Funding threats to a program that helps children with developmental disabilities brought parents in droves to the State Capitol on Saturday.
Courtney Moore, of Central, sat her 12-month-old daughter, Camille, on a table in front of legislators and begged them to save the state’s EarlySteps program.
Moore’s daughter was born with Down syndrome and receives therapy through the state program that is at risk of budget reductions.
“She is thriving because of Early-Steps,” Moore told the state Senate Finance Committee while her baby sat on the table and grabbed for the microphone.
The EarlySteps program is administered by the state Department of Health and Hospitals. It provides medical, nutritional and other services and therapies as well as assistive technology to infants and toddlers who are developmentally delayed.
The panel gave the public the opportunity Saturday to comment on House Bill 1, the $25 billion proposed state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July.
DHH officials say that because of proposed cuts the department has been ordered to make, they would eliminate EarlySteps, which costs Louisiana taxpayers $7.4 million.
Pushing strollers and wheelchairs, parents crowded the hallway outside the committee room and spilled into three nearby meeting rooms while they waited for their opportunity to speak.
The biggest issue before the committee is whether to unravel at least some of the cuts that the Louisiana House made to the budget.
Two issues are at play.
First, revenue collections failed to meet economists’ targets, forcing cuts across state government. Higher education and health care would bear the brunt of those reductions.
Secondly, the Louisiana House wants to make further reductions rather than relying on nonrecurring funds that Gov. Bobby Jindal advocates using for recurring expenses.
The House’s handiwork on the budget is leading the Jindal administration to warn the public that those who rely on state services could be impacted. Some Republicans in the House disagree with the dire warnings. They contend the state could make cuts in areas such as travel and supplies. The programs that the Jindal administration says are on the chopping block include:
- EarlySteps, which helps more than 5,000 developmentally disabled infants and toddlers.
- School-based health centers that provide services to more than 100 schools.
- Screenings for women with breast or cervical cancer.
- A program that provides dentures to adults.
- Dental care for children.
Sandy Marinello, of Baton Rouge, questioned how legislators would be able to put their heads on their pillows at night if EarlySteps is eliminated.
Marinello’s 5-year-old child has Down syndrome.
Tessa Tagert, whose 9-month-old baby suffers from a host of problems, said her child is making developmental strides because of EarlySteps.
“The other day, she rolled over and that was the biggest deal,” Tagert said. “Without them, she wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
Raegan Rousselle, of Slidell, told the committee that parents need programs like EarlySteps because their developmentally disabled children do not come with an instruction manual.
Rousselle works for EarlySteps. Her 3-year-old daughter, Kendyl, lost oxygen at birth and receives respiratory, speech and vision therapy through EarlySteps.
“EarlySteps comes in. They are the instructional manual. I can’t stress how important this program is,” she said.
The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, assured the public that legislators have a good understanding of what it would mean to eliminate funding for the program.
Rousselle’s husband, Duffy, expressed doubts afterward that legislators can understand what families like his endure.
“They might see it, but they don’t truly understand what each and every one of these families is going through,” he said before rushing to his wheelchair-confined daughter in order to adjust her breathing tube.
EarlySteps was not the only program that brought people to the dark, basement corridors of the State Capitol on a sunny weekend.
Whether they are artists or people grappling with disabilities, many depend on state funding.
Disabled adults told legislators they continue to need state services for help with their daily lives. A mother gave tearful testimony about the intervention her adopted daughter needed after suffering abuse and neglect early in her life. Another parent read a letter written in the voice of his 16-month-old son, who has cerebral palsy.
Dr. Greg Folse, a Lafayette dentist, asked legislators to fix a picture in their minds of elderly residents in need of the dentures the state provides through a program that could be cut.
“I want you to picture the worst teeth you’ve ever seen,” he said. “I mean horribly decaying teeth.”
Folse gave legislators another image.
He said pneumonia easily can be fatal to the elderly.
One of the causes of pneumonia is bacteria in infected teeth, Folse said.
Mary Lindsey, director of Audubon Regional Library in East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes, cleared up a mystery when she came to the committee table.
Those wishing to address the committee have to fill out a red or green card. Red denotes opposition. Green signifies support.
In the thick stack of cards submitted Saturday, only one was colored green.
“I’m the green card,” Lindsey announced.
Lindsey filed green not because she is in favor of spending reductions to the State Library, which helps her library with technical support, children’s programs and other services.
She said she filed the green card out of gratitude.
“I support the State Library and what they do,” Lindsey said.