A landmark day for voting rights

Posted on May 17, 2018

The Senate advanced legislation on Wednesday that would restore voting rights to felons on parole who have been out of prison for five years. Under House Bill 265, by Rep. Patricia Smith of Baton Rouge, an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people would be added to the voter rolls, according to the Department of Corrections. The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy, and Gannet’s Greg Hilburn reports how much this means to formerly incarcerated individuals.

Sen. J.P. Morrell added that the right to vote is “something that everyone should aspire to.” “These are people who actively want to vote,” he said of former felons who have supported criminal justice reforms at the Capitol throughout the legislative session. “They understand how important that activity is and they are desperate to have it.” …  “This process has created a new understanding between many legislators and people with felony convictions.” Yancy said. “Most of all, I look forward to just going to vote for the first time in over 30 years with my wife and my little granddaughter who has always seen me as a good citizen, despite mistakes I made in the past.”

In another win for criminal justice reform advocates, the House refused to advance a constitutional amendment by Sen. Conrad Appel that would bar convicted felons from running for office for five years. SB 31 could be brought up again, but time is running out to advance legislation for this session.


Capital outlay advances
The Senate advanced House Bill 2, known as the the capital outlay budget, which authorizes bond funding for the vast majority of the state’s highest priority construction projects. Unfortunately, the amount of funding for those priority projects in the capital outlay budget was reduced from $961 million for the current year to approximately $683 million for next year. Sen J.P. Morrell, who handled the bill in the Senate, cited the ongoing budget struggles as the cause for the reduction. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports:

But Morrell said, most of the projects on the list should go to the Bond Commission and receive funding. The Bond Commission sells the bonds, which need to be repaid by taxpayers with interest, to raise the money to pay for the for the projects. The list of projects skews towards infrastructure, repairs to university and other state buildings.  And depending on what projects are ready to go when, Morrell said officials should be able to start dipping into the list considered the second most important. “I have been working closely with the administration to make sure every region is well represented,” Morrell said. Obviously, some projects are larger and are aimed at economic development, he said. But absent those projects, “We’re trying to make sure everybody gets something out it,” Morrell said.


Last bids to reform TOPS fail
Two Senate-passed bills that would have expanded the number of students who qualify for the TOPS Opportunity scholarship were shot down in the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. SB 380, by Sen. Wesley Bishop, would have offered TOPS Opportunity awards to students who scored a 17 on the ACT (the current standard is a 20) if they enrolled in a four-year university and maintained a 3.2 GPA for two years. James Callier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation, criticized what he called attempts to lower standards, but Bishop disagreed. The Advocates’ Will Sentell:

Bishop disputed criticism of his bill. He said students who get a 3.2 GPA in college are “honors” students. “And you are saying this kid doesn’t deserve TOPS, who has outperformed all of his peers?” Bishop asked Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, a member of the committee who said he was concerned about expanding TOPS.

Callier was also critical of Sen. Bodi White’s bill, which would allow students to get a TOPS Tech award for two years of community college and then go on to earn the TOPS Opportunity award to complete a four-year degree.

Under White’s bill, students could land TOPS Opportunity for two years if they spent two years on TOPS Tech, which already requires a 17 on the ACT, got a 3.2 GPA and an associate degree. TOPS Tech, which is the least used of the four TOPS awards, finances tuition at community and technical colleges. “I think we need to push more people into community college,” White told the committee. He noted TOPS Tech costs the state about half of what other forms of TOPS do.


Different people have different rules for work requirements
The vast majority of people in Louisiana who receive their health insurance through Medicaid are working, caring for family members, or in school. Research also shows that having Medicaid actually makes it easier for people to look for work and stay healthy enough to remain the workplace. But what happens when the those currently on Medicaid live where work is hard to find? In Michigan, the legislature is considering a proposal that would exempt Medicaid recipients from a work requirement based on geography. The legislation would suspend the requirement if the individual lives in a county where unemployment exceeds 8.5 percent. A closer look reveals the racial inequality inherent in the proposal. Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz from the New York Times’ Upshot blog report:

Michigan’s approach, critics point out, would mean that poor, mostly white rural counties are exempted, but not the predominantly black, economically troubled cities of Detroit and Flint. Those cities happen to be located within counties with low suburban unemployment, which brings the overall unemployment of the counties below 8.5 percent. There are similar demographic patterns in other states pursuing work requirements,  including Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio, where the rural areas most likely to qualify for exemptions tend to be disproportionately white. “This is trying to thread that needle between ‘are you poor because of structural reasons, where you live,’ or ‘are you poor because of your own choices?’” said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute.


Number of the Day
83,700  – Number of Louisianans working in the service industry and receiving SNAP benefits. Punitive work requirements in the House Farm Bill would negatively impact service industry workers with irregular work schedules and fluctuating hours. (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)


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