- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

RICHMOND — Jennifer Peers said yesterday state services for her mentally retarded 6-year-old daughter have been a lifesaver, allowing her to spend more time with her other two girls and her husband.

But other families haven’t been as fortunate, she told legislators at the last of five public hearings on Gov. Mark Warner’s proposed two-year, $59 billion state budget.

The General Assembly Building meeting room was packed with advocates for the disabled, including many parents accompanied by children in wheelchairs.

“All of these families here today are suffering,” Mrs. Peers said. “Save their families like you saved mine. This is not a Third World country, this is the United States of America.”

The Chesterfield County woman said the state has been providing respite care and other services since her disabled daughter was 18 months old. She attended the hearing by the General Assembly’s money committees to advocate for others who still are awaiting services, such as Barbara Ledford and her 8-year-old autistic son, Carter, of Henrico County.

“Carter is currently falling through the cracks,” Mrs. Ledford told the committees. “We need help, and unfortunately, we aren’t going away.”

Carter is one of more than 500 people on a waiting list for services, including speech and occupational therapy, for developmentally disabled Virginians.

“We don’t want to institutionalize our children. Help us take care of them at home,” his mother said.

Mrs. Ledford asked the committees to find about $10 million to move 275 people off the waiting list.

Advocates for the disabled made their case to legislators preoccupied with the Democratic governor’s proposal to cut some taxes and raise others to boost state revenues by about $500 million a year. The plan would offset a revenue shortfall, but would not fund any major new initiatives.

Mr. Warner’s proposal already has received a hostile reception from Republicans who oppose any major tax increases. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature, although opposition to Mr. Warner’s plan is stronger in the House than in the more-centrist Senate.

Mrs. Ledford told reporters outside the hearing that Virginians are more amenable to tax increases than the antitax legislators think.

“If they realize it’s going to a good use, to children who desperately need it, they’re sympathetic and willing,” she said.

AARP Virginia endorsed Mr. Warner’s tax plan, distributing a statement at the public hearing saying the additional revenues are essential to “provide accessible, affordable and quality care for deserving families, children and older Virginians.”

More than 170 people signed up to speak at the public hearing. Four hearings were held elsewhere in the state this month.

The House of Delegates and the Senate will pass differing versions of the state budget, and a panel of senior legislators from each chamber will work for a compromise before the assembly’s scheduled March 13 adjournment.

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