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Arizona parents fear deep cuts in special needs care

Two-year-old Gabriel Saucedo was born without hands, his arms permanently bent. He has one finger at the end of his left arm and 1 1/2 fingers fused together at the end of his right arm.

With the help of a therapist from a state-funded program, Gabriel learned how to feed himself by holding a spoon in the crook of his arm. He also learned how to bend over and use his forehead to fasten the Velcro straps on his shoes and how to hold a pencil in his mouth to draw circles and lines.

But the programs that help 2,000 developmentally disabled children like Gabriel – and 2,000 mentally disabled adults – would be eliminated under cuts proposed by the Arizona Legislature to solve a $3 billion budget deficit.

Advocates for the developmentally disabled say that cutting early-intervention programs for children or vocational programs for disabled adults would be short-sighted and cost taxpayers millions more in the long run.

“Right now, I think with everything he’s learned, he’s perfect, he’s normal,” said Gabriel’s mother, Maria Palmerin.

She said she is inspired by her son to overcome obstacles in her own life.

“If he can do it, I can do it,” the west Phoenix mother said.

The proposed cuts affect about $41 million for state-funded disability programs and another $50 million to $60 million in state and federal money for long-term care for the more severely disabled.

For Gabriel, those cuts would be life-altering, said Tamara Gallinger, co-owner of Family Partners, a Peoria social-service agency that worked with him.

“He would be lying in a bed for the rest of his life, being cared for the rest of his life,” Gallinger said. “If we can reach a child between birth and 3 years old, they won’t need services. They’ll be able to walk, they’ll be able to talk.”

‘Millions of dollars’ saved

In Gabriel’s case, “we believe we saved the state millions of dollars” that otherwise would have been spent on his care over the course of his life, she said.

But state Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have. Legislators have no choice but to cut virtually all aspects of state government, he said.

“We’re dealing with a $3 billion budget deficit, and it’s growing every day,” Kavanagh said. “It’s hard to give any group immunity when the state is in a total meltdown.”

Kavanagh said the cuts for disabled programs are among the lowest in the state budget.

According to the proposed House budget plan, the state Department of Economic Security’s share of state revenues is being cut 9.8 percent. But when federal revenue and other sources are factored in, the net impact of the cut is only 2.7 percent. That is below the 3.4 percent average for the seven largest general-fund agencies.

“We understand they are a vulnerable population,” Kavanagh said. “That’s why we’re trying to have a minimal impact on them. We tried to protect them as much as we could.”

This is the second year of cuts for state agencies.

Hit hardest by DES cut

One of the measures lawmakers took to balance a $600 million deficit in the 2009 budget was a 10 percent across-the-board cut for DES, which led to state-supported programs for the disabled taking a hit because most other programs are federally mandated.

The DES cuts were placed on hold after a legal challenge that resulted in a temporary injunction to keep the cuts from taking effect. The ruling, however, was overturned by the state Court of Appeals last week. Now disabled advocates are appealing to the state Supreme Court.

Lawmakers are struggling to balance a deficit that has ballooned to $3 billion for the 2010 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

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