Senate panel forwards tax to help the deaf

A Shreveport legislator said Thursday that an agreement is in place with Gov. Bobby Jindal to ensure hearing impaired residents receive financial assistance for the tools they need to navigate daily life.

The governor offered an alternative funding source to allow legislators to abandon state Rep. Patrick Williams’ legislation. Williams, D-Shreveport, proposed taxing cellphone bills since fees on landlines no longer generate enough money to meet the deaf community’s needs.

Despite the governor’s offer — and the Legislature’s disdain this session for tax increases — a committee advanced House Bill 238 anyway. Legislators have recoiled this session at increasing the state cigarette tax and raising the state sales tax.

However, the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee committee voted, without objection, to advance House Bill 238, which would add 2 cents to the monthly bills for most cellphones and pagers.

Hearing impaired residents packed the audience. Interpreters helped them follow the proceedings.

The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Neil Riser, told the audience that he grapples with hearing problems. Riser, R-Columbia, looked out into the audience and said he understands the difficulty.

Another committee member, state Rep. Robert Adley, R-Benton, showed the audience that he wears a hearing aid. State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said her daughter teaches students with hearing problems.

“I support the bill,” said Dorsey-Colomb, who sits on the committee.

Philip Quibodeaux, of New Iberia, followed the proceedings with the help of April LeBlanc, of Cankton. LeBlanc acted as an interpreter for Quibodeaux, who is deaf and completely blind in one eye.

For Quibodeaux, the phone tax generates dollars that supply him with equipment that notifies him through vibrations when the doorbell rings or a fire breaks out.

Louisiana has the highest number of deaf and blind people in the nation because of Acadian descendants with Usher syndrome.

Descendants of the French-Canadians who migrated to the state are prone to a type of the syndrome that results in babies being born deaf and gradually losing their vision.

Consumers in Louisiana currently pay an extra 5 cents a month for residential and business local lines. The money generated goes to the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, which was formed in 1980 to facilitate accessibility for the deaf, deaf and blind, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

With the advancement of wireless technology, landlines no longer generate the dollars they once did.

Brandi Berkeley, chairwoman of the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, said the broadened tax would provide $1.9 million, or 70 percent of her budget for services.

Berkeley’s son has hearing loss.

“My son is 9 years old. This bill will affect his future,” she said.

The money would be used to buy interpreter services, hearing devices and other accessibility tools for disabled people on low incomes.

Outside the meeting, Sean Lansing, the governor’s press secretary, said the administration plans to replace the money that would be generated in Williams’ bill with a current revenue stream that has been increasing recently.

“Thus it will have no impact on the budget and it’s not a tax increase,” he said by email.

Lansing said existing dollars from a sales tax on telecommunications equipment can be used.

The Jindal administration did not come to the testimony table to spell out details on the alternative solution to committee members.

Instead, legislators were left with the vocal gratitude of the bill’s supporters.

“Thank y’all. Everyone, thank you so much,” Berkeley called out to legislators as she left the meeting room.