JEFFERSON CITY — A program that helps blind people learn to use walking canes and computers has been placed on the chopping block at the Missouri Capitol, marking the second time in two years that blind services have come in the crosshairs of potential budget cuts.
A House appropriations committee this past week recommended the elimination of state funding for a program that provides vocational rehabilitation services for the blind. But the cut may have been an oversight.
State Rep. Sue Allen, who is chairwoman of the social services appropriations committee, told The Associated Press that she wasn't initially aware of the consequences of axing the $2.5 million in general revenue expenditures from the budget.
"What we were cutting looked like some administrative costs, and I tend to believe that most administrative costs can be cleaned out a bit," said Allen, R-Town and Country.
But during a House Budget Committee hearing, officials from the Department of Social Services explained that the $2.5 million in state funds actually is used to draw about $10.5 million in federal money.
"We would not be able to operate a rehabilitation program for the blind any longer without any state match," said Jennifer Tidball, the department's director of finance and administration.
Besides teaching the blind how to use specialized equipment, the program also provides career counseling, helps the blind prepare printed resumes and can enable people losing their eyesight to get magnifiers.
Allen told the AP that she now hopes to find money from some other source to continue the services for the blind. But that may require cuts elsewhere in the budget.
"I'm not against blind people," Allen emphasized. But to keep funding the blind program, "I could take it away from people with mental illness, I could take it away from children's programs, I could take it away from Meals on Wheels for seniors."
Whether the cut was intentional or not, it nonetheless highlights the fact that many lawmakers apparently don't understand the purpose or importance of the state's services for the blind, said Chris Grey, executive director of the Missouri Council of the Blind.
"I shouldn't say they single out blind people, but this will be our second year of being under siege from the state Legislature," Grey said. He added: "The current attitude of the legislature toward the blind community is puzzling and very disturbing."
Last year, the same House appropriations committee — which then was led by a different chairman — recommended eliminating funding for a program that provides health care to more than 2,800 blind people who lack private insurance but earn too much to qualify for the traditional Medicaid program for the poor. Lawmakers ultimately kept the program, but it was one of the final things decided in budget negotiations between the House and Senate.
For roughly the past decade, the vocational rehabilitation program for the blind has gotten its state money from the Blind Pension Fund, which is financed by a state property tax and has the primary purpose of providing cash payments to the blind.
Since 2008, revenues to the Blind Pension Fund have remained relatively stagnant at between $29 million and $30 million.
Yet the number of people served by the fund has continued to rise, according to figures provided to the AP by the Department of Social Services. Nearly 4,000 blind residents received cash payments from the fund last year, up 9 percent from 2008. And almost 2,300 blind people received vocational rehabilitation services, up 19 percent since 2008.
When it comes to the fund's finances, "over the last few years, it's become very tight as property values have stagnated and the housing market has changed in the state," said Brian Kinkade, the deputy director of the Department of Social Services.
That's what led the department this year to request that the vocational rehabilitation services be financed with general revenues instead of the Blind Pension Fund. Allen may not have been aware of all that background. During a House Budget Committee hearing this past week, she suggested that if the blind pension fund had a shortfall, then Gov. Jay Nixon could have sought a property tax increase instead of turning to general revenues.
After learning more about the program, she later told the AP that she wants to see it continued.
"I'm all for vocational programs — that's what we need," Allen said.