Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Budget shortfall may force deep cuts in Tenn.

Disability, children's services brace for funding drop By Chas Sisk • THE TENNESSEAN • May 26, 2009 Raising a child with autism is difficult. Diane Lara is raising two. Heavy lifting, trips to the doctor and sleeplessness — insomnia is frequent in children like hers — are a few of the challenges Lara deals with daily. She relies on the help of caretaking assistants the state provides. But with government leaders in Nashville looking at further cuts, Lara might be dealing with more of those challenges alone. "I'm scared," the Shelbyville mother said last week. "I hate to say it because I'm luckier than some people, but I can't imagine how much more tired I would be having to deal with the two of them all by myself." As the recession continues to drag on, Tennessee's mental disability services and many other departments are bracing for another hit. Two months after declaring that the federal stimulus plan had saved the state from taking drastic measures to balance the budget, state officials now say hiring freezes, layoffs and deep cuts may be needed after all to deal with a sharp decline in tax receipts. The shortfall will force the state to draw deep from the financial reserves that it built up earlier in this decade, officials say. But it also will mean speeding up cuts — possibly even to programs such as mental health, mental disability and children's services — that officials had hoped to phase in gradually over the next few years. "We had to propose reductions, a lot of reductions, in order to make this budget work," said David Goetz, the state's finance commissioner. "Under any circumstance, it's a very, very difficult budget." Services may be slashed The cuts could mean sharp reductions to services like the state-paid personal assistants who help Lara take care of her 17-year-old daughter, Megan, and her 10-year-old son, Nickolas. Both Megan and Nickolas have autism that results in severe learning disabilities. Megan also has a seizure disorder, and Nickolas has cerebral palsy. Lara works part-time as a bus aide, and her husband, from whom she is separated, provides financial support.

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