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Vicki and Christopher play a counting game together

Vicki LaFond-Smith and her son Christopher play a counting game together in their dining room. Due to state budget cuts Christopher, who eats, drinks and gets medication through a feeding tube, will now only have 42.85 minutes a day for meal preparation and feeding. Before, it was an hour a meal, LaFond-Smith said.

As families of children with disabilities say the state of Montana is dismantling its system of community-based care, a group of parents and advocates are calling for the governor to restore money cut after a November special session of the Legislature.

On Monday, a group that includes advocates and parents said a bad revenue estimate from the governor’s budget director that predicted the state would take in $137 million less than what it had budgeted led to a premature calling of the special session. And the cuts that came out of it -- reducing services for the poor, elderly and people with disabilities -- should be at least partly reversed as soon as possible.

"These are not just temporary cuts to people with disabilities," said Beth Brenneman, staff attorney with Disability Rights Montana. She said the cuts essentially dismantle community-based services, which would take "years and years'' to build back.

The group calling for action included several parents who spoke Monday, as well as Family Outreach, Inc., Summit Independent Living Project, Montana Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Disability Rights Montana, Montana Health Care Association, Montana Association of Community Disability Services and Montana Independent Living Project.

The most recent update on state revenues was released Feb 7. It paints a much better picture of Montana's finances than the estimate from the governor's office that triggered the November special session and subsequent $94 million in budget cuts and fund transfers.

While the governor's budget office projected revenues to come in $137 million lower than expected, the new estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Division predicts the shortfall could amount to only $22 million. That prediction is based on how much money has come in so far this fiscal year.

Brenneman wants to see discussion of Gov. Steve Bullock's ability to add back spending under a bill passed during the special session.

That bill, Senate Bill 9, has ways to build back funding under two scenarios — if the state renegotiates its contract with the Shelby prison to bring in an estimated $30 million, or if revenues came in above $2.26 billion, the floor set during the special session.

Under the bill, the state treasurer has until Aug. 15 to determine if revenues have come back high enough to rebuild some agency budgets. The first $20 million would have to go to the state's general fund, but the next $45.7 million would go back to state agencies, including $30.5 million for the health department.

Brenneman said the groups that called Monday's press conference are not taking a position on the prison. But, Brenneman said,  "We'd like to hear what the Gov. has to say about restoring the cuts."

Dan Villa, Bullock's budget director, said Monday it would take until the end of July at the earliest to be able to certify that revenues had come in high enough to build back agency budgets as called for under Senate Bill 9.

He also said he was still comfortable with the $137 million shortfall his office projected, saying that the more optimistic projection also counts as revenue some of the fund transfers and other action taken during the special session that artificially beefed up revenues.

"I'm very comfortable with where the revenue estimate was that we based the special session (on)," he said.

Vicki LaFond Smith, who has 27-year-old twins with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, said that since several of the cuts have taken effect, she's lost half of the staff that care for her sons and had to work less hours at her job to make up for the change.

Justine Kougl, who lives in southeastern Montana, said she had to travel to Helena to advocate for her 2-year-old daughter's services provided on a Medicaid waiver to be restored.

"Not everybody has the means, or the time, or the capacity to make those long trips to Helena and have a face-to-face meeting in order to fight for their child," Kougl said.

Brenneman said that some of the cuts made have come not through changes to administrative rules, which must go through hearings, but changes in internal health department policy.

Jenny Montgomery, whose 9-year-old son has cerebral palsy, said that the waiver services her son receives provide an alternative to living in an institution, but that changes to what can be paid for under the waiver are eroding that.

In the past, she said the waiver was used for things that help her son live happily and healthfully in his community, such as a ramp to enter their home or a robot that would allow him to feed himself. But the state recently denied that robot, saying it had changed its policies and the waiver now only paid for the most critical items or services that would keep her son out of an institution.

"They are an almost unrecognizable shadow" of the previous policy, Montgomery said. "We can't reduce disability to a medical definition. Life in community requires a whole-person approach that's about more than just keeping your heart beating and being at home. It's about having a life."


State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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