letter to the members of the Appropriations and L.C.R.E.D. Committees

 

Holly Mullen, Clerk
Appropriations & Fin. Affairs Committee
126th Maine State Legislature
Maine Statehouse, Room 228
5 Statehouse Station
Augusta, ME 04333-0005

Rhonda Miller, Clerk
126th Maine State Legislature
L.C.R.E.D. Committee
Cross Building, Room 208
100 Statehouse Station
Augusta, ME 04333-0100

Via email: holly.mullen@legislature.maine.gov
Via email: Rhonda.Miller@legislature.maine.gov  

            Re:       Iris Network testimony in opposition to proposed cuts to the budget for
Maine DOL Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired 

Dear Chairman Hill, Chairman Rotundo and Members of the A.F.A. Committee; and
Dear Chairman Patrick, Chairman Herbig and Members of the L.C.R.E.D. Committee: 

As Executive Director of The Iris Network, I must inform you of the significant negative impact that the proposed reductions in funding for Maine’s Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired (“DBVI”) will have on our ability to provide adequate vision rehabilitation and related job training services for people dealing with vision loss throughout the State of Maine.  The Governor’s biennial budget proposes to cut two education and rehabilitation positions that were funded in November of 2012 as a result of Part FFF of the 2013 Supplemental Budget.  These positions were among seven positions added to the state budget after four years of work to address grossly inadequate funding for education and rehabilitation of Maine students and adults who are visually impaired or blind. 

By way of background, for many years, we have been working with vastly inadequate resources to improve educational and employment outcomes for Maine residents who are visually impaired or blind.  As a result, only 30.5% of people who are visually impaired or blind in Maine are employed.  This leaves 69.5% of people with visual disabilities in Maine to rely on public assistance at a huge, unnecessary expense to Maine’s social welfare system. 

Four years ago, we proposed L.D. 564 to provide approximately $500,000 of new general fund appropriations in order to change this situation.  Due to budget constraints, the bill was amended to call for a needs assessment authorized by the 124th Legislature through Resolve 2009, chapter 39, to review the current and future needs of Mainers with vision loss.  The recommendations of this report (the “Resolve Report”) were formulated by a public and private stakeholder working group led by DBVI Director, John McMahon.  The Resolve Report was presented in February of 2010 to both the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor, and the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, by then Commissioner of Labor, Laura Fortman.  The Resolve Report recommended that approximately $1.1 million dollars of new funding be found for 11.5 FTEs of professional staff.  Please read the full report at http://www.theiris.org/get-involved/advocacy

In the meanwhile - and indicative of the validity of the inadequacies identified in the Resolve Report - a systemic complaint was brought by Maine’s Disability Rights Center (“DRC”) against the Maine Department of Education (“DOE”) in January of 2010.  The complaint alleged that 19 visually impaired Maine students were on a waiting list to receive special education services due to the lack of an adequate number of Teachers of the Visually Impaired (“TVIs”).  The DOE investigated this complaint and found that it had merit.  As a result, DOE implemented a Corrective Action Plan in order to avoid non-compliance with federal special education regulations.  The recommendations of this corrective action plan in regard to DRC v. Maine DOE dated July 28, 2010 included (among other things) hiring four additional TVIs and one additional Orientation and Mobility (“O&M”) instructor.  Please read the full report at http://www.theiris.org/get-involved/advocacy.  

As a result of these findings, L.D. 765 was introduced in the first regular session of the 125th Legislature to provide additional general fund resources for seven (7) education and rehabilitation positions at an approximate annual cost of $500,000.  L.D. 765 was unanimously voted “ought to pass” by the L.C.R.E.D. Committee, but was held over by the A.F.A. Committee due to inadequate resources on the Special Appropriations Table.  In the second session of the 125th Legislature, the L.C.R.E.D. Committee stated that funding for these positions was its top priority when it sent L.D. 765 back to the Special Appropriations Table.  

With bi-partisan guidance from Representatives Rotundo, Keschl and Chase and former Representative Webster, an elegant two-part resolution of the funding problem was crafted in the final days of the Session.  A.F.A. addressed the first part of the funding conundrum by providing new general fund resources for 2.5 of these positions in Section 1 of Part FFF of the 2013 Supplemental Budget.  DBVI combined this funding with an existing vacant half-time federally funded position in order to fund positions for one TVI and two O&M instructors in May of 2012.  A.F.A. attempted to resolve the second part of the funding problem by providing detailed instructions in Section 2 of Part FFF of the 2013 Supplemental Budget directing DOL and DOE to find funding for the other 4 positions (one Blindness Rehabilitation Specialist, one TVI and two Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (VRTs”)) from cost savings at DOL and DOE by September 15, 2012.  

Because DOL could not locate any general funds not already attached to other programs, DOL found a one-time source of federal funds with which to temporarily fund three of these positions (one TVI and two VRTs positions) by November of 2012.  DOL reported to the A.F.A. Committee in October that the federal funds would need to be replaced with a General Fund Appropriation in order to sustain these positions in the 2014-15 biennial budget.  When the Budget was published, however, it only included general fund appropriations for one of the TVI positions; thus, cutting one of the TVI and one of the VRT positions. 

Therefore, unless you act to provide new general fund appropriations, L.R. 1046 will cut funding for one TVI and one VRT that were added to the DBVI budget in November of 2012 as a result of Section 2 of Part FFF of the 2013 Supplemental Budget bill.  The VRT position was filled in January of 2013 to provide critically needed vision rehabilitation services in Aroostook and Washington Counties.  

Vision rehabilitation therapy is a critically needed prerequisite to job training.  VRTs provide essential skills-training needed in order for Maine’s blindness vocational rehabilitation system to increase the deplorably low 30.5% employment rate for Maine residents who are visually impaired or blind.  VRTs work with transition-age youth and working-age adults with vision loss so that they can obtain vocational rehabilitation leading to competitive employment and become taxpayers, rather than relying on public assistance throughout their lifetimes.  VRTs also provide cost-effective independent living skills-training for older adults dealing with vision loss so that they can continue to live independently in their own homes at an average cost of $1,350 per person; thus, saving the State of Maine tens of thousands of dollars for each client for whom long-term nursing care is delayed or avoided. 

In closing, I urge you to appropriate $140,000 of new general fund resources in the FY2014-15 biennial budget in order to fund both the TVI position, and the VRT position in Aroostook and Washington counties.  Loss of the VRT position (which was only filled in January of 2013) would be a dramatic step backward.  As the Resolve Report demonstrates, cutting this VRT position would result in a shortage of vision rehabilitation services in northern and eastern Maine - where these services are critically needed in order that residents who are visually impaired or blind are to have a chance of living independently, obtaining employment and becoming productive taxpayers. 

I want to thank the members of both the A.F.A and the L.C.R.E.D. Committees for their time and for the opportunity to present this testimony.  I would be pleased to answer questions any of you may have now, or in follow-up communications.  I can be reached by phone at (207) 712-9224, or via email at jphipps@theiris.org

Respectfully submitted, 

James E. Phipps, MBA/JD
President & Executive Director 

cc:        John M. McMahon, Director, Maine DOL BRS DBVI
            Carolyn R. Lockwood, Director, Maine DOL BRS
            Jeanne Paquette, Commissioner of Labor

 
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