Webster Council on Aging supports Proposition 11

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State Rep. Joe Harrison, District 51, visits with Jewelleyn Hawkins, center, and Henry Abram at the Webster Council on Aging Wednesday. He discussed Proposed Amendment No. 11 on the November 4 ballot with seniors, describing the intent to create the Department of Elderly Affairs as a stand-alone entity. Michelle Bates/Press-Herald
State Rep. Joe Harrison, District 51, visits with Jewelleyn Hawkins, center, and Henry Abram at the Webster Council on Aging Wednesday. He discussed Proposed Amendment No. 11 on the November 4 ballot with seniors, describing the intent to create the Department of Elderly Affairs as a stand-alone entity. Michelle Bates/Press-Herald

The Webster Council on Aging (COA) is throwing its support behind a proposed amendment on Tuesday’s ballot that could create a state department dedicated strictly to the elderly.

Proposed Amendment No. 11 would create the Department of Elderly Affairs, increasing the number of state departments from 20 to 21.

State Rep. Joe Harrison, District 51, author of House Bill No. 341 (Act 874) spoke to the Webster Council on Aging Wednesday and said it’s really not about creating another department.

“This is a quality of life issue for me,” he said. “It’s not that I want another department. That’s not what I started out to do. I want them (Office of Elderly Affairs) to have their own budget to control, not to be taken away from them.”

State Rep. Gene Reynolds, District 10, also supports the proposed amendment because it will streamline services currently offered and will be supportive to the councils on aging.

“The purpose behind this is to stop the constant moving around from place to place to place of this particular department and to protect the funds,” he said.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana indicates in their proposed amendment guide the state constitution is “supposed to be a state’s fundamental law that contains essential elements of government organization, the basic principles of governmental powers and the enumeration of citizen rights.”

So, if a legislator wants certain funds protected or dedicated, then it has to go before the people as an amendment to the constitution. In this way, funds or citizen rights are constitutionally protected, making it more difficult for legislators to raid certain funds when plugging holes into the state budget to make it balance.

Harrison said by creating the Department of Elderly Affairs, it would make the Office of Elderly Affairs (currently under the executive branch of the Governor’s Office) completely autonomous. Those in the department will have control of it and be able to address the needs of the elderly.

“We will save this state millions of dollars,” he said, “because the quality of life for someone to live in their home is 10 times better, mentally and physically.”

Opponents feel the passage of this proposed amendment would be about increasing the size of government.
State Sen. Mike Walsworth, District 33, said he opposed it from the beginning but gave in because this is what his constituents said they wanted.

“I opposed it on the grounds that we did a constitutional amendment in three days,” he said. “It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen an amendment go through the Legislature, and I just thought it was too quick.”

He said it’s not just about creating a department, because “this is just not an agency. We are creating a whole new department. It just grows. You have to have a secretary, then you have to have undersecretaries, and it just feeds upon itself.

“The COA does a tremendous job with the few dollars they get,” he continued. “I hope it works. But my debate was we were hurrying and suspending every rule in the book to make this happen. We’ve never been through a bill that fast.”

However, Harrison reiterated that because the office is currently under the executive branch, its funds are not protected and are continually raided to plug in the holes of the budget – depleting funds for programs like Meals on Wheels and the state’s councils on aging. It also drains funds for veterans and services offered for them.

It will not cost any more money than the services currently offered; in fact, it is already in the budget.

In 2013, the executive budget for the fiscal year 2014-15 shows the Office of Elderly Affairs receiving a total of $43,833,827 and recommended for the 2014-15 fiscal year about $300,000 less.

Means of funding (2014-15) include direct funding from the general fund at $19,530,157, fees and self-generated revenues at $12,500, statutory dedications at $6,521,928 and federal funds at $22,487,339.
Harrison said the Office of Elderly Affairs has a “baseline” budget, although the total budget increases or decreases from year to year.

Dathene Brown, executive director of the Webster COA, said she’s been working with the organization since 1969, and has been through several governors, several names for agencies aiding the elderly and it is still difficult to get grants.

“(In the 1970s) we applied for a $15,000 grant, and we had to go through the city with the combination of the Webster Parish School Board to get (the old COA facility) built,” she said. “It took every elected official in Webster Parish…the City of Minden, the Webster Parish Police Jury and the Webster Council on Aging is the reason we got that facility over there.”

Amendment No. 11? She’s all for it.

“It saves us caregivers a lot of frustration,” she said.

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