As legislative budget committees meet this week to consider how to respond to a projected $1.2 billion shortfall in revenue due to COVID-19, we urge them to remember the state will probably get about that much in aid from the federal government. Therefore, we strongly encourage them not to give up too quickly on the progress they’re likely to see as a result of some of their actions during the most recent general session.
Legislators re-envisioned the community mental health system to ensure persons leaving inpatient care are less likely to return. They included specialized services and housing supports to ease the transition from the Utah State Hospital. They’re building more urban receiving centers so police can take individuals to treatment rather than jail. They’re also adding mobile crisis teams to make it more likely those living off the Wasatch Front can remain at home.
Similarly, they put more resources toward delaying or preventing the need for institutional care of Utahns with disabilities. In addition to continued funding of those already receiving services, they created a program which will offer 100 or more families behavior intervention training, technological assistance, and other supports needed to keep a family member home for as long as possible.
Moreover, they recognized the necessity of recruiting and sufficiently paying qualified staff to support individuals and families. They saw the value of an investment in supported employment. They increased the transportation rate for community providers so individuals can be more active members of their broader communities. Lastly, they offered an incentive to nursing home-like facilities to improve the quality of life for their residents who choose to remain.
Finally, even though they didn’t include rental assistance or specifically target extremely low-income residents, we’re happy legislators began tackling Utah’s affordable housing shortage by allocating money to jumpstart new construction. Likewise, we’re pleased at least a few kids can keep their health insurance for up to 12 months if a parent is offered a couple more hours at work or a job that pays a bit better and no longer qualifies for Medicaid.
Unfortunately, legislative leaders have put these and other positive steps in jeopardy by asking the budget committees to not only imagine what it looks like to wipe away these gains, but to start over after cutting 2%, 5% and 10% from the previous year’s budget.
Draconian exercises such as this will hurt vulnerable Utahns. They’re also unnecessary. Last week, the head of the Legislature’s budget office told lawmakers that, instead of paying cash, the state could issue more bonds to finance building or road projects, and reminded them they have several restricted, reserve and rainy-day accounts they can tap. If that’s not enough, they can consider re-distributing the $6 million in taxpayer dollars they’re giving families earning up to almost $71,000 a year who choose private school for their student with a disability.
The heat of the moment is the wrong time to be making consequential and long-lasting decisions such as these. We don't know how long the crisis will last. We don't know what or how much we’ll need. We don't know how much money is or may be coming our way. Instead, we should use what we get and take advantage of the tools we already have. If we need to do more in the future, we can.
If our leaders don't move calmly and deliberately now, we risk wasting the once-in-a-lifetime chance for meaningful systems change which was on the horizon only two short months ago.
Adina Zahradnikova is executive director of the Disability Law Center. Matt Wappett is executive director of the Utah State University Center for Persons with Disabilities. Rob Wesemann is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness - Utah. Andy Curry is executive director of Roads to Independence. Karolyn Campbell is executive director of the Disabled Rights Action Committee. Gina Pola-Money is chair of the Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities