Public Takes Its Turn To Talk About Louisiana's Budget

BATON ROUGE (AP) — With dollars in scarce supply, people packed the House budget committee in a gloomy competition for state financing from a panel where many Republicans say Louisiana needs to pare back its spending.

         Tuesday was public testimony day in the Appropriations Committee, when the general public gets its turn to talk about where it would like to see the state's dollars spent in next year's nearly $29 billion operating budget, for the financial year that begins July 1.

         With tearful stories, people sought boosted financing for health programs for the elderly and disabled. They asked for more dollars for rural hospitals. They requested increased staffing at state facilities that care for people with disabilities and mental health problems.

         But with the tight state budget and House Republican leaders resistant to the tax hikes proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, it's unclear how much success the requests will have.

         Families in yellow shirts bearing the words "We've Waited Long Enough!" asked for dollars to help parents waiting for home- and community-based services for children with disabilities.

         Bryan and Cindy Kutz, who live in Zachary, received six months of state assistance that helped give them a few hours of "respite care" from the constant monitoring of their 15-year-old son Blaine, only to see the help yanked away amid budget constraints.

         "So, we have nothing," Cindy Kutz told the committee.

         Kutz's son has Alfi's syndrome, a rare chromosomal disorder that causes both mental and physical impairments. Cindy Kutz described her son having "meltdowns" in which he runs into windows, doors and walls — and doesn't feel the pain of the tantrums.

         "A simple outing to a movie or to a store requires both my husband and I to manage Blaine," Cindy Kutz said.

         The parents asked for more dollars for local human services districts that provide the services they had and lost. Sandee Winchell, executive director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, said the districts are not equitably funded.

         "It matters where you live, and that shouldn't be the case with a state program," she said.

         Winchell also sought dollars for other programs, requests that reached at least $5 million. She said that, without assistance, some families will be forced to send their children to institutions where the state will have to pay for their care, which Winchell said costs more on average.

         "It's difficult for families to understand why the state won't invest in keeping their families together rather than pulling them apart," Winchell said.

         Several Republicans on the committee suggested the more than $14 billion budget planned for the Department of Health should be enough to pay for the families' requests.

         Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican, said the agency needs to spend dollars more wisely. Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, a Republican from Metairie, said some dollars allocated to unfilled jobs could be spent instead on services for people with disabilities.

         "The money's there if they choose to do it," Henry said.

         Advocates for the elderly also sought dollars for home- and community-based programs that help older adults with things like home modifications and meal deliveries. Andrew Muhl, advocacy director for AARP Louisiana, said 30,000 people are on a waiting list for those services, which he said keep people out of nursing homes.

         Carmen Weisner, Louisiana leader in the National Association of Social Workers, requested nearly $5 million to help teenagers exiting the foster care system, a program cut years ago.

         "At the age of 18 they're not ready to be on their own," she said. "It's a moral responsibility."

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte


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