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COLA bill needed

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008

To the Editor:

Hubert H. Humphrey said, "The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped."

By that measure, Pennsylvania is failing the moral test. The clock is ticking on a serious issue facing 24,000 Pennsylvanians with mental retardation. It's an issue that, sadly, the press and politicians have overlooked.

Time and money are running out for people who depend on the commonwealth's mental health and mental retardation system. For decades, our state government failed to adequately fund the system, which relies almost exclusively on public sector resources. A small funding uptick last year was not enough to deter the system's current fiscal crisis.

What's needed are annual state-funded cost-of-living adjustments to offset inflation, but these have been rare. This year's proposed state budget is par for the course, with no COLA for community-based mental retardation services.

Quality of care for citizens -- our neighbors -- with mental disabilities is already suffering as a result of underfunding. It will worsen greatly unless a COLA bill is passed. Ask any parent or guardian caring for a mentally retarded person.

It appears just one politician cares about this matter: Republican State Representative George Kenney. He recently introduced legislation that would require a COLA be proposed in the state budget every year. All state representatives have been asked to cosponsor.

So far only about 50 state representatives have signed on, around one-quarter of the legislature. A similar bill passed in late 2006, only to be vetoed by Governor Rendell. Now Rep. Kenney is trying again. But without more representatives signing on, the legislative leaders will likely be unwilling to push a bill unpopular with the Governor.

I am asking all of your readers to please take a stand for their neighbors who live with disabilities, and urge their representatives to make people with intellectual disabilities a budget priority in 2008, and to pass COLA legislation this session.

They can also call the Governor's Office at (717) 787-2500, and urge Gov. Rendell to support COLA legislation. Readers can also visit our Web site for more information on the challenges people with mental disabilities increasingly face in Pennsylvania. It's at www.marcpa.org.

Paul Stengle

Executive Director of the Arc of Montgomery County

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