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Legislator Wreaks Havoc Trying to Write Off Rehabilitation Programs for the Blind
by Parnell Diggs
From the Editor: Parnell Diggs is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. Across the country in recent years blind people have been fighting to preserve whatever autonomy they have achieved for their state agency programs. South Carolina's blind citizens are no exception. Every time South Carolinians turn around it seems that someone, usually a legislator named Rex Rice, is sharpening his knife in the hope of cutting services to the blind down to the size and quality he apparently thinks blind people deserve. In the following article, Parnell Diggs reports on Mr. Rice's latest efforts and the response of the NFB of South Carolina. This is what he says:
Early in the 2002 state legislative session, Representative Rex Rice of Easley, South Carolina, was gathering his resources for his third attempt in as many years to eradicate the South Carolina Commission for the Blind, which would certainly diminish the quality of life of blind South Carolinians.
Representative Rice proposed re-establishing set-asides in 1999--thirty-five years after they had been abolished in South Carolina. In March of 2001, as the General Assembly considered across-the-board budget cuts, Rice wanted to slash the Commission for the Blind budget by 17 percent, while much smaller cuts were proposed to other agencies.
Under Rice's plan the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs would have received a 3 percent cut. The average budget cut for South Carolina state agencies (including the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation) was approximately 10 percent in 2001.
The Commission for the Blind received a 9.8 percent cut after the NFB of South Carolina intervened, handing Rice his second legislative defeat in as many tries. Then in October of 2001 we learned that the State Legislative Audit Council was auditing the Commission's Business Enterprise Program.
Heading the five-member legislative contingent requesting the audit was none other than Representative Rex Rice. Officials of the Legislative Audit Council assured us that the scope of the audit was limited to the Business Enterprise Program--not that we believed those protestations for a minute.
I received a letter from the Legislative Audit Council in December with the news that (just as we had suspected) the scope of the audit would extend to the very survival of the Commission itself. Based on the comments of consumers and other interested people, the auditors claimed, the audit would attempt to accomplish five objectives.
One of these was to "examine the advantages and disadvantages of combining the Commission with another agency." The auditors would complete their fieldwork by February of 2002, and a preliminary report would be forthcoming in April. If anything was ever a foregone conclusion, the results of the audit of the Commission's Business Enterprise Program was it. We knew the auditors would recommend that the Commission for the Blind be placed under the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, I met with the auditors in mid-December and tried to impress upon them the importance of maintaining a separate agency for the blind. The auditors thanked me for my comments, told me they would contact me if they needed additional information, and continued with their plans to recommend that the Commission be eliminated to save administrative costs.
With the arrival of January came the beginning of the 2002 legislative session. The NFB of South Carolina hosted its annual Legislative Appreciation Reception on January 23 with sixty-five of the hundred-seventy legislators attending. In a ten-minute presentation we made it clear that programs for the blind are more effective when administered by a separate, autonomous agency.
On the morning of February 13, we learned that a Ways and Means subcommittee would be meeting later that day to discuss the need to implement cost-cutting measures for the second consecutive fiscal year. Participating substantially in the deliberations of that subcommittee was none other than the Honorable Rex Rice.
Rice had enlisted the support of the Subcommittee Chairman, who also happened to be the House Majority Leader, Representative Rick Quinn of Columbia. Quinn believed that doing away with the Commission in the name of cutting costs made sense; and besides, to hear Quinn tell it, our objections were futile.
When the appropriations bill was reported out to the House floor, we discovered that the Ways and Means Committee had moved the entire Commission for the Blind line item to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation without allowing comment from the blind community. Clearly Rice had decided not to wait for the audit recommendations. With the stroke of a pen he intended to eradicate separate programs for the blind in the state. Soon the House would be debating the appropriations bill, and the Commission would be left out.
We knew that the House would be taking up the appropriations bill on March 12, which gave us a mere two weeks to turn the tide. We took our message to the public, first with a February 21 press conference on the Statehouse steps, and on February 22 a half-page advertisement in one of the state's leading newspapers. Blind South Carolinians chipped in $2,500 to cover the cost of the ad informing readers that the Ways and Means Committee had disenfranchised blind citizens in taking unilateral action to put the Commission for the Blind out of business for lack of funding.
On Saturday, February 23, I presided over a strategy session of chapter leaders from across the state. We each agreed to contact specific legislators by March 12 and to be present in the House gallery at various times during the debate of the appropriations bill. Representative Quinn said that he wasn't swayed by the newspaper ad or by our lobbying efforts, but he and Rice met twice with NFB of South Carolina officials before the budget debate. At the first meeting Quinn presented a draft of a bill that he called "enabling legislation" to coincide with the appropriations bill.
This legislation would have established an agency called the Commission for the Blind under the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. He had taken the statute which created the Commission in 1966; and wherever it mentioned the "Commission for the Blind," Quinn simply inserted the words, "the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation."
On March 5 we met with Representatives Rice and Quinn for a second round of talks. Rice had been prodding Quinn for a week to introduce his commission bill, but by the end of the March 5 meeting, Quinn had agreed to back an amendment on the House floor replacing the Commission line item in the appropriations bill.
Blind South Carolinians took their seats in the House gallery (white canes extended) on March 12 in support of the Commission for the Blind. The irony of the Majority Leader and Rex Rice having to convince inquiring legislators on the House floor that the Federation really did now support the Commission amendment was amusing to observers in the gallery.
By the end of the day the House had restored funding to the Commission for the Blind, and it was clear that the Commission would not be folded into the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. Programs for the blind would remain separate and autonomous in South Carolina without losing a penny of client services funding.
Sadly, however, Rice's support of the Quinn amendment was not the result of a change of heart. On the contrary, he continued his assault on state programs for the blind until the end of the 2002 legislative session. On April 11 Representatives Quinn and Rice introduced H. 5118, a bill to combine certain administrative functions of the Commission for the Blind with those of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and to eliminate the position of Commissioner. The Governing Board would still exist, but it would not have the authority to hire a Commissioner. The Commission would still exist, but there would be no one to run it. We believe that Rice conceived of this legislation as a step toward abolishing separate programs for the blind.
In late April we learned that the Legislative Audit Council was conducting a second audit at the request of Representative Rice. This one would be so broad that it would include the eight state agencies within the jurisdiction of Quinn's subcommittee and would explore the feasibility of combining all of these agencies. One of these just happened to be the Commission for the Blind. So in the final weeks of the 2002 legislative session the Legislative Audit Council was conducting two audits at the same time involving the Commission for the Blind.
At this writing H. 5118 is pending in a Ways and Means subcommittee, but it has little chance of becoming law this year. We believe that the Commission for the Blind is safe at least until January of 2003 when the next legislative session begins, but at that time we think that, fueled by the results of two legislative audits, Rice will renew his assault on programs for the blind.
In the meantime chalk up another victory for the National Federation of the Blind in the continuing struggle to maintain separate state programs for the blind. The struggle began in 1993, when some legislators wanted to make the Commission for the Blind part of the Department of Mental Retardation (if you can believe it), and unfortunately there is no end in sight.
The wisdom of creating the Commission for the Blind in 1966 did not become foolishness during the following decades. It was right in 1966, and it is right in 2002 to have separate state programs for the blind. We opposed efforts to eliminate separate programs for the blind in 2002, and we will do so come January 2003 and beyond if necessary.
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