LATAN asks governor to continue funds

Officials with a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities seized upon Gov. Bobby Jindal’s word choice as an indication Monday he goofed in a veto.

Jindal last week vetoed $250,000 for Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network, or LATAN. The governor wrote in his veto message that “this program expansion cannot be funded.”

LATAN officials said Monday that they are not expanding the program. They said they rely on a mix of state and federal dollars nearly every year to help thousands of people with disabilities ranging from paralysis to blindness. They said the money cut represents 35 percent of their annual budget.

“We will have to cut staff. There will be nobody to deliver the services ... Demonstration centers will close,” said Julie Nesbit, the organization’s president and chief executive officer. LATAN buys tools to help the disabled live independently by letting them test the often-expensive equipment and sometimes helping to arrange loans for the purchase by the individual.

The Jindal administration seems to be sticking with the veto.

Jindal flew to Colorado on Monday for the Focus on the Family’s annual Family Policy Center Conference.

A request to speak to the governor about the veto resulted in a prepared statement from his chief budget adviser.

“This has not been an annual recurring revenue stream. Given the budget preamble that forced the administration to cut $20 million and the Legislature’s decision not to fully fund Medicaid utilization costs, we had to make decisions that protected core levels of services for those who need them,” Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said in the statement.

Jindal stripped a number of items Friday from House Bill 1, the $25 billion state spending plan for the budget year that starts in July. LATAN was one of the expenditures that felt the blow of the governor’s ax.

The organization helps the disabled work, go to school and live in the community.

Demonstration centers in Baton Rouge and Shreveport display often-expensive tools that enlarge text, amplify phones, maneuver someone in and out of a bathtub and turn off the lights with the touch of a finger.

People will disabilities can test the tools before making a purchase and get loans to help with the expense.

Mike Futrell, of Baton Rouge, turned to LATAN after he started losing his eyesight a decade ago. He visited the organization and discovered tools that today help him write checks and shop online.

“You can come and look at this stuff before you invest in it. You don’t want to make a $2,200 mistake,” he said. “All that stuff is real pricey.”

A maze of rooms features technology organized by disability — from quadriplegics like the late Christopher Reeve to the sight-impaired such as Futrell.

One room showcases items that can be purchased at local discount stores. The shelves are filled with super-size remotes, doorknob turners and plate guards.

Another room contains an $18,000 tool for Lou Gehrig’s disease sufferers who can control their eye movement but little else. They can sit in front of a screen and communicate by focusing on one grid in a block of conversation choices. The device tracks their eye gaze and reports that they need something from the store or want to see a grandchild.

The front room is where Futrell found tools he uses every day. He said doctors did not tell him the tools existed. Now legally blind, he no longer can drive but can read with the help of technology.

From relying on a magnifying glass, he started using a portable device that blows up the letters in documents. He also discovered a desktop model that does the same thing.

“All of a sudden, I can read again,” Futrell said. “It keeps you independent.”

LATAN began receiving a federal Assistive Technology Act grant in 1991. The organization turned to state government when that grant decreased.

Futrell has come to the State Capitol during sessions for several years to ask legislators to help fund LATAN. Legislators generally have been favorable to that request, even during tight fiscal years.

LATAN officials said their budget records show the organization received $600,000 in the state fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008. The organization reported state funding gradually dwindled to $250,000 by the 2010-2011 budget year.

In the 2011-2012 state fiscal year, LATAN received no state funding, Nesbit said. She said the organization drained its reserves to fill the gap.

State funding returned the following budget year — the year state government currently is in — at a level of $250,000 and was supposed to continue in the upcoming year before the governor’s veto, she said.

Charles Tate, chairman of LATAN’s board of directors, sent the Jindal administration a letter Monday titled “accidental line item veto.”

He asked for direction in restoring the funding.

“I believe in this case it really was a mistake,” Tate said in a telephone interview about the governor’s veto.