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Lawmakers Hear Pleas To Protect Health, College Programs


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In a stark reminder of the real-life implications of budget decisions facing lawmakers, college students, parents of children with disabilities and others who rely on Louisiana for services piled into a legislative hearing room Tuesday to plead for their programs to be spared from cuts.

Tuesday was public testimony day in the House Appropriations Committee, the day when the general public and advocacy groups get their turns to describe how government-financed programs affect them.

With Louisiana facing an estimated $700 million gap in the financial year that begins July 1, people in the budget hearing worried their services will be on the chopping block, some breaking into tears as they told their stories.

People with developmental disabilities, some in wheelchairs, and family members agonized that waiting lists for services with thousands of names would grow longer and people would be stripped from care they currently receive.

Nina Savoie, of Ascension Parish, told lawmakers her son John Harris died at age 5 last year without ever receiving state-financed services to help with care for disabilities stemming from a premature birth.

"He's not waiting on the list anymore," Savoie said.

Private insurance would cover some treatments, she said, but not the full list of services and equipment needed.

"It doesn't have to be like this, and we were not the only family on the list with a terminal illness," Savoie said. "I can't help but wonder what could have been."

Father Patrick Mascarella, blind and assisted by his yellow Labrador retriever Pace, urged lawmakers to steer money to Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, which helps disabled people live and work independently in their communities. The agency provides skills training and helps people locate technology to assist them.

"It gives you a way to continue life. It gives you a way to continue employment," the 77-year-old Catholic priest said.

Mascarella told lawmakers he understood they faced tough decisions to divvy up limited dollars.

"The Scriptures teach us in all the religions that blessed are those who are able to care for those who have disabilities. ... Blessed are you when you care for us," he said.

Student-body presidents from several universities asked lawmakers to keep higher education and the TOPS college tuition program free from cuts.

"We need to invest in our future. We need to invest in our students," said Austin Wendt, student vice president at Nicholls State University.

Benjamin Rice, student government president at Louisiana Tech University, said nearly a decade's worth of state financing cuts to colleges have discouraged students, chasing some to other states and forcing others out of school entirely.

"Their confidence in our state has been destroyed," he said.

Dollars were requested for local Councils on Aging, early childhood education and addiction treatment programs, among other areas.

Louisiana's budget shortfall is caused by the expiration of temporary taxes. A special session called by Gov. John Bel Edwards earlier this year failed to raise any money to close the gap. Edwards wants another special session to consider replacement taxes, but some lawmakers — particularly House Republican leaders — are trying to find ways to slash spending to balance the budget without passing as many taxes as the Democratic governor is seeking.

The Appropriations Committee is expected to craft its version of the annual operating budget next week.

- by AP reporter Melinda Deslatte

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