Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Very Last Palin Post (I Promise)

If you really believe Sara Palin is a friend to people with disabilities, you may want to read this. From the Anchorage Press...

Sarah and the kids
By Brendan Joel Kelley

Just moments before 7-year-old Piper Palin endeared herself to the nation by spit-grooming her 4-month-old brother Trig’s hair, Governor Sarah Palin mentioned Trig in her speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president on Senator John McCain’s ticket. Specifically, she referred to the fact that Trig was born with Down syndrome.

“Children with special needs inspire a special love. To the families of special needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters,” Palin said.

“I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.”

It sounded fantastic, and rang true coming from the mother of a child with a disability.

But the declaration was a revelation to some legislators who’ve worked with Governor Palin for the last 21 months.

“I can tell you she wasn’t a champion for disabled children as governor,” says state Senator Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage). “I was surprised to hear her say that in her speech.”

The state of Alaska has what’s called a “Developmental Disabilities Waiting List,” a list of individuals whose needs qualify them for assistance, but that the state doesn’t have adequate funding to help. At the time of the most recent report, issued in December 2007, the list had 943 individuals on it. The report estimates that it would cost nearly $45 million to provide the services those on the waiting list need. Estimates vary, but most place the state’s budget surplus at about $5 billion.

“The state has a very average—very inadequate—policy for families with disabilities,” says Representative Les Gara (D-Anchorage). “Average because lots of states have rotten policies towards families with disabilities. One of the very embarrassing things we have in the state is the ‘Developmental Disabilities Waiting List.’ I think we’re taking about 200 people a year off the waiting list, but we get 120 entrants a year. It’s an embarrassment; it’s politics as usual.”

Jim Beck, the executive director of Access Alaska, a non-profit organization that advocates for people with disabilities and provides them with independent living services, isn’t as harsh on the governor, but says, “she’s never elucidated a health care plan or vision or any kind of connection to the disability community.”

“We’re really suffering from not having a big plan,” Beck says. “It’s not as though we’re stagnant, we just don’t have the big vision.”

In other words, exactly the sort of thing a strong leader in the executive branch could provide.

Part of that is, as Gara said, is simply politics as usual. Funding for projects like eliminating the “Developmental Disabilities Waiting List” isn’t generally a Republican priority; it’s the sort of social program you’d expect Democrats to push through.

But if Palin’s pledge to be a “friend and advocate” to children with disabilities in a McCain White House doesn’t extend to advocating for better funding, critics ask, what exactly does it mean?

“It would take $44 million to provide services to everybody on that list, and it would take a policy initiative. If the McCain camp is going to take the position that they’re going to be the presidential administration to go to when you have a family with a disabilities program—like was said—I’m glad they’re going to be the go-to people tomorrow, but they weren’t the go-to people yesterday,” says Gara.

“It would be fair for Governor Palin to come and say we don’t do that much worse than other places. But it wouldn’t be fair for the McCain camp to write a speech for her and say they’re going to become the disabilities president and vice president when they’ve never done that before. I’m not blaming anybody for not doing it, but I am saying that you can’t make that a hallmark of your campaign if you haven’t done it yet.”

In some instances dealing with family health and education issues, Governor Palin has refused to get behind the recommendations of her own task forces.

In mid-2007, Senator Wielechowski and Representative Gara told the Governor’s office that they were holding a press conference the next day to announce a bill that would provide health coverage for all uninsured Alaska children.

The next morning, the Governor’s office pre-empted their press conference with one of its own, announcing the formation of a task force to study the issue of health care for Alaskans.

The plan Senator Wielechowski and Representative Gara proposed was ambitious—it created a system of universal health care for Alaskan children, with a sliding fee scale for working families who earned too much money to qualify for Denali KidCare—the existing state-run insurance program for children in low-income families. The federal government pays roughly 70 percent of the cost of insuring children in Alaska, but at the moment, the state ranks 48th in providing health care coverage to children. With Denali KidCare, the state provides health coverage for free to families that earn up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level. The new proposal suggested raising that level to 200 percent, the minimum level that 39 other states have adopted.

As you’d expect, the idea of “universal health care”—even for children—was anathema to the Republicans.

But the governor’s own task force issued a report in December of 2007 suggesting that the eligibility criteria be raised from 175 percent of the poverty level to 200 percent.

“We really couldn’t get much traction on [the universal health care for children bill],” Sen. Wielechowski says. “So we scaled it way, way down to the point where we were trying to get 200 percent of the poverty level.”

Wielechowski proposed raising that level this past session with Senate Bill 212, but the governor’s office emailed him that the administration was staying neutral on the matter.

Health care advocates and lobbyists pushed hard for the bill’s passage down in Juneau, throwing a rally and getting supporters to deluge the governor’s office with phone calls—one advocate even cornered the governor in the elevator to try to solicit her support.

“We were down to the last couple days,” Wielechowski says, “and I said to one of her staffers, ‘if the governor got behind this we could pass this bill, you guys could be the hero, you can come out, you can declare victory, she can get all the credit for it.’ And there was just no interest at all.”

The Senate passed the bill, but SB 212 was stuck in the House Rules committee when the session ended, and the eligibility threshold for coverage under Denali KidCare remains at 175 percent of the poverty level.

This past session, a coalition of Democratic legislators introduced House Bill 306, which would institute a voluntary statewide pre-Kindergarten early learning program. Alaska is one of only ten states that doesn’t provide state funded preschool for children statewide.

HB 306 died as well, as did Sen. Wielechowski’s Senate Concurrent Resolution 19, which was simply a nonbinding resolution acknowledging the need for a statewide early childhood learning system.

In December of 2006, a task force convened by Governor Frank Murkowski issued a report outlining recommendations for an effective early learning program to combat the state’s miserable graduation and college attendance rates.

In December 2007, there was a two-day Governor’s Summit on Early Learning, and in March 2008, Abbe Hensley, executive director of Best Beginnings, the public-private partnership that grew out of the early learning task force, presented Governor Palin with the findings.

Hensley isn’t as critical of the governor’s administration on early learning programs as the legislators are, but she says, “I appreciate their impatience.”

“There is movement on all of these recommendations in some way or another,” Hensley says. “One of the benefits to being one of the last states to take up this issue is that we can learn from everyone else’s mistakes and try not to repeat them.”

Hensley also points to an additional $600,000 in funding for the Head Start program and an increase in the childcare reimbursement rate, from 25 percent of market value to 50 percent, as milestones on the way to fully implementing the task forces recommendations, and she says, “both the commissioners of Education and Early Development and Health and Social Services continue to assure us early childhood issues are high on their priority lists.”

“At some point, shouldn’t you sit down and say, if we can save 10 million bucks here and 10 million bucks there on things you don’t really need, some of these bells and whistles, you could change the world by redirecting that money,” Gara says. “I could write a budget that changes this state for the better, that uplifts people, that costs no more than what the budget is now, but just redirects the money.”

“I think [Governor Palin] believes in the Republican ethic, which is that there’s very little role for government to go out and help people get access to opportunity.”

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