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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Vermonters With Disabilities Push For Increased Funding

Peter Hirschfeld
Vermonters with disabilities assembled in the Statehouse Wednesday to learn how to lobby lawmakers.

The Department for Aging and Independent Living provides services to about 5,000 Vermonters with disabilities every year. But critics say the budget proposal from the Shumlin administration won’t keep pace with growing need. And Vermonters with disabilities are speaking out.

Josiah Stevens isn’t accustomed to lobbying elected officials. So he spent his Wednesday morning preparing for a meeting later that day in which he’d ask his local representative to reject what advocates say is a $2 million cut to services for people with developmental disabilities.

In his mock interview, conducted with a fellow member of a group called Green Mountain Self Advocates, Stevens talked about the importance of his care provider, whose wages are paid by the Department for Aging and Independent Living.

“And he’s helped me out a lot, and he really cares,” Stevens said. “Thank you, have a nice day.”

Wednesday was Disability Awareness Day in the Statehouse, where about 200 Vermonters with disabilities, and their allies, convened in Montpelier to urge against proposed cuts to government programs.

Max Barrows is the tall, well-dressed 28-year-old overseeing the mock interviews. Stevens and dozens of other men and women with disabilities sat in a first-floor conference room practicing their lines at a staging ground of sorts for the lobbying effort they’d set out on later in the day.

"It's one thing to hear somebody that speaks for them ... It's we feel more effective when the person who is actually going to be impacted by the cuts in the budget to speak." - Max Barrows, advocate for people with disabilities

  Barrows has been working the halls of this building for seven years, when he was first hired as outreach director for Green Mountain Self Advocates. Since then, he’s helped the 600-plus members of this organization devise communication strategies to make sure legislators hear their voices.

“It’s one thing to hear somebody that speaks for them but may not be somebody who’s actually experiencing the impact of budget cuts,” Barrows said. “It’s we feel more effective when the person who is actually going to be impacted by the cuts in the budget to speak.”

"These cuts will impact the lives of people who have disabilities." - Sarah Launderville, executive director, Vermont Center for Independent Living

  Of chief concern is the nearly $2 million reduction to a pot of money at the Department for Aging and Independent Living, known as DAIL. Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, told a crowd of supporters that the cuts at DAIL and elsewhere in the budget won’t be without consequence.

“These cuts will impact the lives of people who have disabilities,” she said.

Susan Wehry, commissioner of DAIL, says it’s true that the governor’s proposed budget includes a $2 million reduction to one component of the department’s budget – she prefers the term “savings target.” But she says the budget also includes a $9 million increase, to cover the cost of new people seeking services. All told, she says, the governor’s plan will add $7 million to the department’s fiscal year 2016 budget, up by more than 3.5 percent over this year’s spending plan of $188 million.

“I think of it as a net increase in my budget for which I’m very grateful in a tough fiscal year,” Wehry says.

State revenues are increasing at about 3 percent annually. But Wehry says budget demands at DAIL are growing by 4 to 6 percent a year. She says that means Vermont will have to find new ways to deliver better service at less cost to taxpayers.

Self-advocates offer a different approach – raise more money.

The House Committee on Appropriations is expected to finalize its fiscal year 2016 budget by the end of March.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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