By Shelley Davis
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - A bill intended to help shield mentally retarded Ohioans from abuse could also end up protecting two state institutions from the budget axe.
The proposal, which would give mentally retarded Ohioans legal protections similar to those given to abused and neglected children, quickly passed the Ohio Senate last month, but a new and controversial amendment could derail the effort entirely.
Gov. Bob Taft is threatening to veto the bill if it passes with an amendment intended to derail his plans to shut down two state institutions for the mentally retarded to help balance the state budget. Lawmakers say the concerns and needs of those living in the Springview and Apple Creek developmental centers should be placed before budgetary concerns.
"These are the most severely handicapped and most vulnerable citizens in the state," said Sen. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek. "If we in the legislature don't look out for these individuals, who will?"
Austria wants the Office of Budget Management to perform independent studies of the proposed shutdowns which would be studied by a committee of legislators and experts who would make a recommendation to Taft.
The governor would make the decision whether to close the facility. The plan could, however, keep Taft from closing an institution for months, if not indefinitely.
Until now, Taft had consistently supported the bill, which adopts measures recommended by a task force he appointed after a Cincinnati Enquirer investigation revealed massive problems in the state's mental retardation system. The newspaper found 80 to 120 mentally retarded people die each year from abuse, neglect or other preventable causes.
If passed, the bill would toughen penalties against people who don't report abuse and neglect of the mentally retarded, and let victims use interpreters or videotaped testimony in courtrooms.
But Taft is willing to trash the entire plan, reforms and all, said Orest Holubec, the governor's spokesman.
"We go through a very careful process in making the decision to shut down a facility and the governor believes this amendment would tie the executive branch's hands in making these very difficult but very important decisions," Holubec said.
Kim Wisecup, legislative liaison for the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation, part of Taft's cabinet, said the amendment would give developmental center residents and their families false hope that the centers might stay open.
"Closing a developmental center is never an easy thing to do, because there's a lot of emotion on both sides," she said. "But we feel like we've done a comprehensive review already and to add this on would unnecessarily delay the closure."
Austria said he isn't convinced the mental retardation department gathered enough information before announcing the closure of Springview Developmental Center, located in Austria's home district of Beavercreek.
Springview is slated to close in 2005 and northeast Ohio's Apple Creek Developmental Center would cease operations in 2006.
The senator disagrees that closing the facilities will help balance the budget. The closures won't have any impact on the corrections bill in 2003, Austria said.
"We've got time to look at how we're closing these facilities," he said. "We should do it the responsible way."
Bill sponsor Sen. Bob Spada, R-Parma Heights, supports the amendment.
"I respect the governor's right to want to balance the budget and close these facilities, but we need to balance that need with the needs of these victims and families," Spada said.
Both the bill and the amendment found unanimous support in the Senate, Austria said. If the amendment receives the same support in the House, the senator said he'd push for overriding a possible Taft veto.
"Ninety percent of this bill is what the governor asked for, and I believe this amendment is reasonable. I hope the governor won't veto it," Austria said, though he added if there's a chance the bill may not become law because of the amendment, he might reassess the situation.
The bill is now being heard in the House Juvenile and Family Law committee. Committee chairman Rep. Mike Gilb, R-Findlay, expects a vote within the month. Gilb said he hasn't heard from any House lawmakers who oppose Austria's plan.
Members of the governor's task force that came up with the abuse protections are still hopeful the bill will pass, but they're urging legislators to put the institutions issue in a separate bill, Wisecup said.
"They've worked really hard on this and we would hate to see it fall through," Wisecup said.
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