Trouble for elderly affairs agency?

Voters have to OK creation of department first

As the minutes ticked down on the 2014 legislative session, state Rep. Joe Harrison turned his efforts to create a state agency for Louisiana’s senior citizens into the ultimate comeback story ... but maybe not.

The proposal seemed dead midway through the session. Parish councils on aging and elderly residents were on board, after years of feeling slighted within the giant bureaucracy of state government. But the Jindal administration had reservations. Then Harrison, R-Napoleonville, resurrected House Bill 341 and rammed it through the legislative process during the final days of the session.

The Louisiana House erupted into raucous cheers as HB341 became the last bill in the chamber to secure final legislative passage on the last day of the session. A jubilant Harrison walked every aisle in the chamber to shake his colleagues’ hands. Officials with councils on aging hovered in the back, waiting to congratulate Harrison and snap selfies with him.

There’s just one nagging thing: A three-line amendment added by the Senate threatens to derail the new department, making this comeback story just an illusion. Like the story of Cinderella’s night at the ball, a fairy tale-shattering spell may have been cast on the legislation.

HB341 is a constitutional amendment that would allow a state department of elderly affairs to be created, if a majority of the state’s voters approve. Currently, councils on aging work with the Office of Elderly Affairs inside the Governor’s Office. A number of state agencies handle issues important to senior citizens.

Andrew Muhl, director of advocacy for AARP Louisiana, said a department with a unified command structure and strong leadership would provide a unique opportunity to improve the financing and delivery of services for older adults.

“Older adults are the fastest-growing population in Louisiana, which corresponds with an increase in chronic disease, transportation needs and more complicated housing concerns,” he said. “The state needs a smart and thoughtful plan, and we have consistently supported the integration of state-based older adult services to work on these issues.”

Efforts to create the new agency stem from frustration with attempts to shift the Office of Elderly Affairs to the state Department of Health and Hospitals, one of the largest agencies in state government. The office’s director, Martha Manuel, was fired by the Jindal administration in 2012 after she publicly told legislators that the move to DHH would make funding for senior citizens more vulnerable to budget cuts. Manuel’s post remains vacant.

Harrison’s solution was to create a state agency that would focus entirely on senior citizens. Extra rooms had to be found at the State Capitol to accommodate the senior citizens who turned out in support of his efforts.

The critical moment for HB341 came on the last day of session, as the full Senate debated the legislation. Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, stood at the podium, handling SB341 under the pressure of the looming 6 p.m. end of the session. Harrison stood in the back of the chamber, giving a nod when he agreed to proposed amendments. Mills took the nods as his cue on whether he needed to object or not. Time was not on his side. The bill needed to go back to the House for concurrence.

State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, offered an amendment. Mills looked to the back of the chamber, thought he saw a nod from Harrison and allowed the amendment onto the bill without voicing any objection. Minutes later, the Legislature’s attorneys read the amendment and exploded into action.

The amendment reads: “Except that no department may be created that has the powers, duties and functions to perform or administer programs or services which are historically performed or administered by any other agency, office or department of the state.”

Riser insisted he just wanted to protect the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates war veterans’ homes, and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which handles hunting licenses for senior citizens. The amendment has the Jindal administration’s support.

Others saw the amendment as gutting the bill by basically prohibiting any new state agency from forming unless it deals with a completely new service, such as arranging commuter flights between Baton Rouge and the planet Mars.

Mills and Harrison tried to strip the amendment from the bill. But it was too late. Harrison had to choose between accepting the amendment or ditching the bill. He accepted the amendment.

Voters will go the polls in November under a cloud of uncertainty as they decide whether a new state agency should join state government’s ranks. They will be voting on language that even Harrison admits is ambiguous. He blames Jindal, saying the governor never backed his proposal.

“Staff’s been working on it. It’s a pretty sad commentary that the governor of this state is going to fight the seniors,” Harrison said.

Riser said he didn’t want HB341 to have unintended consequences. He said he talked to the Jindal administration when the bill popped up on the Senate floor. However, he said his staff drafted the amendment and he notes that Mills didn’t raise an objection.

Harrison said he saw the governor’s legal counsel hand amendments to legislators during Senate debate on the bill. “I went to Neil Riser and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m trying to protect the veterans,’ ” Harrison said.

The governor declined to wade into the disagreement. His executive counsel, Thomas Enright, researched the bill and how it would impact services for seniors. In a statement, Enright said: “We support this amendment. It makes sense to ensure that agencies that previously handled services, including hunting licenses at Wildlife and Fisheries and benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs, continue to be able to do so.”

Dinah Landry, president of the Louisiana Council on Aging Directors Association, said the intention was never to create a “super department” within state government. She said officials representing senior citizens just want stability and a voice after watching the Office of Elderly Affairs’ staffing shrink. Senior citizens want their own representative present, sipping coffee and chiming in at the governor’s regular Cabinet meetings.

“The new department will give us a Cabinet member. Right now, all we have is an office, and that could be blown away at any time,” Landry said.

Harrison said he wants an agency that senior citizens can easily phone when they need services, such as meals, or help because they’re being abused financially or physically. He said their needs ought to be protected.

Exactly what Harrison can do to address the amendment is unclear because Riser’s language would go into the state constitution, assuming the state’s voters agree. What Harrison is banking on is that amendment is too weak and too riddled with holes to make a difference.

“If we can’t fix it, all hell’s going to break loose next session,” Harrison said.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/.