Residents with disabilities sue SC Gov, lawmakers

AP News
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Posted: Dec 29, 2009 5:19 PM

Advocates for disabled South Carolina residents have sued Gov. Mark Sanford and lawmakers, saying they slashed services after illegally sending federal stimulus money to a state savings account.

The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to order more than $30 million be returned to the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs to restore services that help people with disabilities live at home.

"They will be forced into institutions," said attorney Patricia Harrison, an agency critic. "Families will lose jobs. Single parents say, 'When my child loses these services, I'll have to quit my job.' Some parents will lose their homes."

Harrison and two other attorneys filed the lawsuit Dec. 23, just before an extended state holiday, on behalf of nine adults with a range of disabilities. It names Sanford, agency officials and board members, and the state's budget oversight board, which includes the chairmen of the House and Senate budget-writing committees. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper said he could not comment.

Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said the lawsuit will be reviewed.

Harrison contends a line approved by lawmakers in the 2009-10 state budget which directs that money not already committed be transferred to savings has been misinterpreted to include money that would maintain services. She said $31 million was transferred this summer, and that more than $5 million was set to be transferred quarterly this fiscal year.

"There is no shortage of funds," Harrison said.

She has asked the state Supreme Court to hear the case directly, in hopes the justices would resolve the case more quickly. The defendants have until Feb. 11 to respond.

Agency commissioner Richard Huntress of Greenville also said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit. But he said he's encouraged upset families to call their legislators.

"There are certain dollars that came into the state under stimulus dollars that would normally have gone to DDSN. Not all of that money was channeled back into the agency. Some of that was kept by the state," Huntress said, adding he was unsure of the amount. "We've requested that our consumers appeal to the state Legislature to get those funds back to our agency."

Agency spokeswoman Lois Park Mole said Tuesday the agency has yet to be served and can't comment on the lawsuit.

But she said service changes for disabled residents living at home that take effect Jan. 1 are a result of a series of state budget cuts since October 2008. Changes approved by the federal government include capping the hours of some services people with disabilities receive at home to 28 hours weekly. Previously, there were no limits on the services, Mole said.

She said 83 percent of the nearly 29,000 people served by the agency live at home with their families _ compared to a national average of 61 percent _ and that remains "very much the priority."

"Everyone wants to continue to keep families together. It's best for the person with the disability and most cost effective for the state. Who can provide better care but parents and other family?" Mole said. "We would love very much to not have anybody on waiting list for services but that has never been the case."