The Braille Monitor                                                                                       June 2003

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Another Victory in South Carolina: Commission Survives Despite the Press

From the Editor: The following vindictive little editorial appeared in the State newspaper in South Carolina on Thursday, March 27, 2003. For well over a year the organized blind have been engaged in a political fight to the death in the state legislature to protect the separate agency serving blind South Carolinians. In August of 2002 the affiliate was driven to place two large paid advertisements in the paper to counteract editorial attacks by the State on the commission, its programs, and its supporters, particularly the NFB.

Since then Federationists have been taking every opportunity they could make for themselves to explain to legislators the importance to blind people of disability-specific rehabilitation services. They cited studies showing that successful rehabilitations of blind consumers as measured by good jobs occur much more often when rehab services are provided by counselors in separate agencies. They told horror stories about inadequate, inappropriate, or nonexistent services provided in states where vocational rehabilitation services for the blind have been merged into larger agencies.

According to Don Capps, past president of the NFB of South Carolina, "This spectacular legislative victory was due to the excellent work of the NFB of South Carolina, the effective and logical arguments made by constituents around the state, and the validity of the case for a separate agency." On March 18 the House Ways and Means Committee voted to exclude the commission from a bill proposing departmental reorganizations throughout state government. Following that fifteen-to-seven vote, commission director Nell Carney characterized the committee's action as a "stunning victory" for blind citizens.

For the third time in ten years the NFB of South Carolina has successfully gone to the barricades to fight for its commission. Let us hope that the opponents of this concept of productive service delivery will now leave the blind in peace to get on with effective vocational rehabilitation. The following editorial reported this amazing upset in terms that can only be characterized as sour grapes:

You'll Never Manage Government
If Each Agency Must Have a Single Task

by Cindi Ross Scoppe

No one with a passing familiarity with the way things work in state government could have been surprised last week when the single item that the Ways and Means Committee rejected in a wide‑ranging bill to overhaul the state's health‑service agencies was the proposal to merge the Commission for the Blind into the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

It's hardly the first time legislators have crumbled in the face of opposition to the completely sound idea that efficiency and accountability demand a more manageable number of state agencies and that this is one of the agencies that needn't stand alone. The fight to preserve this tiny agency's independence was, after all, the most emotional and draining in the entire debate a decade ago over restructuring state government.

What was astonishing was the argument that won the day this time‑‑and how easily it won.

While a few completely irrelevant ideas were thrown in (my favorite, from Representative Bill Clyburn: "We should let them remain a stand‑alone agency, simply because they want it to be . . . . I think we owe it to them to let them remain independent and do their thing"), the overarching argument was that the Commission for the Blind offers some services that are not offered by Vocational Rehabilitation.

You can stop waiting for the rest of the argument. That's it. Seriously.

Rep. Jim McGee proposed the cave‑in by telling about an employee in his law firm who is blind and recounting how the commission's services had taught this employee "life skills," as opposed to simply job skills. "If you put this under [the Department of] Vocational Rehabilitation, they're going to be doing a lot more than vocational rehabilitation," he said.

Someone made the point that Vocational Rehabilitation does a good job, and he wouldn't want to upset that balance. I didn't bother taking notes on these extensions, because never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that this argument would sway anyone's vote.

The problem is that, once you buy into this argument, you will never consolidate state agencies, which we need to do even more than we need to give the governor control of agencies. If you could combine two agencies without expanding the scope of the accepting agency, that would mean one of them was completely redundant to begin with.

Once you buy the argument that agencies cannot be expected to do more than one thing, the logical course of action is to actually increase the obscene number of state agencies we already have. Saying you shouldn't ask a Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to take in the Commission for the Blind and handle its work because the two agencies don't do exactly the same things is like saying every single program administered by the Department of Health and Environmental Control should be a freestanding state agency.

The main problem with the restructuring proposals in this bill was that they didn't go far enough. Not by a long shot. And that was before the committee killed one of the two agency consolidations. (The other, which puts the state office of the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services under the Department of Health and Human Services, survived primarily because it doesn't affect the local drug abuse agencies.) And in return for eliminating one stand‑alone agency, the bill creates a whole new one.

Yet despite the fact that this legislation does absolutely nothing to reduce the unmanageable number of executive agencies--at least eighty-four, although nobody seems able to agree on the precise number--Rep. McGee actually suggested that, if there were any problems with the way the Commission for the Blind is operating, "the way to address that is through the board, which is appointed by the governor. Give him a chance to do that." Sure. Right after he comes up with a way to balance the budget and gets a handle on the sixty or so other agencies he has some degree of control over.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the debate. Perhaps legislators on the Ways and Means Committee didn't really buy the arguments put forward for leaving the Commission for the Blind alone. Perhaps they, like supporters of the change who didn't even bother bringing the matter back up when the full House passed the bill, simply didn't want to have to deal with the hassle of making the agency's supporters mad. I'll admit I hesitated to put my name on a column about the topic because I know how persistent they can be.

But if that's what drove legislators, isn't it even worse? Isn't it worse to back down from a needed reform because you can't stand having to listen to people who disagree with you than it is to back down because you bought a lame argument? The latter simply means you weren't thinking clearly when you voted. The former means you're afraid to do your job. And if you're afraid of the supporters of the Commission for the Blind, who else are you going to be afraid of? And how can you ever be an effective legislator?

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