Suit seeks funds for disabled

A group of disabled residents has asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to stop a deep round of cuts next month to in-home care because they say state officials have put millions in federal stimulus money in a "rainy-day fund" that should have been used to avoid the cutbacks.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs has received $54 million in stimulus money this year but that 90 percent of it intended to preserve jobs and protect Medicaid services has been transferred to a reserve fund created by the Legislature - what the suit describes as a violation of the stimulus bill that could put South Carolina's future funding at risk.

The Greenville News reported earlier this year that the agency might have sidestepped the cuts if state money and stimulus funds had been used differently.

The suit also alleges the agency had more than $7 million that could have offset the cuts and that, once stimulus money is included, it will receive more money in 2010 than it did in 2009.

At issue is the use of tens of millions in stimulus money while thousands of families face the reduction or elimination of in-home care that allows them to hold jobs while sustaining relatives with mental retardation and spinal cord injuries outside of an institution.

State employees were off Thursday through Monday, and agency spokeswoman Lois Park Mole said no one was available to respond.

Agency commissioner Rick Huntress of Greenville said he hadn't heard about the suit but that commissioners repeatedly have asked for stimulus money to be restored to the agency. He said he wasn't familiar with the "excess" money the suit alleges the agency had.

Agency officials have said that budget cuts have made the reductions to respite care, adult companions and other services unavoidable come January, but that it would have been possible to maintain services if the Legislature had allowed the agency to keep more of the stimulus funds it qualified for.

The suit names 15 defendants in state government, including agency commissioners and administrators, the head of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and the members of the State Budget and Control Board.

Attempts to reach the officials Monday were unsuccessful. A spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford said the Governor's Office will review the suit.

The suit was filed by Columbia attorney Patricia Harrison, an agency critic, Charleston attorney Marjorie Taylor Elliott and Spartanburg attorney Kenneth Anthony Jr., a past president of the South Carolina Bar.

The suit's nine plaintiffs are referred to by first name only. Harrison said that one of them lives in Spartanburg and that she sought to bypass the lower courts by requesting "original jurisdiction" with the Supreme Court because the matter is of "extreme importance" and public interest.

Huntress said agency commissioners have urged consumers to lobby legislators to restore more stimulus money.

Critics have said the agency had other ways to avoid the cuts, such as getting special permission to run a temporary deficit.

The lawsuit says the impact of the agency's cuts has cost thousands of employees their jobs and that further cuts put thousands of caregivers at risk and will hurt thousands more families who receive home-based support.

The suit also alleges that the agency has used "tens of millions of dollars" originally allocated for services to buy real estate in order to create workshops at the expense of in-home care.

A provision inserted in the federal stimulus bill forbids states from putting the money in a "rainy day fund," the suit said.

The suit alleges that in March a proviso was "quietly attached" to the state budget in the House Ways and Means Committee that required agencies that receive federal stimulus funds to put "unobligated" amounts into a newly created reserve account.

Rep. Dan Cooper of Piedmont, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, declined to comment about the suit.

When asked earlier this year about the agency's service cuts and its push for more stimulus money, Cooper said the agency was using the tactic of cutting programs that will generate the loudest taxpayer complaints in the hope that legislators will feel the pressure and restore agency funding at a time when budgets are being slashed across the board.