Image of Herman Fruber
Herman Gruber

North Carolina Agency Survives Surprise from Legislature

by Herman Gruber

From the Editor: On Tuesday morning, July 21, I was at my desk when the phone rang. It was Wayne Shevlin, Second Vice President of the NFB of North Carolina. His news was dismaying, but all too familiar. The state agency was in deep trouble, and the affiliate was swinging into high gear to rescue it if it could be done. Wayne had already talked to President Maurer and Peggy Elliott, and now he was turning to me for a crash course in media relations and help with writing a press release. Of course I dropped everything to do what I could. The rest of the exciting story appears in the following article written by Herman Gruber, President of the National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina. It was first published in the August, 1998, edition of News and Views, a publication of the NFB of North Carolina. Here it is:

How many times must we go to the brink? The answer is that we will go as long and as often as we need to.

The North Carolina Commission for the Blind first came into existence in 1937, two years after the Social Security Act was passed by Congress. The Commission for the Blind offered quite a comprehensive array of programs. There were Social Service, Medical Eye Care, Business Enterprises, and Rehabilitation programs in a single agency.

The commission functioned as a stand-alone agency until 1972 when the state government reform act was passed. Then it was encompassed by the umbrella department known as the Department of Human Resources. It goes without saying that the layers of bureaucracy now grew and the number of bases to be touched multiplied. None of this did anything good for consumers nor for those who had the responsibility of administering and directing the programs. Still it was much better than being a part of some division whose mission was generic.

In 1989 the Governor Morehead School became part of what was now the Division of Services for the Blind. The addition of the school further expanded the comprehensiveness of services available from a single agency. In some ways this was unique in that it now offered a network of services that ranged from infancy through adulthood.

As has been the experience in so many other states with a specialized agency serving the blind, periodically it is necessary to defend the existence of a separate agency. When new governors and new legislatures arrive and bring with them their efficiency studies and their re-organization studies, sometimes, seemingly for no reason at all, it has been necessary to fight to maintain our specialized status.

Fortunately we have always been able to withstand the challenge. As long as our resolve is there and we are willing to put mind and effort to it, perhaps we can continue to survive. We can be sure that survival will not come automatically. It will come only as long as we are determined it should and we are willing and have the collective will to defend it.

Our latest challenge began in December, 1996, when the

General Assembly authorized the Peat Marwick firm to conduct a

re-organization study of state government. When it was done and

the recommendations were made, there were the usual suggestions and outright recommendations for merger. Fortunately the General Assembly did not mandate the implementation of all these recommendations. However, it did recommend that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) study the Marwick report and implement any changes that the department deemed appropriate. Once more we should have recognized that our wake-up call had come.

Beginning in the spring of this year rumors began to circulate that the Division of Services for the Blind, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, and the Division of Deaf and Hard of Hearing would be merged into a single division. During a conference with some other consumers on June 16, I asked Mr. Peter Leosis, who is Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services and is supervisor of the Division of Services for the Blind in the department, if there were plans to merge DSB with other divisions such as Vocational Rehabilitation and the Deaf. The answer was that he had no plans to merge. We hoped merger would now be a dead issue.

Only one month later to the day, on July 16 at a sub-committee Budget meeting, Representative Charlotte Gardner, one of the sub-committee's three co-chairs, unexpectedly introduced a special legislative provision to merge the Division of Services for the Blind, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing into the Division of Disabilities. The Special Provision was also co-signed by the remaining two chairs, Representatives Cansler and Clary. The blindness community certainly was not consulted, nor was there even token inquiry, so far as we can tell.

Since the special provision was entered at the eleventh hour of the committee's budget considerations, it would appear that they recognized there would be strong opposition, and they hoped the last-minute introduction of the bill would minimize any possible response. As usual, they underestimated the National Federation of the Blind. They didn't appreciate how fast we could put a plan in place and rally the forces—or did they?

Immediately the wheels started turning. As soon as I received a call informing me of the events of the sixteenth, I set out to discover the next step in the budget process, which turned out to be for the special provision merger to go to the full Budget Committee of the House of Representatives on the twentieth. We alerted our members and urged them to contact members of the Budget Committee and try to persuade them to vote against the special provision.

When the full committee met, I was there along with my wife Penny and our legislative chairman and Second Vice President, Wayne Shevlin. It was not long till we learned we would not be allowed to speak. Representative George Holmes, who was presiding, announced that no statement by members of the public would be allowed. This closed one avenue we had hoped would be open to us. It did not sound promising, but we determined to stay until the end. We did. When the full committee finished its deliberations and passed its budget bill, the special provision was still alive. Based on comments during the hearing, I had the distinct feeling that not all proposed amendments to the Human Health Services budget had been heard when discussion on this budget was closed at 11:00 p.m. We were resolved that we would still find a way to be heard. We were not finished yet.

In the meantime various people in this affiliate had talked with President Marc Maurer, Jim Gashel, Peggy Elliott, and Barbara Pierce. Though they were miles away, they really were ever so close. We were sure our national leaders were supporting us in every way, including their presence if necessary.

In consultation with our leadership, we planned our strategy. It would be necessary to call our plight to the attention of the public and the press and initiate personal contact with members of the conference committee charged with resolving differences between the budgets passed by the House and Senate. Fortunately the Senate budget did not include the merger provision in the House budget.

During the following days many Federationists along with friends gave many hours of serious devotion and dedication to taking our fight to the members of the General Assembly. One of the real strengths that emerged from this crisis was the way in which so many made calls, contacts, and visits, led by Federationists such as First Vice President Hazel Staley, Second Vice President Wayne Shevlin, and chapter presidents. These actions were critical to the successful outcome. These challenges can often bring our strengths to the fore. I assure you this one did.

Although North Carolina has previously faced threats of consolidation, those earlier threats were administrative and were not an act of our elected officials. The process had never gone this far before.

We began planning a small rally for Thursday, July 23, outside the capitol to hand out flyers and attract media attention for a larger gathering planned for Thursday, July 30. In the meantime we were busy contacting members of the legislature who were likely to be on the Conference Committee. Incidentally, we felt we were making good progress with some of the Senators who were likely to be on that critically important committee.

The unexpected and devastating news of the special provision had come on July 16. Then with equal suddenness on July 23 came the victorious news that the special provision had been deleted on the floor of the House during the previous evening's deliberations and subsequent actions. So much had transpired in seven long, arduous days.

Why did it happen? A number of factors figured in the final equation. Federationists all across the state were rising to the occasion. Not only were we coming to the battle, but it seemed that other blind people, and those interested in the blind, were joining the crusade in unprecedented numbers. It was heartening to see that interested people from all corners of the blindness community were ready to join the fight. We had organized our campaign, notifying the security force that we planned to demonstrate, calling the press to tell them what was happening, then beginning to circulate a press release. It was clear to everyone paying attention to the situation that we intended to use every resource at our disposal, and I don't believe anybody doubted our determination.

Our many attempts to convince our representatives were coming to full fruition. Representative Martha Alexander, with whom we had discussed the crisis and who had previously served on the Consumer and Advocate Advisory Committee for the Blind, opposed the special provision on the floor and was successful in having it deleted. Though the vote was close, fifty-seven to fifty-five, the victory was still sweet and one to be savored. The day the emergency ended we were flooded with emotions. First we were grateful. Then we remembered how quickly the whole thing had arisen in the first place. Our experience is a grim reminder that what happens once can happen again. But we will not be denied the joy of victory.

We must remain watchful, and we must be ever ready and prepared to do what we have to do. Perhaps some victories are not finally won but must be won again and again.

We must thank those in the General Assembly who helped us by their vote. We must thank our national leadership who stood by us with more than words. We must thank every person who made a telephone call, sent a fax, spoke a word, or wrote a letter. It may well be that without any one of these components the victory would not have been ours. But we all did our part, and for the moment the danger of having our state agency swallowed whole and our services diluted has been averted.