ANNAPOLIS – Seniors and their advocates Tuesday called for Gov. Robert Ehrlich to reverse budget cuts to their programs and criticized him for ignoring requests for a meeting.
Speaking at a news conference on behalf of United Seniors of Maryland, Clare Whitbeck, treasurer of a Maryland advocacy group for long-term care, blasted Ehrlich for budget reductions in nutrition and housing programs — part of a 2.4 percent decrease in general funds for the Department of Aging in the governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2006.
“We hold him accountable for that,” Whitbeck told a legislative hearing room full of seniors and advocates. “We are here because there’s a serious problem.”
That problem, Whitbeck and other advocates said, is that the 2006 budget cuts follow a recent trend of reductions — one which jeopardizes the health and lifestyle of hundreds of Maryland seniors.
The Department of Aging’s general fund budget has been trimmed each of the last three years for a total 9.5 percent decline overall from the $22 million allotted in 2003.
That reduction includes nearly $519,000 whacked in 2006 from the popular Senior Nutrition Program, which United Seniors of Maryland said would deprive 800 seniors of 76,000 meals.
The 2006 budget also calls for $350,000 in cuts to two housing programs, which would force senior multifamily and group housing facilities to cut services to nearly 100 Maryland seniors. Another $500,000 was trimmed from senior center operations.
Seniors are a priority to the Ehrlich administration, spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said. Many programs had to be cut in 2006 to balance the budget.
The three straight years of general fund cuts to the Department of Aging followed five consecutive years of increases, according to a state Web site.
Seniors’ advocates, such as Whitbeck and Betty Miller of United Seniors of Maryland, said funding for senior programs should be increased — even in a time of budgetary problems — because Maryland’s population of residents over age 60 is expected to nearly triple in the next 15 years.
Money spent on seniors now will save the state more in health care costs in the long run, advocates said, and preserve the health of the numerous seniors who volunteer for programs that Maryland residents rely on.
Legislators such as Baltimore County Democrat Paula Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Prince George’s County Democrat Ulysses Curries, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, side with United Seniors in protesting the budget cuts.
But the governor, Whitbeck said, has ignored their protests.
“We have tried desperately to get the governor to talk to us about the issue,” Whitbeck said. “He wasn’t able to.”
She said she has been rebuffed five times so far this month attempting to get Ehrlich to meet with seniors. She promised to continue trying and vowed to keep pushing for an increase in funding to senior programs — especially next year, when Ehrlich faces re-election.
“From here on out, it’s going to be war,” Whitbeck said. “We’re getting organized for a long fight.”
“One more thing,” Miller said. “We vote.”
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