GOV STALLS KEY BILLS

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After taking a beating over how poorly state-funded adult homes treat their mentally ill clients, Governor Pataki dragged his feet on Friday evening on a bill designed to funnel money into quality community facilities and mental health programs — and specifically to bolster their workforce. The Mental Health Workforce Reinvestment Act still sat on the governor’s desk a few hours before his midnight deadline to either sign or veto the legislation.

Designed to funnel cash saved from the closure and consolidation of state psychiatric hospitals into salaries, job training and benefits for employees of the state’s mental health facilities, the bill is a renewal of a similar law that expired in September 2001. Under the original law, the state invested about $180 million over seven years into mental health-related community services like case management, vocational training, and housing.

A difficult budget season in Albany in the spring of 2001, followed by the World Trade Center attacks delayed the renewal of the bill, costing the reinvestment program an estimated $38 million, according to the Mental Health Association of New York State.

Now, on the heels of a 3 percent boost in the Cost of Living Adjustment for mental health workers and a 10 percent increase in Medicaid fees for clinics — which were included in the state budget passed last spring — Reinvestment Act supporters hope Albany can do more to reduce the 50 percent turnover rate among mental health workers.

For many of these workers, “There’s no ladder,” said retiring state Assemblymember Martin Luster, the bill’s sponsor. “They go in at entry level and leave at entry level.”

The bill also leaves room for funding other new and existing programs, though legislators have not yet determined whether it would cover proposals recently made by the Adult Care Facilities Workgroup — including the creation of 6,000 units of new housing for the mentally ill.

Of course, until the state Office of Mental Health reduces the number of beds in psychiatric hospitals, the bill won’t be worth a dime. According to OMH’s recently released five-year plan, the state intends to maintain between 3,700 and 4,100 of the 4,200 beds in psychiatric hospitals. As long as that’s the case, “The program will have a limited impact,” said Harvey Rosenthal, director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, a coalition of people with psychiatric disabilities and facility staff.

Each bed, according to the legislation, is worth $70,000.

Still, Rosenthal hopes the governor will take the first critical step in signing the bill. Given all that has been revealed about the state’s adult homes in recent months, he says, it’s the least he can do. “We closed thousands of beds in the 1990s, and thanks to reinvestment, the money went to the community,” he said. “Now we find out that as part of the bed closure, people were being shipped to adult homes where they received very bad and in some cases scandalous care.” Now, this funding, he said, “could be used to right the wrongs of the recent past.”

As of early evening on Friday, another bill meant to help some of the state’s poorer residents — this one focused on making it easier for welfare recipients to learn English and earn a high school diploma — also sat on Governor Pataki’s desk. While at press time his intentions were still unclear, insiders say if he listened to city lobbyists, he would likely veto it.

The Basic Education Bill, which both houses of the state legislature passed in July, would require local social service agencies, including the city Human Resources Administration, to tell all public assistance recipients about programs in their communities that offer classes in reading, English as a Second Language or General Educational Development diploma prep classes.

Sponsored by Manhattan Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Utica Senator Ray Meier, the bill also mandates that HRA allow welfare recipients to count 16 hours a week in those classes toward the state’s mandated 35-hour work week for welfare recipients.

Albany insiders say city lobbyists have been urging the governor to veto the bill, arguing that the city needs flexibility, not mandates, to develop effective plans for welfare recipients. Neither HRA nor Mayor Bloomberg’s office would comment.

The governor had until midnight Friday to sign or veto the legislation. Many advocates spent the day furiously lobbying his staff, pointing to research showing that many New Yorkers on welfare lack the skills they need to find jobs — and to get off welfare. More than half of adults on public assistance statewide do not have a high school diploma or GED, while roughly 45 percent in the city don’t have sufficient reading skills to fill out a job application. Studies show that workers earn substantially more when they gain skills like English literacy or a diploma.

“If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that education is the best investment we can make in welfare recipients,” said Anne Erickson, executive director of the Greater Upstate Law Project.