Aid for deaf sparks funding dispute

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday he opposes charging cell phone users an extra 2 cents a month to generate money for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday he opposes charging cell phone users an extra 2 cents a month to generate money for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday that he opposes charging cellphone users an extra 2 cents a month to generate money for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

Jindal offered to work with state Rep. Patrick Williams on raising the $1 million needed without the tax expansion proposed in Williams’ House Bill 238.

“(I) would veto the bill as it’s currently written, but I don’t think that’s going to be a necessity,” the governor said.

Williams, D-Shreveport, said he will push forward with the legislation anyway. He said he is concerned about the governor finding an alternative revenue source when the state is grappling with back-to-back years of budget cuts.

State government faces a $1.3 billion shortfall in the amount of money needed to keep public services at their current levels in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“If they can come up with another funding mechanism, I’m totally open to it,” Williams said.

HB238 awaits action in the state Senate after moving through the Louisiana House.

The legislation would add long distance, pager and wireless lines to the list of telecommunications lines taxed to generate money for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

Under the legislation, 2 cents would be added to the monthly bill for a wireless line or pager. Exceptions would be made for prepaid phones and wireless devices used only for data, such as reading tablets.

The money would be used to buy interpreter services, hearing devices and other accessibility tools for disabled people on low incomes.

The governor said the proposal is a tax increase, which he philosophically opposes. He said he does agree with the idea of funding the equipment.

“I support securing funding for the purpose of the bill,” Jindal said.

The governor did not specify which alternative revenue sources are under consideration.

Williams said he is not pushing a tax increase.

Consumers in Louisiana currently pay an extra 5 cents a month for residential and business local lines. The money generated goes to the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, which was formed in 1980 to facilitate accessibility for the deaf, deaf and blind, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

HB238 would drop the tax to 2 cents and broaden it to cellphones and pagers.

Williams said the change is necessary because people are switching from land lines to cellphones, resulting in a drop in the amount of revenue generated. He said the point is to bring the revenue back to where it was before the rise of cellphones.

“The intent is to get them whole. It’s what they were receiving at one time. The services the organization can provide have been diminished,” Williams said.

The proposal drew an outpouring of hearing-impaired residents to a House committee meeting last week. A sign language expert translated the testimony to the audience.

Williams said he learned about the governor’s opposition Wednesday night when he was on the House floor asking colleagues to advance the proposal to the Senate. He said another legislator told him the governor’s staff wanted to put the bill on hold. Williams ignored the message.

Williams said he does not want the deaf community to worry from year to year about a revenue source.

“I have concerns about the governor finding additional revenue. Where will we get the recurring funds from?” he said.