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HELENA - Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced Tuesday that his administration won't cut $605,000 worth of state services for the disabled - but said he's not yet decided on $40 million in other proposed state budget cuts.

Schweitzer said he'll announce his decision on the other budget proposals in the next few weeks, as he monitors the status of government revenue.

"This (announcement today) applies only to what we've decided to do in restoring the funding for the disability community," he said. "I have by no means made all of my (budget) decisions."

Schweitzer, a Democrat, is considering whether to cut about $40 million in state spending over the next 15 months, to keep the state budget in balance in the face of falling tax revenue.

However, last week, the state Land Board approved leasing 570 million tons of state-owned coal, for an up-front bid of $85.8 million from Arch Coal Inc.

Schweitzer said the likelihood of an $86 million infusion of cash into the state treasury by next month is one reason he decided to reject $605,000 of proposed cuts in four programs that serve the disabled.

The cuts would have affected funding for developmentally disabled adults waiting to get into a community-based program, "adaptive equipment" for the developmentally disabled, a program helping blind people 55 and older stay in their homes, and money for independent living centers that help the disabled live on their own.

Travis Hoffman of Missoula, who uses a wheelchair and is the advocacy coordinator for Summit Independent Living Center in Missoula, said the $47,000 cut would have sliced 10 percent of the budget for four independent living centers across the state.

Leaving that money in the budget will help the centers meet an increasing demand for their services, which include helping disabled people access benefits, food, housing and other issues, Hoffman said.

Hoffman and other advocates for the disabled testified last week before the Land Board in favor of the coal lease.

When asked if that testimony influenced Tuesday's announcement, Schweitzer said he was influenced by the fact that the lease was approved, creating the likelihood of an additional $86 million for state coffers.

Schweitzer also said Tuesday he's not decided whether to cancel a

2 percent increase in rates paid to nonprofit companies that provide services to the disabled - which is one of the proposed budget cuts.

However, he indicated he's likely to accept that proposal and freeze those rates.

"These are one-time-only monies for increasing provider rates, with no great expectation that we're going to have an infusion of cash, so that we would be able to maintain those increased provider rates (next year)," he said.

The governor said he decided the four programs for the disabled should be spared any budget cuts because it's important to protect the "most vulnerable" members of society.

"I think Montanans from Alzada to Eureka, from Dillon to Plentywood, would agree with me that we should protect our most vulnerable first," he said. "When I looked at these proposed decreases, it concerned me more than anything else I saw in the budget."

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

 

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