By Beth Swedeen
The end of June marked the conclusion of six months of active participation by the BPDD and the entire state disability community in the Legislative budget process. Critical decisions about issues like employment, transportation, expansion of Wisconsin’s Family Care/IRIS program, increased funding for children’s programs and public education were all part of the budget process.
To our disappointment, there were few outright “wins” for people with disabilities in the state. No new funding was added to long-term supports or public education and Family Care/IRIS will not expand in the next two years. However, there were some exciting developments worth noting and building on in the future:
- This year’s Partners in Policymaking participants teamed with last year’s grads and other parents around the state to create the Stop Special Needs Vouchers grassroots group, which was critical in defeating a proposal in the budget to allow special needs vouchers into private schools. This is the first time in the country (that we know of) that a grassroots effort has defeated voucher expansion!
- At the last minute, an increase in transportation funding was added to the budget. After last biennium’s 10 percent cut, and the proposed budget’s no-new revenues, this was welcome news. Grassroots advocates working with key Joint Finance Committee members made the difference.
- A focus on employment for people with disabilities was included in parts of the budget’s $132 million workforce/jobs initiative. Specifically, the youth apprenticeships program has a special call-out encouraging groups that work with youth with disabilities to apply.
In addition, BPDD staff has been working with advisors for Senator Tammy Baldwin and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin on changes to the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization. Specifically, we requested more state Vocational Rehabilitation funds be allocated for youth and asked for specific definitions of terms like “integrated employment” in the reauthorization. We had successes in both areas.
Most importantly, this legislative season included the voices of more people with disabilities and their families than ever before. Self-advocates testified at every Joint Finance Committee hearing. As part of the Survival Coalition, we helped pack the Capitol with 450 participants for Disability Advocacy Day in March. We worked with People First Wisconsin to develop the first-ever Self-Advocate State Budget, which was the result of a survey that received more than 300 responses. Lastly, a statewide survey of self-advocates conducted by BPDD showed that more than 75 percent of those who responded say they feel more able to participate in the policy process.
Providing real opportunities for people with disabilities and their families to have a voice is the real legislative victory. We are sure the voice of the disability community will only get stronger in the months ahead!