Governor’s cuts stymie first lady’s idea

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Times Staff Writer

First Lady Maria Shriver set an ambitious agenda last year to dispel a common misperception that people who are physically or mentally impaired cannot hold jobs:

Launch a campaign to find employment for 20,000 Californians with developmental disabilities. Shine a spotlight on companies that have had success hiring people with disabilities. Use her clout to attract other employers to the cause.

But with the start date four months away, Shriver’s husband has potentially made her task more difficult.


Faced with a $15.2-billion state deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to cut roughly $7 million from the very state programs that his wife planned to rely on for her cause -- the state-supported, nonprofit agencies that not only find jobs for developmentally disabled adults, but also coach them at work until they have mastered their duties.

The reduction, key leaders in these organizations said, will prevent them from taking on more work helping those with autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

The inconsistency within California’s first couple is not lost on these social service advocates.

“What the first lady wants to do, we’re all for,” said Will Sanford, interim executive director of the California Disability Services Assn., which represents 110 organizations that use a combination of state, private and charity funds to provide services to people with developmental disabilities.

“We just don’t know how to make it happen given the flip side, which is taking money out of the system that is designed to make it happen.”

Patty Enger, chief financial officer for a nonprofit group that serves people with developmental disabilities in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, said the governor’s proposed budget cut would cost her group, PathPoint, more than a dozen positions for staff who arrange jobs and coach people with cognitive disabilities.


Enger called Shriver’s plan “a wonderful idea that would take tons of planning and lots of time to come to fruition, which we don’t have because they’re cutting us right now.”

Daniel Zingale, Shriver’s chief of staff, said the state’s cash-strapped budget was no reason to stop setting ambitious goals.

“In the toughest of times you can’t just become immersed in the cuts or the struggle to stay afloat,” Zingale said.

Though Shriver and Schwarzenegger are often politically polarized -- she’s a Democrat, he’s Republican, she backs Barack Obama for president, he has endorsed John McCain -- they share a history of using their celebrity to help people with disabilities live fuller lives.

Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics, and Schwarzenegger has served as its spokesman.

Shriver’s brother Anthony created Best Buddies, an international nonprofit that promotes student familiarity and acceptance of people with developmental disabilities. To help children understand and embrace people with mental retardation, Maria Shriver wrote a book called “What’s Wrong With Timmy?”


There are an estimated 90,000 people with cognitive disabilities of working age in California, with an unemployment rate of over 70%.

Under a 1969 law known as the Lanterman Act, these Californians are guaranteed certain civil rights and services to help them become independent, productive members of the community.

Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget would roll back the hourly rate paid to nonprofit groups such as Enger’s from $34.27 to $30.82. That rate covers the wages of a job coach, as well as mileage, administration, insurance, job development and other costs.

Schwarzenegger’s proposed rate cut would wipe out nearly half of the increase he and the Legislature granted in 2006. Before that 2006 increase, program funding had been largely stagnant for 20 years, and the number of available jobs for people with developmental disabilities through those programs had dropped from 12,000 to 9,000.

Zingale said budget reductions were unavoidable given California’s dire financial situation.

“The governor does not like having to make these cuts,” said Zingale, “but he understands that living within our means is essential to stabilizing programs we all value like this one.”


Shriver’s staff said that despite the cuts, they would move forward, working with companies such as Walgreens and CarMax that already employ people with developmental disabilities to teach others how to make the arrangements work.

“We’ll create a whole bunch of new opportunities,” Zingale said.

Nonprofit group officials said they welcomed the high-level help.

But people with developmental disabilities generally need steady, one-on-one assistance until they master the routines of a job. The proposed budget cuts will limit the number of job coaches available, regardless of how many job opportunities for the disabled open, said Sanford.

“Once you sort of break the barriers down with employers, you can become successful,” he said. “But it’s very intense at the start.”

Senate and Assembly committees have approved Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts, but that could change in a final budget, which the governor is negotiating with legislative leaders.