Autism, rehab services make budget comeback

Lawmakers are resuscitating many of the mental health and disability services that were on the chopping block in the governor's original budget, although the generosity won't mean much unless Democrats raise more revenue to back them up.

A joint Senate and Assembly money committee on Thursday fully restored money to an autism program that serves 174 children, after Gov. Brian Sandoval last month recommended restoring 61 of the families to the program at a cost of $1.6 million. Adding back the remaining 113 families will cost another $2.8 million over the biennium.

Parents testified at earlier hearings that their children's condition would regress if they were booted from the program or spent time on a waiting list for treatment.

"The damage it does to the kids is just unacceptable," said Assemblywoman April Mastroluca, D-Henderson. "It's so damaging to these families. It's so expensive to the state. We're going to have to pay for it later on."

Substance abuse treatment programs are also bouncing back after the committee accepted the governor's amendment to restore $3.8 million. Lawmakers took the plan a step further by adding back $2 million to a treatment program that serves 174 people with both mental illness and substance abuse issues.

Committee members also voted to fund the Self-Directed Family Support Program, which provides speech and behavior therapy for 230 low-income children and was slated for elimination. That add-back totals about $2.6 million.

In a few instances, lawmakers accepted cuts. They eliminated about 22 positions, most of them vacant, at Lakes Crossing Center for the Mentally Disordered Offender. Residents at Lakes Crossing in Washoe County have been classified as not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or are incompetent to stand trial.

Members of the committee said they worried that scratching the positions could cause problems in the future if the center's population grew. The center averages 59 patients, and the cut trims the budget by $2.7 million over the next two years.

The committee also voted to have counties foot an $11.5 million bill over the next two years for services to children with mental disabilities. About 1,600 children participate in the programs at any one time.

A state statute dating to 1929 gives counties the responsibility of funding programs to children with developmental disabilities, although state officials say they don't remember a time when counties ever footed the bill.

The decision comes as the governor's budget proposes counties pay for numerous services the state has been paying for.

Adding back money puts the lawmakers' budget even further away from the governor's recommendations and creates major funding gaps. Earlier this week, money committees added back $80 million beyond Sandoval's budget to the Nevada System of Higher Education, and last week they put $88 million more to Medicaid reimbursements. Lawmakers also added $660 million to K-12 education, a bill the governor vetoed on Monday.

With less than three weeks left in the legislative session, Democrats now face the politically difficult task of passing a tax increase to fund the add-backs. Though Democrats hold slim majorities in the Senate and Assembly, they lack the necessary votes to pass a tax increase or override a veto.


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