On April 3, voters in Kenner rejected three new property tax millages and three renewals of existing millages. The six referenda, had they passed, would have brought Kenner closer, tax-wise, to its neighbors in Metairie and Gretna. The propositions were supported not only by Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni but also by Police Chief Steve Caraway and Fire Chief John Hellmers. In a time when voters have no stomach for anything that looks like a tax, the three men made convincing cases for their positions and put their names behind ballot measures they knew would be unpopular.
Voters (or at least the 25 percent of Kenner voters who made it to the polls) no doubt believed that rejecting the millage propositions would force Kenner leaders to "cut the fat" from the city's budget — or at least defund niceties such as the Rivertown museums. Truth is, all of the museums, with the exception of the planetarium, likely would have been cut severely or shuttered anyway. The new and renewed millages would have improved Kenner's grossly substandard sewerage system, given the Police Department a dedicated source of funding (it currently has none), and attempted to get Kenner's Class 2 fire rating up to a Class 1 rating, which would lower homeowners' insurance rates. Without the fire millage, Kenner's fire rating may well slip to a Class 3, which means property owners could pay higher insurance premiums for less effective fire coverage. That's a classic example of ruinous unintended consequences.
Meanwhile, as Congress grappled with its own budget decisions last week, another unintended consequence emerged. The Republican spending plan would cut funding to several traditional GOP targets, among them the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It also would cut major funding for Special Olympics. Tim Shriver, the CEO of Special Olympics and the son of founder Eunice Shriver, says of the GOP's proposed budget, "It wasn't a haircut; it was a guillotine."
Special Olympics Louisiana concurs. In a statement to Gambit, communications director Tiffany Harvey-Gautier said two of Special Olympics' major programs would be adversely affected by the proposed budget. One of them is "Project UNIFY," which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education with $8.1 million per year — less than 1/61,000th of the GOP's projected cuts.
Meanwhile, the Healthy Athletes initiative, which provides specialized health screenings for people with intellectual disabilities, likewise faces severe cuts. Since 1997, Healthy Athletes has helped thousands of Louisianans by providing them with trained professionals attuned to people with special needs — needs with which many health care providers are unfamiliar or inexperienced. "Special Olympics is not 'nice,'" says Harvey-Gautier. "It is necessary, and continued funding is vital to our growth and success." Healthy Athletes is funded by seed money from the Centers for Disease Control, and funding it costs far less than providing individual special-needs medical care.
Fortunately, Special Olympics has a champion among GOP cost-cutting hawks: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who boasted of increasing her state's Special Olympics budget when she was governor. In a promotional video for the organization, Palin — holding her own special-needs son, Trig — said, "Thanks to Special Olympics, we know that Trig is going to have every opportunity to enjoy sports and competition that all of our other children have. ... We still don't know what the future holds for Trig, but for our family and for millions of other families with special children, Special Olympics gives us confidence and excitement for his future." Now would be the perfect time for Palin to stand up for special-needs children all over America.
New Orleanians understand youth activities are investments in our future. In his town hall meetings, Mayor Mitch Landrieu recognized that people from all neighborhoods and all income groups wanted increased funding for the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD). Despite cuts in the city's 2011 municipal budget, NORD's funding has been doubled.
In the last few months, voters in New Orleans and Kenner have set their priorities. Now it's Congress' turn. The GOP says slashing the budget will create a better world, but gutting Special Olympics would do exactly the opposite.