Second day of public testimony on state spending plan

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Tourism, shelters, food banks at risk

Legislators contended with tears, warnings that hospitals could close and images of empty food bank shelves Wednesday on a second day of public testimony on the state budget.

“I know you’ve got a tough job ... but you asked for it. It’s yours,” Bill Langkopp, executive director of the Louisiana Hotel and Lodging Association, told members of the House Appropriations Committee.

The public got the opportunity to speak out this week about the impact the governor’s $24.7 billion proposed state operating budget will have unless changes are made. Their forum was a committee meeting at the State Capitol.

Legislators are digging into Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The budget funds health care, education and other public services. Legislators have the opportunity to make changes to the budget in the current session.

First up Wednesday was tearful testimony from domestic violence victims, who pleaded with legislators to keep funding intact for battered women’s shelters instead of allowing the governor to slash the dollars.

One victim held up a photograph of all the weapons her former partner used to abuse her.

“I’m still trying to recover from the previous testimony. I don’t know how you do it,” Langkopp said when it was his turn to speak.

Langkopp and other tourism officials asked legislators to ensure that tourism dollars are spent on tourism and not on sports events and other expenses.

They said the governor wants to divert too many dollars away from tourism promotion.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who oversees tourism, has complained that $8.6 million would come out of his tourism budget to pay for the Senior Olympics, a Creole plantation home, the state library, the arts and other expenses.

“Louisiana is a strong draw, but people go where advertising takes them,” said Jill Kidder, of the Louisiana Travel Promotion Association.

Paul Arrigo, president and chief executive officer of Visit Baton Rouge, said it’s important to promote the Louisiana brand because of cultural exchange and pride.

State Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, shared his own troubles with tourism officials.

He said he faces his fifth year as the state budget bill sponsor without enough money to cover expenses.

“We talk about creating jobs all across this state, and I think we have,” Fannin said. “But the revenue’s not going up, ladies and gentlemen.”

Food bank organizers gave legislators empty plates to illustrate their need for state funding.

Jayne Wright-Velez, executive director of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana, told the committee that food banks across the state are turning away people.

She said food banks requested $5 million in state funding but will take anything they can get.

Joe Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, told legislators that the Jindal administration is burning through a trust fund established to help pay nursing homes to care for Medicaid patients.

The trust fund has a balance of roughly $400 million. Donchess said the administration wants to withdraw $183 million in the upcoming fiscal year after withdrawing a sizable amount this fiscal year.

“The burn rate is quite frightening,” he said.

Louisiana Rural Hospital Coalition executive director Linda Welch warned that rural hospitals could close because the governor wants to cut some of the funding the hospitals get to treat patients.

She said the majority of hospitals would be in trouble.

“Health care has become such a monetary issue ... instead of a moral and human issue,” Welch said.