Legislators hear emotional testimony on state funding

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK --  Kristi Heurtevant, right, pauses Tuesday while filling out a card to speak on behalf of her and her son, Garrett, 7, who is non-verbal autistic, during public testimony on the state budget. Heurtevant and others asked for more funding for home health care.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Kristi Heurtevant, right, pauses Tuesday while filling out a card to speak on behalf of her and her son, Garrett, 7, who is non-verbal autistic, during public testimony on the state budget. Heurtevant and others asked for more funding for home health care.

Battered women, parents with disabled children and senior citizens pleaded with legislators Tuesday to find more funding in the state budget for them.

Members of the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee got their first opportunity to hear from the public after spending weeks poring over Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $24.7 billion state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Jim Fannin, thanked the public for giving testimony that will help legislators decide whether to make changes to the governor’s proposed operating budget. The spending plan funds health care, education and other public services.

“The committee always hears you, and we always appreciate you coming,” said Fannin, D-Jonesboro.

During the committee’s lunch break, Democrats held a teleconference to urge the governor to focus on the state’s budget problems instead of tax code changes.

Jindal opened the nine-week legislative session Monday by asking legislators to send him a plan for eliminating the state’s income taxes. Personal and corporate taxes generate roughly $3 billion a year for the state.

At the same time, the state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall in the amount of money needed to keep state government services at their current level in the upcoming fiscal year. The shortfall follows back-to-back years of budget cuts.

House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said Jindal opposed a plan two years ago that would have phased out the state’s state personal and corporate income taxes. Now, Edwards said, the governor is asking legislators to send the same plan he earlier rejected to his desk.

“We believe it’s the height of irresponsibility. It’s very hypocritical of him,” Edwards said.

House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said he spent the hours leading up to lunchtime listening to senior citizens and parents of disabled children talk about how state budget cuts would dramatically and negatively affect their lives. “The most important bill of this session is the budget bill,” Leger said.

Earlier in the day, Kristi Heurtevant wheeled her 7-year-old son, Garrett, into a basement committee room at the State Capitol and sat down to wait for her turn at the testimony table. Garrett, who is autistic, waved his hands and shrieked periodically from his stroller while he waited with his mother.

Heurtevant, who lives in Sulphur, told the committee that she has waited five years for the state’s assistance with her autistic child.

Heurtevant is in the same situation as scores of other parents. She is on a waiting list for services that will provide health care to her son in the family home, allowing her to get a full night’s sleep, better manage her son’s outbursts and ensure her daughter receives quality time. She asked for additional funding to bump her closer to the top of the waiting list.

“The day-to-day taking care of Garrett, it’s putting a toll on us,” she said, describing the impact on her husband and daughter.

Shannon Broussard, with the Lafayette-based Cajun Area Council on Aging Inc, lamented a $1.1 million proposed cut in funding that will close senior centers and eliminate a program that helps senior citizens receive free or discount prescription drugs.

Covington resident Victoria Howes, 63, told the committee that she depends on the senior citizen prescription drug program to get the medication she needs at a cost she can afford. Howes takes 19 medications to control seizures and other medical problems. She is confined to a wheelchair.

She told legislators that her health will suffer if they allow the program funding cut to take effect.

“If you do that, you can go ahead and sign my death certificate now,” Howes said.

Coming before the committee on behalf of his constituents, state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, complained that state government is decimating funding for organizations that help the elderly while continuing to financially assist the New Orleans Saints and other sports franchises.

State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said the Jindal administration always claims community organizations can fill the gaps created by reductions in state funding. “Are we just whistling in the wind saying the nonprofits can take this over?” Smith asked.

Harrison said no organization has adequate resources to help the elderly.

The Jindal administration later said elderly citizens can log onto http://www.gov.state.la.us/assets/docs/PrscrptnAsstPrgrm2.pdf for assistance with discount pharmacy services.

The day ended with often tearful testimony from battered women about further cuts to programs that help domestic violence victims.

Sarah Brabant, of Lafayette, said shelters did not exist when she was trapped in an abusive marriage to a mentally ill man. “Please do not take us back to the ’70s when women tried to hide in motels only to be found and killed,” she said.

Rula Ruello, an advocate for the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in the New Orleans, said she arrived at work this week to find a woman who had been thrown through a window by her partner.

“If you take this funding ... who’s going to help her?” Ruello asked.

Afterward, state Rep. Henry Burns came out to the hallway to talk to domestic violence victims.

“Bless all of y’all,” Burns, R-Haughton, told the women.