BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal defended his decision to strip $4 million from next year's budget that would have expanded a program that provides at-home services to the developmentally disabled, saying Tuesday that the state couldn't afford the expansion.
The Republican governor has faced criticism for line-item vetoes that struck out that funding for a program called the New Opportunity Waiver, or NOW, and other dollars slated for disabled services.
Jindal's office released a letter to Louisiana newspapers saying he wasn't cutting any services that people already receive through the NOW program and highlighting spending increases to the program since he's taken office.
"Caring for people with developmental disabilities is important, and it is a responsibility we take seriously — as evidenced by the fact that more of our most vulnerable are receiving care in our most comprehensive program with more funding than ever before," Jindal wrote.
Family members of developmentally disabled children who need around-the-clock care or who need only modest help pleaded with lawmakers for new funding, saying 10,000 people are on a waiting list for services.
They show up each year with children in wheelchairs, packing committee rooms and asking for increased spending to shrink the waiting list.
"With the governor's veto pen, he dashed their hope and their peace of mind," said Kay Marcel, of New Iberia, an outspoken advocate for the developmentally disabled. "It's devastating to have had the Legislature say that this is a priority, identify the funding for it and then the governor take it away."
Jindal said the state's $25.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was tight, and the state didn't have enough money for the NOW expansion. He said lawmakers didn't include enough funding to pay for an expected increase in the use of existing Medicaid services.
Marcel's 34-year-old son Joel has the chromosomal disorder Down syndrome and receives services through the NOW program that help him maintain a job with the local recreation department and provides assistance at Marcel's home if both Marcel and her husband are away at one time. Marcel said her son waited for 10 years before he got a NOW slot.
"That support is critical," she said.
The $4 million the governor removed from the budget would have added services for 200 new recipients, a small chip away at the lengthy waiting list.
"People who would have gotten the 200 slots have been waiting for over eight years," said Sandee Winchell, executive director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council.
Winchell said more than 8,000 people receive services through NOW currently, including nearly 2,200 new recipients added during Jindal's tenure. Many of those additions were made by lawmakers and were upheld by the governor.
In the letter, the governor said funding for the NOW program has grown by more than $91 million since 2008 and more people are receiving services through the $417 million program. He said spending has increased on other at-home and community-based services programs as well during his two terms in office.
"We have expanded this program in the past and will continue to expand it in the future as the budget allows," he wrote.
Jindal also cut out of next year's budget about $2 million in other funding for disabled services, including dollars for a family support program, assistive technology services and regional resource centers to help people access services.
Winchell said the family support program helps with small amounts of assistance for families on the waiting list for the NOW program, and she said those dollars have been cut in recent years.