Political Horizons: Budget leaves some elderly struggling

Because the guards are under strict orders not to let any unauthorized vehicles pass the barricades that protect the parking spots of legislators and lobbyists, busloads of elderly men and women unloaded blocks away from the Louisiana State Capitol last week.

The parade of grandmas and grandpas, many breathing with nasal cannulas and walking with rollators, schlepped up the hill, past the grave of Huey Long, to the State Capitol. More than a few took a seat on the steps for the rally the day before the Louisiana House voted on the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Speakers decried Gov. Bobby Jindal balancing his presidency run on the backs of the elderly. Legislators frantically fanned a woman who had fainted a few feet from the podium.

“We’re just asking the governor to leave us alone,” said Dinah Landry, of Cameron Parish. She was referring to all the drama swirling around elderly affairs in recent years.

In March 2012, Jindal fired Martha Manuel, executive director for the Office of Elderly Affairs, after she testified to legislators that the governor’s plans to move the agency into the state Department of Health and Hospitals would make funding for old people more vulnerable to future budget cuts.

The Legislature in 2013 voted against bureaucratically transferring operations. And earlier this year state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, threatened litigation because of what he called the governor’s move to deplete “funding sources by moving it (elderly affairs) into other departments and using it (the elderly’s money) to fill budget holes.”

Plus, the amount of money available to the 64 parish councils on aging has dropped from $4.3 million for the year that ended on June 30, 2009 to $2.8 million for Fiscal Year 2012, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Things may lighten up, but it’s hard to be optimistic given the recent past.

The Louisiana House on Thursday voted in the state’s annual spending plan to move $2.6 million from DHH to fund elderly affairs. Then there’s the real possibility of a $5 million influx coming out of a fund that gathers dollars from over-collections, lease payments and such. The talk is the money would be distributed equally among the parish councils on aging.

That means for Fiscal Year 2014, the Madison Parish Council on Aging will receive $115,625.

Mike Rome, who runs the senior center in Tallulah, says the money would be welcome, but doesn’t necessarily cover much.

The elderly, many whom now live alone, spend the day at the senior centers, chatting with each other, watching television and playing board games. They eat a balanced meal. Physicians and dentists drop by. Nurses make sure that medications are taken.

“If some of them didn’t have us, they would be in nursing homes, and that would cost the state much more,” Rome said.

Even as budgets have been cut, costs have gone up, he says. He once augmented the center’s finances with nongovernmental organization money from the Legislature. Since “earmarks” have fallen out of political favor and mostly have been canceled, Rome said he tries to raise the shortfall through donations. But northeast Louisiana has very few banks, car dealerships and other private sources to tap for charity dollars.

Against this backdrop, Jindal last week offered a Forbes op-ed titled, “How We Achieved Louisiana’s Economic Surge.”

Despite his nationwide bragging, Jindal’s fiscal officers are doing a lot of shuffling, and a lot of services are not getting funded. The state budget approved last week in the House could find itself being cut as the state Senate starts looking at the spending plan.

After years of budget cutting, legislators have joined the elderly in worrying about finding enough money to pay for the services.

State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, says the issue for seniors — and for universities, roads and health care, for that matter — is that Louisiana doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills.

“That’s what bothers me,” said the 72-year-old Thompson, nodding to the senior citizens quickly heading for the air conditioning of Memorial Hall at the end of their rally. “One of these days, I’m going to need their services; you’re going to need them.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.