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A pittance to care for state's most vulnerable

It's a very big deal. Even the president has been invited.

On Feb. 9, President Bush may appear with his brother in Fort Lauderdale for an event at which the Hillsborough Association for Retarded Citizens will get an award. It honors HARC's work in getting jobs for the mentally retarded and others with developmental handicaps.

The timing of the award is apparently an accident. But a cynic can't help but wonder whether the award is meant to distract from the crisis in the way Gov. Jeb Bush's administration cares for some of this state's most vulnerable citizens.

Count me among the cynics.

There's hardly another group of people more in need of the state's help. While some of the developmentally disabled are competent enough to work, many others are not and never will be. The governor has begun to cut what the state pays to take care of all of them, and it stands to reason that no group suffers more than those with the greatest disabilities.

Some are autistic and blind. Still others are profoundly retarded and have cerebral palsy. Or they are elderly, retarded and suffering from Alzheimer's.

They need so much care that their families can't keep them. So they live in privately run group homes. The state pays for their care. But the cuts that occurred late last year were so great, agencies have been forced to cut services, even shut group homes.

It just so happens (and this is where my cynicism kicks in) that HARC has managed to avoid cutting services this year. It trimmed its budget a couple of years ago, on the belief that the news from the governor would not, over the long run, be good. So HARC stands as an example of what Jeb Bush believes about treating the developmentally disabled _ that it is possible to make do with less.

That must have been part of his thinking when he put more money for the developmentally disabled in the budget he proposed Tuesday. He added $43.5-million to care for an extra 3,200 people. But thousands still remain on the waiting list for services.

And Bush didn't give an additional dime for the agencies already reeling from the cuts, agencies that last week filed two lawsuits challenging what the state has done.

"It's not a fair tradeoff," Curt Thomas, president of the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children, said Wednesday. "We're at the bottom of the barrel."

I heard much of the same from Tina Philips, the president of Palm Beach Habilitation Center in Lake Worth. Philips suggested Bush just doesn't grasp that the spending cuts could have a lasting impact on people. "I honestly think he believes it's not going to happen," she said.

Yes indeed. The governor has his mind on other things.

While programs for the developmentally disabled bleed money, Bush proposed in his state budget to cut taxes on stocks and bonds held by the middle class and the rich by $91-million.

Keeping that tax money could have covered at least some of the funding needs of the developmentally disabled. He could have also done it by dipping into an eye-popping amount _ $400-million _ of Medicaid money the state received last year from the federal government.

But he didn't.

You have to wonder. Does Bush not care even about appearances?

It's an election year. The governor will proclaim that he is a responsible fiscal steward, or whatever the fancy language of the campaign stump is, when his brother comes to Florida.

The governor will also be able to offer himself up as an example of the Republican philosophy at work: Getting the disabled to work is parallel to the old Republican push to get people off welfare. But those left behind, who will never work, whose care is intensive and expensive, well, that's another matter.

No doubt in his own mind, Gov. Bush thinks he means well. As for me, I just can't get past the tight-fisted approach he takes when it comes to people who cannot fend for themselves. It speaks not of fiscal wisdom but of cruelty, plain and simple.

_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or 226-3402.

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