Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics

Romano: Legislators reckless in gutting program for disabled

At the apparent insistence of Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pictured above, legislators agreed to destroy a long-standing program for cognitively disabled adults. [Phil Sears | Associated Press]
At the apparent insistence of Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pictured above, legislators agreed to destroy a long-standing program for cognitively disabled adults. [Phil Sears | Associated Press]
Published Jun. 20, 2015

Sometimes, decisions made in the Legislature are nauseatingly selfish.

Sometimes, they are fanatical. Phony. Outlandish. Cruel.

And sometimes, they are none of those things.

They are simply wrong.

The state budget that was agreed upon earlier this week has plenty of fodder no matter where you reside philosophically. You can say legislators spent recklessly or you can say they skimped foolishly, and there is truth to both arguments.

So I understand the damned-if-you-do predicament lawmakers face with every budget, and I appreciate the balance struck between quality of life and cost of services.

And, still, I fear legislators failed some of the most vulnerable among us.

At the apparent insistence of Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, legislators agreed to destroy a long-standing program for cognitively disabled adults.

To be fair, that sounds worse than it really is.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has made providing opportunities for the developmentally challenged a priority during his tenure, and his office says proposed funding will still exceed last year's budget for assisting people with disabilities.

The issue is how the money will be spent.

Nearly 20 years ago, the state began funding an Adults With Disabilities (AWD) program that was designed to provide intellectual stimulation, life and job skills lessons and other services for those with a wide range of learning disabilities.

In committee meetings earlier this year, Gaetz began questioning the effectiveness of the program, which is administered through local school districts and community colleges. The Legislature's analysis and accountability office determined too much of the program's funds were going toward teacher salaries and benefits.

Legislation was introduced to completely revamp the program, but the bill did not survive the early dismissal of the session.

Program supporters, who had rushed to provide Gaetz and other senators with detailed reports of AWD's positive outcomes, thought they had survived a brush with disaster.

Turns out it was a temporary reprieve.

With lawmakers meeting privately to hammer out a budget late Monday night, the entire $10 million program was wiped from existence.

"I was shocked and heartbroken at the outcome,'' said Suzanne Sewell, the president and CEO of the Florida Association of Rehabilitation Services. "We had given them compelling evidence and information about the positive outcomes we've had, and we expressed a willingness to work with them on any changes they thought were necessary.

"This is just a huge blow to a lot of people who depend on these services.''

The Senate's justification? That money could be better spent on other programs with more oversight and a greater emphasis on job placement.

"The president's view is that Florida should absolutely be a leader in vocational rehabilitation, and the program in place was not meeting those standards,'' said Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Sen. Gardiner. "It had higher overhead, and yet lagged behind Texas and New York in job placements. The president felt that was unacceptable.''

I cannot say with any certainty how effective the program has been. And I cannot predict whether new programs will exceed or fall short of the Legislature's hopes.

Here's what I do know:

Lawmakers too often become obsessed with weighing results that are impossible to measure. You cannot use a finish line to determine success if you do not know a race's starting point. In other words, not all disabilities are equal.

There are more than 12,000 adults currently being served by AWD, and many have been in the program for years. This is the only life they know, and abrupt change could be devastating. Maybe the state will find better programs for them, but that is no guarantee.

Yet instead of a careful, gradual transition to something new, the Legislature has essentially pulled the rug out from under a vulnerable population.

I don't think it was malicious, and it may have even been justified.

But it does seem reckless, and potentially dangerous.