Williams, Baxley bridge gap to work for blind services With the exuberance of a typical 9-year-old, Alan Williams ignored the rules and ran full speed through the house — only to slam face-first into an open closet door. Four days in Tallahassee Memorial Hospital wearing an eye patch saved the vision in his damaged eye. Decades later, the close call has thrust the young African-American liberal Democrat from Tallahassee into the same obscure House club as Dennis Baxley, a middle-aged, white, ultra-conservative Republican from Ocala who until recently worked as executive director of the Christian Coalition. Few legislators could be further apart on the political spectrum. No two legislators — both members of the Vision Caucus — could be more dedicated to preserving services for the blind and visually impaired. "I had an incident when I was a child, I have a friend whose child is visually impaired and my mother has been fighting glaucoma since 1980," Williams said. This year, Williams is handing out legislative business cards printed in Braille. He is sponsoring a bill that would encourage the rest of the Legislature to do the same. "If we're going to make government more transparent, we're going to have to make it transparent for everyone," he said. Baxley and his wife, Ginette, raised an adopted son, Jeffrey, who lost his vision as an infant. Navigating a complicated system of rehabilitative services, and grateful for the success they brought his son, Baxley founded the caucus in 2005. When the powerful committee chairman isn't championing gun rights or anti-abortion legislation, he is working quietly behind the scenes with advocates to protect the Division of Blind Services, an arm of the Department of Education. This year, as the Legislature struggles with a $3.7-billion budget shortfall, Baxley and his fellow caucus members have their work cut out for them. On Thursday, House leaders put the final touches on an education spending proposal that would slash K-12 spending nearly 10 percent and cut $800,000 from the division. The division serves 36,000 blind and visually impaired Floridians and gets most of its nearly $40-million budget from the federal government. An $800,000 cut may seem comparatively modest, but advocates say it would seriously threaten a program that serves about 1,000 blind babies a year. Blind babies, and another program that serves blind and visually impaired seniors, would be most at risk, advocates say, because they get most of their funding from state general revenue. Baxley winces at the thought. "Of course, these are times when every program is being asked what it can give, not what it can take," Baxley said. "But blind babies ... As caucus members, we're just going to have to hold our position and see what we can do." The Senate also would cut education spending, but does not propose cutting the division. Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal, which calls for $5 billion in spending cuts, also holds the division harmless. "If $450,000 was cut from the state's Blind Babies program, it would translate into 180 unfunded babies. A similar amount of unfunded adults/seniors would result from a $450,000 cut," said Skip Koch, executive director of the Florida Association of Agencies Serving the Blind. "We encourage the acceptance and passage of the Senate's version." A spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said it's too early to sound the alarm. "It's only the third week of session," Betta said. "What the speaker is telling people about individual budget items is not to panic." Cannon, whose brother is an ophthalmologist, was at one time a member of the caucus. House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Tavernier said the threat to the program proves that Republicans aren't just looking to trim fat from the budget. "This says a lot about their priorities," Saunders said. "We're not just talking about laying off a bunch of bureaucrats, we're talking about blind babies." Williams shares the sentiment. "You have to understand that when you make these kinds of cuts now, it has a bigger impact," Williams said. "The counties and community organizations that share the cost of these services don't have any money." But he also acknowledges a growing respect for Baxley and his work with the vision caucus. Williams is holding out hope that the division will be preserved. "Are there some issues that we are going to be very far apart on? Certainly," Williams said. "But there are some issues that my wife and I don't agree on." -- Lighthouse of the Big Bend Guiding People Through Vision Loss 3071 Highland Oaks Terrace Tallahassee, FL 32301 (850) 942-3658 www.lighthousebigbend.org Check out the TABI resource web page at http://acorange.home.comcast.net/TABI and please make suggestions for new material. if you'd like to unsubscribe you can do so through the freelists.org web interface, or by sending an email to the address tabi-request@xxxxxxxxxxxxx with the word "unsubscribe" in the subject.