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Poor, disabled may get benefit reprieve

Saturday's scheduled termination of benefits to around 500 poor and disabled Utahns might be postponed, following a Friday meeting of their advocates and members of the governor's office transition team.

Jason Perry, who is to be chief of staff in the pending governorship of current Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, didn't agree to the advocates' request to stay the cutoff date, but he promised "we can and we will be very quick" in addressing the issue.

The advocates said that while they appreciate getting a hearing, the issue passed the "as soon as possible" stage long ago, and they advised Perry and transition-team member John Nixon that immediate action would run counter to the response to their concerns so far. "Frankly, it's been very difficult to know who to talk to, to know who the governor du jour is," Linda Hilton, with the Coalition of Religious Communities, told Perry when asking for the stay.

Perry assured Hilton that he had set up the meeting as soon as he had been made aware of the situation and that there should be no concern about "any leadership gap. The right people to talk to are in this meeting," he said.

A letter notifying recipients of time limits being added to the General Assistance program was sent June 18 by the state Department of Workforce Services, the agency that oversees it.

Advocates have been sounding the alarm since July 16. A letter signed by nine laity and community groups was hand-delivered to the Capitol, and at least a dozen calls have been made to the governor's office urging both a meeting and an intervention.

Recipients were told they were being cut off and that the 24-month lifetime eligibility was being reduced to 12 months, even before a public hearing, legally required for such rule changes, had been scheduled.

The advocates said they appreciate that the state has had a difficult budget year, but the costs will not go away just because the number of cases is cut.

"These are not legal technicalities to slow the process down," said Jerry Costley, speaking for ADAPT, a disability-rights activist group. "Even under the best circumstances, agencies can misinterpret rules. This is misinterpreting a rule that hasn't even been written."

"This situation is critical; these folks aren't going to be shuffled somewhere else or looked after by the faith-based charities as many legislators think," said Tim Funk, an advocate for Crossroads Urban Center. "These are the most vulnerable people in the state. We will be finding them on the street and even dead this winter because of this one decision that really isn't going to save the state much at all."

"Just put off the deadline a few months and see how things are going," said Bill Tibbitts, a health-policy analyst and low-income advocate. He suggested that the state still has a pot of economic-stabilization money available.

Danny Schoenfeld of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office said that $18.5 million of the economic-stabilization fund remains unallocated. The advocates say $2 million of that money could be earmarked under the guidelines of the fund to help the disabled.

Perry assured the group that they will take that possibility under advisement, as well. "We must be and we are mindful of our own humanity."

e-mail: jthalman@desnews.com