Public Policy Update: Governor’s Budget, Education Scholarships, and Group Home Fix

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The Autism Society of North Carolina advocates on public policy issues, monitors activities of the General Assembly and works to inform you about how these issue might affect people on the autism spectrum. If you have questions about these or other policy issues, please post your questions below or contact Jennifer Mahan, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at 19-865-5068 or jmahan@autismsociety-nc.org

Governor Releases Budget Proposal

Governor Pat McCrory released his state budget proposal on March 20th, in what will be the first step in a lengthy process to develop a state budget for the 2013-2015 biennium. Legislators had the opportunity to hear from the Governor’s budget staff March 21st about the proposal and to ask questions in a Joint Appropriations Committee meeting. The next step is for the NC Senate to develop their budget legislation, which does not need to be based on the governor’s proposal. More information on how the budget process works in North Carolina can be found at the end of the news article here.

The Governor’s budget overall maintains services and supports to individuals on the autism spectrum and those with other developmental disabilities; there are no major cuts to Medicaid and no major cuts to the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.  Medicaid funding is increased to allow for growth in the number of people who will access the program due to changes with the Affordable care Act in 2014. A first reading of the 1300-page document reveals the biggest concerns for disability advocates to be:  1) a prior authorization requirement for obtaining mental health medications under Medicaid; in other states this has kept people with mental health conditions from getting needed medications and 2) the elimination of 3200 teacher assistants in 2nd and 3rd grades, and the lowering of the ratio of TAs to students in K-1, to pay for 1800 more teachers to address school enrollment growth.  Since many children with disabilities are now in mainstream classrooms, fewer teacher assistants in those grades could mean less assistance for kids with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or 504 plans since teaching assistants often provide that additional support. Local school districts would have the flexibility to determine how those funds would be used, so it is not entirely clear what the impact of shifting those funds from TAs to teachers would be.

Education Scholarship for Students with Special Needs Would Replace Tax Credit

Representative Paul Stam, the original sponsor of the education tax credit for children with special needs, has introduced new legislation to change the tax credit into a scholarship program, House Bill 269.

This program is nearly identical to the tax credit program, assisting families who move their child with a significant disability out of the public school system and into a private or home school, with a few differences: 1) it would open the program to a wider array of income levels since it is not dependent on a family’s tax liability 2) it would grandfather into eligibility those currently eligible for the tax credit 3) it would include the provision that was intended to go into effect for the tax credit next year, requiring only one semester of public school in North Carolina to be eligible (the current criteria is two semesters) 4) it would be a set amount of money, $3000 per semester, unlike the variability of a tax credit.

The Autism Society of North Carolina worked to pass the tax credit bill and believes this bill is a positive change that will carry similar benefits to families and children as the previous law.

Since it uses scholarships, the new program would have a limited amount of funding, $3 million to start, so individuals would need to apply yearly for the funding (those currently getting a scholarship appear to have some priority in accessing the scholarships). However, given the above changes, we believe that the program will attract more families than the current tax credit since it is easier to use and available to all income levels. Rep. Stam intends for this program to be permanent, but of course the legislature cannot obligate future legislatures so there are no absolute guarantees.   Just like the tax credit, these scholarships would not be available to people who took their child with special needs out of public school prior to June of 2011 when the original tax credit bill passed. This will disappoint some parents who were hoping that legislation would eventually expand to include them – they have a good argument for more funding to support additional families and ASNC would continue to work with them to advocate for their position.  This is a good time to find an alternative to the tax credit as we expect major tax reforms are coming, either this year or next, and this tax credit could be lost.

ACTION: Please contact your North Carolina legislator and express your support for the scholarship program for children with special needs. If you believe the scholarship program would not cover your child due to limits in the eligibility criteria, state your belief that the program should be expanded to include your child.  NC House and NC Senate legislative voting districts changed this year, so you should check to see which district you are in and who currently represents you in the General Assembly on the new easy to use district map page.

Temporary Fix for Group Funding Problems Enacted

On March 6th Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 5, Temporary Funding /Group Homes and Special Care Centers. This temporary fix to the Personal Care Services and group home crisis will allow group homes whose residents have been denied Personal Care Services to access special funding through June 30th, 2013. This funding will keep the group homes operating and their residents cared for in the short-term. Governor McCrory, Speaker Thom Tillis, President Pro Tem Phil Berger, Senators Ralph Hise and Louis Pate, as well as Representatives Marilyn Avila, Justin Burr, Nelson Dollar, and all deserve thanks, along with the other bill sponsors and General Assembly members for their role in getting this bill passed quickly.

Since this is a temporary fix, the legislature must get a long-term fix in place before the temporary funding expires at the end of June. For the past several years, the intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) advocacy community, including the Autism Society of North Carolina, has been working on a proposal that serves as a long-term fix by allowing Medicaid funds to be used for support services in community settings using the “1915i option.” This “i” option offers an excellent opportunity to create a stable future for these individuals with IDD living in group homes, and thousands of others in other community settings.

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