rally, the crowd erupted in such frequent and long-lasting chants of “No More Cuts!” that one speaker begged for order.
“Hey, Rick! Pick on someone in your own tax bracket!” exhorted one sign in the crowd. “I make $8 an hour and can’t afford health insurance,” said another.
Ven Sequenzia of the Autism Society said 1,278 jobs would be lost due to the cuts.
“Governor Scott, you are devastating people’s lives!” shouted Rich LaBelle of the Family Network on Disabilities. “You are destroying businesses! You are destroying jobs!”
Scott has said the move is necessary to close a gap in the current budget of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities that could top $169 million by the end of the fiscal year. APD, which serves 35,000 people with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism, mental retardation and other developmental disorders, has chronically run multi-million-dollar deficits even as its wait list has swollen by tens of thousands.
The wait list is the basis of a lawsuit filed last month against Scott, APD and the Agency for Health Care Administration. The advocacy group Disability Rights Florida, one of the plaintiffs, says the state is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide services.
“I don’t know if there’s any family in America that’s not affected by a disability,” said Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, who told the crowd he was at the rally because his niece’s daughter is autistic. “It’s important that you make your voices heard.”
But another speaker wondered if state leaders had any disabled loved ones.
“The people who are creating these budgets don’t have disabilities,” said John Kirchner of Winter Park, who owns A+ Home Aid. Kirchner, himself in a wheelchair, suggested the governor should come to his house to help him get through his day, including helping him with going to the bathroom, before finalizing his decision.
The Autism Society’s Sequenzia praised the House of Representatives for restoring the cuts ordered by Scott in its budget proposal for next year. “But the Senate doesn’t,” he said.
After the rally, the crowd fanned out to lobby policymakers, waiting in a long line at the Capitol entrance. More than 100 stayed for hours in Scott’s office until two staffers agreed to meet with Sequenzia and Aaron Nangle, a representative of the care providers. Scott wasn’t there; he was attending events in Palm Beach.
Even as the protestors lobbied against the Senate’s budget proposal, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said on the Senate floor that APD couldn’t be permitted to continue running huge deficits.
"Even when you're doing the Lord's work, you still have to balance your budget,'' Negron said. “We can’t allow one agency to spend more than what the Legislature has appropriated.”