Originally created 03/15/03

Disability programs draw rally at Capitol



ATLANTA - Will Georgia's state budget woes cut back on health care?

Advocates hope not. More than 1,200 mental health advocates packed the state Capitol this week, urging lawmakers to avoid cutting funds for disability services, despite the state's looming financial problems.

Georgia is facing a budget shortfall of nearly $620 million over the next 15 months. In January, Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed hefty tax increases on tobacco and alcohol products as a way to fill the state's empty pockets.

Lawmakers, hoping to avoid the political repercussions of a tax increase, have since sought ways to trim the state's spending plan. Few programs - including mental health and disability services - are expected to escape the budget ax.

Among the proposed cuts in 2004 is a $4.3 million reduction in Medicaid reimbursements to community mental health centers, which would trigger a $6.3 million loss of matching federal funds.

The $4.3 million reduction would represent a 10 percent cut over the 2002-03 budget.

On Thursday, health-care providers, patients and family members came to the Capitol to voice their concerns. Patricia Freeman was among those calling on the General Assembly to support Mr. Perdue's proposed tax increase.

Ms. Freeman's mentally retarded daughter, Debbie Long, spends five days a week at a community center that depends on state funds. If lawmakers cut such funding, Ms. Freeman said, her daughter would be able to go only three days a week.

"I'd have to stop working to stay home and care for her," said Ms. Freeman, of Madison County.

Even if the tax increases take effect, there will still be substantial cuts to the state's mental health budget.

Gov. Roy Barnes already had called for a 10-percent budget cut for all state departments before he lost a 2002 re-election bid to Mr. Perdue.

After taking control of the Governor's Mansion, Mr. Perdue said an additional 1 percent cut would be needed for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Republican leaders present Thursday for the Fifth Annual Disability Day at the Capitol said they doubted any department would be exempted from the across-the-board belt-tightening.

"I think everybody would really like to restore some of the cuts, but it's just not apparent right now how we can do that," said Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We're trying to get departments to take any cuts at the administrative level and state office level and not pass it down to the service level."