Legislative Report

Public pushes for programs at cash-strapped Capitol

by Katie Gagliano, Manship School News Service

The Rev. Pat Mascarella, a retired, blind Catholic priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, pleads for continued funding for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services at a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday. He joked that his guide dog, Pace, would not bite if they did not.
Photo by Katie Gagliano

The House Committee on Appropriations Tuesday was filled with stories of hardship and passion as advocates for disability services and health care programs dominated the first day of open testimony on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive budget.

Individuals and families supporting programs from developmental disability waivers to rehabilitation services for the blind to everything in between packed the committee room to request improved funding support.

Several acknowledged that full funding was an improbable luxury given the state’s budget-constraints, rather imploring lawmakers to prevent future cuts and maintain the current year’s budget.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, called the public input period “the worst two days of my session” because of limited funds and the difficult decisions that must be made. While everyone has strong arguments for funding, he said, few know where to make the necessary cuts to balance the budget.

Deciding where to cut is especially difficult when the reduced funds are coming from other departments that serve vulnerable populations, said Sandee Winchell, executive director of Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council.

“I’m not going to sit up here and say that I advocate for taking money from the Office of Public Health or the Office of Behavioral Health, or some other portion of the health budget to support people with developmental disabilities,” Winchell said.

“All people served by the Department of Health need services. I’m sorry... but as a human being I’m not going to advocate for that.”

Winchell and several dozen advocates from the disabilities council implored legislators to fund the 627 vacant New Opportunities Waiver (NOW) slots historically budgeted by the state to allow families to avoid institutionalizing their loved ones. Winchell also pushed for improved funding for under supported home and community services districts, to meet the needs of the 15,000 of families still on the waiting list for NOW and other waivers.

Brian Kutz of Zachary said the constant stress of caring for their 15-year-old son, Blaine, who has Alfi’s Syndrome, caused spouse Cindy to suffer a mild stroke and the stress has prompted recurring health issues. Blaine’s violent outbursts require constant care and attention for the simplest of tasks, and their residence in Zachary prevents them from reaching limited home and community based services.

Increased services and waiver funding could provide the Kutzes with the respite services and physical they need to continue care for Blaine, he said.

The Rev. Pat Mascarella, a retired, blind Catholic priest from Baton Rouge and activist for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, asked the committee to maintain the organization’s funding as his guide dog, Pace, rested beside him during the hearing.

Mascarella said he hoped he would die before going blind because it would probably be easier, but through the help of Louisiana Rehabilitation Services he has learned the skills he needs to remain independent and was able to continue his ministry.

Every dollar invested in LRS produces a $17 return in taxes and productivity, and allows the visually impaired to establish homes and successful lives. By investing in these services now, the state can make an investment for the future, he said.

Mascarella acknowledged the state’s fiscal bind and said he and Pace would understand if they couldn’t make ends meet, but asked them to maintain as much of the current funding level as possible.

“He won’t bite you if you cut the funds,” Mascarella quipped.