Referenda could boost funds for those with disabilities

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The Independent Life Center in Craig didn't receive a $5,000 allocation from the state last year because of budget cuts.

Although state funding makes up only 10 percent of the organization's budget, executive director Evelyn Tileston said the cuts had a broad effect.

"Really, it's like $20,000 that I can't have," Tileston said, noting the state funds would have been used for matching grants.

The Independent Life Center serves about 250 people with disabilities in Northwest Colorado, providing services including life skills training, transportation and job placement.

Tileston is one of many in the disabilities service community supporting Referenda C and D on November's ballot. She hopes the referendums will help increase state funding for those with disabilities. The referenda are a bipartisan package aimed at boosting funding for state programs that have seen their state funding cut in recent years.

If Referendum C passes, lawmakers would keep an estimated $3.1 billion in tax revenues during the next five years that otherwise would be returned to taxpayers under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. Thirty percent of Referendum C is earmarked for health care, including health care for those with disabilities.

Referendum D is a bond for capital investments. The bond would be paid off in part with 10 percent of the money from Referendum C. If Referendum C fails, so does D, but C can pass without D.

Tileston is backing C and D because the package will "let the state keep money that comes into it through existing mechanisms."

Tileston said the referenda are not a tax increase. "They are not asking people to pay more taxes, just asking people to let the state legislature recoup what comes in," she said.

Statewide, vocational rehabilitation programs like those at the Independent Life Center have seen a 36 percent reduction in state funding in the past two years.

Faith Gross, a former vocational rehabilitation counselor, said because programs weren't able to receive matching grants from the federal government, the state cuts resulted in about $6 million in cuts.

Gross, while not endorsing C and D, said when funding decreases, programs have to turn people away. For vocational rehabilitation programs, that means turning away people with disabilities who are trying to enter the workforce.

Referenda C and D don't specify how much funding will go to disability services, but Katy Atkinson, a spokeswoman for Vote Yes On C and D, said without the referenda, state-funded disability services will surely be cut in the coming years.

She said the legislature will have to cut $400 million next year, and some of those cuts will hit the state's disabled community.

"At this point, no one is protected," Atkinson said.

Atkinson said about 4,000 people are on the waiting list for disability services in Colorado.

"When you look at further cuts in the budget, that list can only grow larger," Atkinson said.

But opponents of C and D say the referenda don't guarantee funding for specific programs. "C is a blank check. There's nothing in there that says where it will go," said Dave Pearson, campaign manager for the Colorado Club For Growth issue committee.

The Colorado Club for Growth formed about a year ago with defending TABOR as one of its objectives.

Pearson said defeating C and D is one of the organization's chief goals.

He said legislators cut social service programs, such as disability services, to make budget problems look worse than they actually are.

"There was a strategy to cut social services to create a fictitious sky-is-falling mentality," Pearson said.

Beth Skinner, state director of Freedomworks, said because the referendums are not specific, they will create a lobbying frenzy.

"Once (legislators) get hold of all that money, then special interest groups are going to come knocking," Skinner said.

Freedomworks is the tax cutting organization started by former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas.

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