Some Neb. caregivers may be in line for raise

AP News
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Posted: Nov 13, 2009 8:04 AM

Nebraska's oft-criticized safety net for people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities may get a small funding increase next year despite Gov. Dave Heineman's recommendation to keep funding flat.

The Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to increase state funding to groups that care for the developmentally disabled by 1 percent, a move one official said could keep their doors open and serve the same number of people they are now.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, must come up with spending cuts to offset the funding increase proposed during the state's worst fiscal crisis in recent memory.

Providers had sharply criticized Heineman's plan to keep funding flat next year because it came at the same time his administration is trying to move people out of institutions and into community-based programs. His proposal is one of dozens of proposed changes to the budget during the ongoing special legislative session intended to decrease state spending by $334 million to address falling state revenues.

"It doesn't sound like much, but it will help groups stave off a financial crisis," said Zavodny, president of a state association of organizations that serve the mentally disabled. In addition to the 1 percent increase, the Appropriations Committee set aside $500,000 to help boost pay to providers of services to the developmentally disabled.

"Probably the best scenario is it will let us hold our own with the same size we are now," added Zavodny, who is CEO of Northstar Services, which provides services to about 300 developmentally disabled people in 22 northeastern Nebraska counties.

The plan advanced to the full Legislature by the budget-writing committee also includes small funding increases to other health care providers, such as nursing homes. The proposal will be voted on within the next couple weeks along with other budget recommendations.

Currently, beginning pay for some developmental-disability workers is about $9 an hour.

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha said the head of an organization that cares for the developmentally disabled recently told him he has trouble trusting some of the people he is able to hire at such low pay.

Some groups rely solely on state and federal funds to pay employees.

For too long, groups that provide services to people with developmental disabilities, the elderly, and other vulnerable Nebraskans have been the "orphan child" in the state budget, getting cut when savings are needed, said Sen. John Wightman of Lexington, who brokered the deal approved Thursday.

"We've done that over a period of years and when times get good, we never remember them," he said.

The two-year state budget approved early this year that lawmakers are now changing to address the fiscal crisis included a 2.5 percent funding increase to groups that care for the developmentally disabled.

They are receiving a 2.5 percent increase this fiscal year, and Heineman did not recommend taking that money away.

While the 1 percent hike will help some groups continue operating at current capacity, it likely will just cover growing expenses and not increase wages of workers, Zavodny said.