Parents, nonprofits tell lawmakers budget cuts will hinder services

CARSON CITY -- Lawmakers heard tearful testimony Thursday from parents of autistic children, developmentally disabled people fearful of being institutionalized, and mental health service providers who say their budgets are stretched to the breaking point.

The parade of witnesses before a budget committee of senators and Assembly members included several autistic children who played with toys, wandered distractedly toward the lawmakers and submitted their own touching testimony to show the value of state services for autistic kids.

"I can now talk ... I can now read," said Tyler Richard, 10, of Reno, whose mother, Toni Richard, said that 18 months ago Tyler knew just two words.

"It works as long as I can get them the therapy they need now," Toni Richard said of state-supported care for Tyler and another autistic son.

Others concerned about proposed cuts to mental health budgets in Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed $5.8 billion general fund budget included officials from the private sector, nonprofit service providers like Opportunity Village in Las Vegas, Easter Seals of Southern Nevada and High Sierra Industries of Reno.

"We've tried the best we could to fill the gap with private donations," said Ed Guthrie, executive director of Opportunity Village, which helps developmentally disabled people find jobs. "But there are still people waiting at home, waiting for services."

Harold Cook, administrator of the state's Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services, said the cuts were necessary in order to meet a budget target of about $617 million in spending for 2011-13, a cut of about 9 percent from spending during the previous two years.

The target is part of Sandoval's larger campaign promise to balance the state budget without raising taxes, which requires about a 6.4 percent cut in overall spending from the general fund.

"The budget you see before you ... meets that target," Cook told the panel of legislators.

Democratic legislators, who have criticized Sandoval's budget for several weeks, but haven't offered solutions of their own, lamented the cuts and remarked on the challenges facing parents and others who came before them to tell their stories.

"This is devastating," said Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. "Let's finish this budget because I think I'm going to cry."

Although Sandoval's cuts were the focus of the subcommittee meeting, chaired by Leslie, service providers afterward said proposals from Democratic lawmakers who hold the majority could also hinder services to the disabled in the upcoming two years.

Assembly Bill 242, sponsored by Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D- North Las Vegas, and announced earlier this week with support from Democratic leaders, would add new accounting requirements for nonprofits in the name of spending reform.

But at least two service providers said after the hearing they already spend tens of thousands of dollars on audits and reports and they fear the bill, if enacted, could force them to spend money on paperwork that could go to providing services.

"That is something a lot of people, maybe even legislators, don't fully understand the amount of layers (of accountability) nonprofits have," said Brian Patchett, president and CEO of Easter Seals of Southern Nevada.

Cook said afterward that cuts to programs like those run by Easter Seals, High Sierra Industries and Opportunity Village might actually cost state taxpayers more in the long run.

That's because those nonprofits help developmentally disabled people live independently by providing support for them to find and hold jobs, live in their own apartments and manage their daily lives.

Without such support the clients mighty wind up in institutions, jails, emergency rooms or homeless shelters, he said.

Review-Journal writer Lynnette Curtis contributed to this report. Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.