More than 1000 people converged on Montpelier Wednesday to oppose proposed cuts to mental health and disability programs.
They buttonholed lawmakers and the media in the Statehouse cafeteria and hallways, testified before a joint House and Senate panel and stood more than 1000 strong on the barely cleared walkways around the Capitol steps for a noontime rally.
Their message was simple: "No more cuts." People with a wide spectrum of disabilities, their caregivers, parents, loved ones and advocates implored lawmakers not to balance the $176 million budget deficit on the backs of those who have shouldered cuts in each of the past four years.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has recommended cutting $44 million from the Agency of Human Services in order to balance the budget. Of that, a total of $15 million would be cut from the agencies that provide mental health and developmental services (when you include state and federal cuts). With more federal cuts looming from Congress, individuals with disabilities who testified were visibly anxious and scared about the potential loss of key supports enabling them to live mostly independent lives.
"I'm here to ask you not to cut my day-program services," said Robert Emmons, who testified before the House Human Services Committee and Senate Health and Welfare Committee during an hourlong hearing. "I work every day at American Flatbread. If I lost the program I would lose my transportation, and I would be stuck at home doing nothing and I wouldn't be able to earn any money. I would also have nothing to do and I might get into trouble and end up where I don't want to be."
Before he was able to access daily support services, Emmons said he struggled with taking his medications and getting outside of his home. That's since changed. "I like being independent and on my own, but I like someone being there when I need it," Emmons said. "We need not to take two steps backward, but move forward."
Nicole LeBlanc of Green Mountain Self Advocates said this fourth consecutive year of budget cuts to the state's mental health system could seriously jeopardize Vermont's previous gains, keeping people out of institutions such as the Brandon Training School and the Vermont State Hospital.
"Last year, the candidates for governor said they would not leave people with disabilities by the side of the road, but when you cut agencies, this does leave them on the side of the road. There are $15 million in cuts proposed for [the Department of Aging and Independent Living]," said LeBlanc. "We are headed back to the days of institutionalization and segregation by making these deep cuts. Do not balance the budget on the back of people with disabilities. Please raise taxes!"
Shumlin, who held his weekly press conference six miles away from the large rally, was unmoved by the crowd's plea to seek cuts elsewhere or raise taxes on wealthier Vermonters, even if just temporarily until the budget crisis subsides. He also defended his budget, saying it won't harm the most vulnerable in society.
"The money is just not there," said Shumlin. "We put together a budget that makes tough cuts without balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable Vermonters."
Shumlin again rejected calls from within his own party to raise taxes, or surcharges, on the very wealthy, noting that Vermonters' "appetite for spending" just isn't there in the face of a weak economy and large budget deficit.
Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) and President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) did address the throngs outside the Statehouse during the rally.
Neither offered much hope that they could stop the brunt of the budget cuts from falling on human services.
"We have a difficult road ahead of us," said Smith, noting that any previous notions of federal help had vanished with the new Congress. "We are heading into a different and difficult climate and we need to work together, to support each other. That's not a message I like to give. It's not a message I like to hear, quite frankly. As we take this journey together, we need to keep an open dialogue and trust each other."
Smith promised their voices were heard, and he wanted to assure the crowd that lawmakers will take their pleas to heart. But he stopped short of saying that lawmakers could craft a budget completely to their liking.
"I will not make promises I can't keep," said Smith, who noted he wasn't criticizing any other politician for making such promises to the group. That generated laughter in the crowd.
"We will work to address many of the concerns you have raised today," Smith added.