Public makes budget pleas

Crowd turns out to request money for struggling programs

Wearing the bright yellow shirt that has become the uniform for mothers seeking the state’s assistance with developmentally challenged children, Shannon Woodside told legislators Friday that all she wants is minimal help.

Woodside, of Zachary, adopted three children through the foster care system. Her youngest child suffers from shaken baby syndrome, sees more than 10 specialists and has a precarious grip on life.

“She’s unable to sit, crawl, walk, talk, feed herself, support herself in any capacity ... As a family we are stretched to the max physically, emotionally and financially,” Woodside told the Senate Finance Committee.

What Woodside and other mothers like her want the committee to do is preserve money in House Bill 1, the $25 billion state spending plan for the fiscal year that starts this summer. Using disaster recovery funds, $26 million was inserted to help families like the Woodsides. The money would pay for care workers to come into homes and help with daily routines, among other expenses.

Lori Dahl’s 8-year-old son, Jack, has three health challenges: He is autistic, epileptic and hyperactive. Water fascinates him, requiring Dahl to keep their Mandeville home in lockdown mode to prevent a flooding accident.

With a homebound mother and a recent divorce in the mix, Dahl is overwhelmed.

“I love my son so much and want him to remain at home with me. I want to help him gain independence and self-sufficiency so he can have a better life,” she told the Senate Finance Committee.

Like Woodside, Dahl asked legislators to keep the added money intact so families can get minimal help.

The committee is expected to make changes to HB1 and send the legislation to the full Senate. As the session winds down, the state operating budget is one of the last lingering pieces.

Friday was the public’s opportunity to talk to legislators on the Senate side of the State Capitol. The House also held a public testimony day.

The list of needs is lengthy. Funding lags for a mammogram program that screens uninsured women. Health care clinics for the working poor in the New Orleans area are strapped for cash. Food banks need to fill their shelves. Rural hospitals will shut their doors without state funding.

Food banks across the state would like $5 million to keep their shelves filled. However, Jayne Wright-Velez, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana, tempered her request after listening to the testimony. “Whatever amount that you can allocate, we will make it work,” she said.

Former Senate President Don Hines, D-Bunkie, found himself in an unusual vantage point Friday. Instead of sitting alongside legislators on the section of carpet that is a different color to mark a dividing line between senators and the public, he faced them and asked for $900,000 to help a telemedicine program and $225,000 to continue doing mammograms.

The telemedicine program helps patients in rural areas receive specialized medical advice without traveling to distant hospitals. The mammogram program screens women 40 or older who are uninsured.

“We’re just about running on fumes,” Hines said.

Senators listened to the pleas. The results of their deliberations will be revealed later this weekend, when the panel meets to send HB1 to the Senate floor.

Spotting a retired priest in the audience, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, made a request. “We’re going to need a little help with this budget. If you would give this committee a blessing before you leave.” The Rev. Patrick Mascarella — with his seeing eye dog at his feet — obliged.

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