Kevin Likes sits near the bell at the state Capitol and shakes his head.
"I don't know if I will be here next year. I may not even be able to get out of bed if funds are cut back."And if life-supporting medications and supplies aren't available, I'll be dead."
The 34-year-old was born with Werdnig-Hoffmann muscular dystrophy. He can move his head and one hand just enough to operate his electric wheelchair. At home, a computer gives him some independence. Ultimately, though, he relies on human service programs for survival. He cannot feed himself. He cannot get out of bed in the morning, and he needs an attendant.
Anyone who has been in the capitol building during the past few legislative sessions has seen Likes. He's an expert at negotiating the crowds with his wheelchair as he buttonholes lawmakers to discuss key issues.
This year, he said, his issue is survival.
"I think it's appalling that lawmakers would do this to the citizens of Utah," he said. "They're putting a gun to our heads. They might as well just do away with anyone who is handicapped."
Likes is one of thousands of disabled, elderly, poor, young or otherwise disadvantaged Utahns who will lose services if lawmakers accept the most recent budget-cutting proposals. While asking the Executive Appropriations Committee for full funding, the Human Services and Health Appropriations Subcommittee, under protest, prepared a "backup" budget that cuts $13.4 million from its request.
"That's what they asked for, so we gave it to them," said Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River City. "But we will not support cuts. It's a very unrealistic budget.
"While I understand the state's revenue situation, I am distressed by the cuts we are going to have to make in Medicaid and medical assistance budgets," said Dr. Suzanne Dandoy, Health Department director. "There ought to be some way to meet the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, who have greater needs than ever in times of recession."
"Safety-net" health-care programs will be harder to get into, she said. Income eligibility levels may drop. "We are asking people to live on amounts none of us can live on in this day and age," she said. Adult dental services will be eliminated again, affecting the comfort and nutrition of elderly and poor people. Liver and bone marrow transplants for adults will stop. And early intervention for handicapped children up to age 3 will continue to be inadequate.
How does the Health and Human Services director describe it?
"Terrible," said Norman G. Angus. "The SSI supplement is gone. We will, in fact, have to reduce welfare grants. Or instead of that we could eliminate the General Assistance Emergency Work Program or the General Assistance Self-Sufficiency Program. We'll probably end up restricting eligibility to services for general assistance folks."
Angus said the latest budget proposal fails to deal with a fast-growing welfare caseload and doesn't provide additional staff. It doesn't offer a cost-of-living-adjustment for service providers, which means that many will stop offering services. There's no funding to deal with waiting lists, like that for the Meals on Wheels program.
"It's the worst (budget) we've had in a little while," Angus said.
"One of the struggles I have with this is these monies are matched $3-to-$1 with federal funds. It's economic development any way you look at it. I regard myself as a conservative, and this is not a normal position for a conservative to take, I know," Holmgren said. "Maybe I should have gotten out years ago. But I've had time to really look at the problems, and I think I'm pretty realistic. This budget - it's just unrealistic. If we got the money the committee suggested, we'd still have problems, but we could survive with it."
"It's a matter of priorities," said Shirley Weathers, Utah Issues. "If the Legislature goes through with the budget plan it now has, we have to question whether Utah really is a caring state. I would hope one of our top priorities, if not the top one, would be its people. We don't feel this is a fiscally responsible budget."
"This is my seventh session," Dandoy said. "In the past, we've always been able to cover basic needs, except the one year we eliminated adult dental services. This year, that does not seem to be possible."
More from the hill
-Higher education officials think there is no "truth-in-advertising" with the Legislature's salary package. A7
-Lawmakers still haven't agreed on how much money they're going to spend. A10
-When the Legislature convened, Democrats proposed a tough income tax fight, and some GOP leaders were talking about resurrecting the flat-tire income tax.
Both measures appead dead. A6
-"Legislature in Action ." A7