Political Horizons: Disabled in crosshairs of budget austerity _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Jessica Michot, of Denham Springs, came with her son Gabriel, center, on Sunday night to hear Gov. John Bel Edwards speech to open the special session of the Louisiana Legislature. Caitlin Coleman, of Baton Rouge, right, was with her daughter, Rebecca, and mother-in-law, Diane. John Paul Lorio, left, and came his parents.

Caitlin Coleman and her husband, Kyle, are contemplating divorce.

It’s not that their relationship has soured. Rather, the Baton Rouge couple just needs to be prepared.

The Colemans probably couldn’t care less whether Gov. John Bel Edwards, as portrayed by the GOP, is a “tax and spend liberal” employing “scare tactics” to saddle Louisiana families with burdensome taxes. Their focus, like the families of 8,686 severely disabled children, is whether Louisiana lawmakers will slash the state’s $35.3 million portion of a $93.5 million federal program that helps them care for their daughter at home instead of warehousing her in an institution.

As a deliberately single mother with one income, Coleman said she would qualify for alternative assistance. “That’s the choice we’re left with,” Coleman said during a visit to the State Capitol last week, as Kyle, her mother and her mother-in-law all nodded in agreement.

Edwards, a Democrat, is trying to persuade an overwhelmingly Republican and increasingly hostile House to close a roughly $900 million gap between the money the state has available and the bills it must pay over the next four months. (They then have to tackle a $2 billion deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.)

Edwards is floating ideas to cut about $200 million in state services; use about $330 million from one-time funds, such as part of the BP settlement, and then bridge the rest of the gap with tax increases.

Edwards is asking legislators to choose among nine proposals to increase taxes for individual consumers (and others for the business community).

One idea, for instance, is to increase the tax on telephones from 2 or 3 percent — depending on the type of phone — to 5 percent. It would create about $8 million over the next three months and about $40 million for the year.

Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based group initially funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers — is running a commercial attacking Edwards for proposals it says undermine Louisiana families. The increase in phone taxes would cost consumers an extra $45 a year or nearly 1 gallon of pennies, the group claims.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy emailed supporters inviting them to help him save LSU football by saying “NO to Gov. Edwards’ Plan!” and by donating to his 2020 re-election campaign.

The Rev. Rick Edmonds, one of the rookie representatives on the House Appropriations Committee, complained that Edwards is playing chicken with legislators by presenting worst-case scenarios. (Edmonds had been vice president of Louisiana Family Forum, an advocacy group that pushes conservative family values.)

The program on which the Colemans rely to keep their family together would be protected if $350 million is raised from Edwards’ proposed taxes, testified DHH Undersecretary Jeff Reynolds, the money man at the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

DHH would still have to cut $64 million from its $9 billion budget. If not enough taxes are raised, DHH would have to cut $252 million, including the Colemans’ program.

In figuring out where to cut, Reynolds said first he has to weigh the legally required government services, then consider the “optional” programs, such as the one the Colemans use, and others called “waivers” in government-speak.

Reynolds said he reduced what the private contractors who administer the state’s charity hospitals had demanded. Sure, they could walk away from their contracts, thereby closing medical facilities for the impoverished, but that possibility is preferable to eliminating services for severely disabled children, he said.

“If I start cutting waivers, then you’re talking about putting disabled clients out on the street, making them homeless; in essence, putting them out on the street to die,” Reynolds said.

Legislators asked if DHH could save money by eliminating fraud.

One problem is that the Jindal administration laid off most of the state workers who vetted Medicaid applicants to ensure they met the qualifications. (DHH has decreased its employee rolls from about 11,000 to about 5,500 during the past eight years, even as the budget grew from $7.4 billion in 2008 to about $9 billion for 2016.)

Nothing is stopping House Republicans from filing bills that would, say, merge university campuses or demand a vote that would unlock the billions set aside for public schools or attack any of the other big-ticket items.

They have not.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry is the Metairie Republican who was instrumental in the GOP legislators’ rebellion that, six weeks ago, cast off the traditional executive domination of the legislative branch. On Thursday, Henry said he’s still waiting for the executive branch to file a bill detailing the spending cuts before his panel will weigh in on budget measures.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com and is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.