Panel advances elderly affairs bill

Baton Rouge resident Emily Robertson Etienne — who describes herself as 60-plus — hovered outside a Louisiana House committee room Thursday and waited for a chance to shake state Rep. Joe Harrison’s hand.

Etienne was one of several hundred senior citizens who packed the State Capitol to show support for legislation that could clear the way for a state Department of Elderly Affairs. The agency would focus on the needs of Louisiana residents who are age 60 or older.

The House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs debated a package of bills sponsored by Harrison, R-Napoleonville.

The committee advanced the bills, even though members expressed reservations about them, clouding their future.

“(It’s) wonderful!” Etienne exclaimed. “Our senior citizens actually need all the help that we can get.”

Harrison is trying to cure a simmering problem within state government.

Frustrated with past attempts to shuffle an elderly affairs office that handles their funding into the state Department of Health and Hospitals, councils on aging officials and the senior citizens they serve want their own state agency.

Standing in the way is a constitutional limit on the number of executive branch departments that can exist in state government. The state is at its maximum.

The committee advanced:

A substitute bill for House Bill 152 to create the state Department of Children and Family Services as a state agency within DHH.

House Bill 343, a constitutional amendment to create the Department of Elderly Affairs as an executive branch department.

House Bill 246 to make all of the new department’s officers and employees part of the classified state workforce, protecting them from politically motivated firings.

“These bills represent 800,000-plus people in the state of Louisiana, our senior citizens,” Harrison said.

He said DCFS would be an independent agency within DHH. “There’s no loss of funding. There’s no increase of funding. There’s no expansion of government,” he said.

Supporters of the measure — many dressed in black shirts denoting their connection to the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging — filled the audience behind Harrison. More backers listened to the debate from nearby overflow rooms.

State Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, struggled with the mechanics of the reshuffling. “I’m still hung up on how you move a department into another department,” he told Harrison.

Harrison assured him it was doable.

Afterward, Tasha Clark-Amar, executive director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging, said she brought more than 100 senior citizens to the State Capitol in support of the bill. She said the seniors want a state department that speaks on their behalf.

“It’s important for us to have our own autonomy,” she said.