Ex-ballplayer, moms plead with lawmakers

With his guide dog sprawled on the floor at his feet, the Rev. Patrick Mascarella tried to impress upon legislators Monday the importance of funding rehabilitative services.

Mascarella, a retired Catholic priest, is legally blind. He lives independently with the help of his yellow lab, Pace, who accompanied him to the State Capitol.

Pace plopped down on the carpet while Mascarella settled in front of a microphone before the House Appropriations Committee. Mascarella urged legislators to increase funding for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, which helps people with disabilities live independently.

Mascarella said he would be in a nursing home or stationed in front of a television set at a rectory were it not for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services and the Affiliated Blind of Louisiana. Instead, he and Pace lead active lives in Baton Rouge.

“If you give us a chance, we can live productive lives,” he said, describing days filled with activities. He cooks for himself, lives in an apartment, serves as a substitute at church and takes an art class at LSU.

State funding for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services has dropped since 2008. The decline in funding results in the state being unable to grab a maximum of federal dollars. The federal government pays $3.69 for every dollar the state puts up, said Libby Murphy, vice chairwoman of the Louisiana Rehabilitation Council.

“There’s 1,000 people the money’s not there for. (It) hasn’t been for two or three years now,” Mascarella said.

Public testimony day — when anyone can offer an opinion to legislators on the budget proposal — reveals unmet needs and highlights fragile lives dependent on House Bill 1, the governor’s $25 billion proposed spending plan. Dollars are limited. Needs are tremendous.

The testimony often gets emotional. At times, it is tearful, as it was when Kelly Hatfield talked to legislators about her daughter, Megan Mote, who died two years ago at age 16 on her way to the lake for a fun outing with friends. Mote’s vehicle crossed the median on Interstate 20 in Bossier Parish and collided with an 18-wheeler, killing the teen and friend Arien Manshack.

Hatfield, who lives in Shreveport, told legislators that cable median barriers — which help prevent deadly crossover accidents — might have saved her daughter’s life. The state has been adding barriers, but they’re not on every stretch of road.

“They do save lives,” Hatfield said. “They’re proven to save lives.”

Tammy Wilson made a similar plea on behalf of her daughter Casey Colley. Colley, 28, died last year during a crossover accident in north Louisiana.

“Before losing her, I didn’t realize the importance of cable barriers,” Wilson said. She characterized her daughter’s death as a darkness that she cannot begin to describe.

The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Jim Fannin, said he sees more and more cable barriers going up as he makes the four-hour trek to the State Capitol. Fannin, R-Jonesboro, told the women that the state Department of Transportation of Development recognizes the need for the barriers.

“I’m sure the secretary (of DOTD) is listening. It will be far reaching,” he said of their testimony.

Former University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball player Eric Searcy needed a wheelchair to visit the committee room and talk to legislators about HB1.

Searcy is partially paralyzed after a drunken driver ran a red light in 1998 and slammed into his car. More than a dozen surgeries helped Searcy regain the use of his arms. Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network helped him secure a $20,000 loan for a handicap accessible vehicle.

“I was 19 years old. I had no credit, and the van I needed was expensive ... (LATAN) allowed me to purchase the vehicle. Ultimately, I finished my undergraduate work at LSU, went back and got a master’s degree in health care administration. I currently own two of my own businesses,” he told the House Appropriations Committee.

Searcy asked committee members to find $500,000 in state funding for LATAN, which buys tools to help the disabled live independently by letting them test often-expensive equipment and sometimes helps to arrange loans for the purchase.

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge and a committee member, chimed in to point out that he requested LATAN receive funding in the state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July. Gov. Bobby Jindal rejected the request.

“With your technology, you make people independent, help them work,” Foil told LATAN officials.

It is unclear how many dollars legislators will be able to free up. Already, they must deal with a $50 million hole that just opened up in the education budget. Legislators also are unhappy about nearly $1 billion in revenue sources unlikely to surface again, forcing them to find alternative dollars in a year’s time.

“We’re struggling,” Fannin said at one point during the day.