Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wyoming legislators fail another moral test

"The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. " Hubert Humphrey said that. If so, the Wyoming legislature has failed the test.

That haunting description, “those who are in the shadows of life,” refers most poignantly and painfully to our neighbors with developmental disabilities, and those who love and care for them. The shadows of life are places occupied by people who have no voice, no political access, people whose goals and aspirations are subjected to the whims and values of the agenda of politicians.

The shadows of life are places legislators seldom visit. Instead they rely on reports, fiscal statements, statistics, and notions. To most lawmakers, the people who live in those shadows are little but the subjects of handwringing taunts about the costs of government.

For years legislators have ignored the needs of people with developmental disabilities who have languished without services on lengthy wait lists. Legislators have allowed the wait list to grow from 68 in 2003 to more than 650 today. The legislature, by and large, has viewed this as a cost control problem, not as the human struggle it is for the disabled and their families.

This year, the legislature came up with one of its quintessential solutions. They passed a bill with the proclaimed objective of optimizing “the services provided to current clients and to extend appropriate services to persons currently on waiting lists for waiver services.” Then they added words that clearly reflect their values, i.e. “ within the current budget.”

Don’t blame the Wyoming Department of Health. It’s doing the best it can to implement a bad law. They’ve been ordered to serve current clients as well as those on the wait list without any additional funding. In other words, the legislature wants current developmentally disabled clients to receive fewer services than they need so that those on the wait list can receive fewer services than they need.

This injustice is not the result of a budget crisis.

The annual cost of eliminating the entire wait list is 24 million dollars. The federal government picks up half of that tab. The state’s share is, therefore, about one-quarter of the 47 million dollars these same state legislators squandered by their ill-advised failure to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. This is also the same legislature that irrationally continues to sock away hundreds of millions of tax-collected dollars in reserve funds with no defined purpose. Additionally, Wyoming’s general fund revenues are on pace to exceed projections for 2013 by approximately $300 million.

Wyoming’s legislators are not making these choices out of a desperate need to address severe budget deficits, as are lawmakers in many states. Wyoming has the money to serve these families but its legislators don’t have the interest. The Department of Health deserves kudos for making the best of the hand dealt them by the legislature. They’ve worked hard to get stakeholder input and to redesign the program within the legislative constraints.

But face the facts. The Wyoming legislature has made a values decision. It values cost cutting more than it values the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our state. They are hoping those folks remain in the shadows. I am hoping they don’t.

The developmentally disabled, their families and advocates should flood the Capitol Building. They should occupy the rotunda of the building, filling it with the faces of the people who will suffer the impact of the choice the legislature made. These politicians don’t want to come face-to-face with their choices.  They are counting on you remaining in the shadows, fearful and voiceless. Don’t let them get away that easy.

Perhaps Hubert Humphrey should have said, "The moral test of a people is how we all speak up for those who are in the shadows of life.”

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