Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sheriffs shut down attempt to reform marijuana possession laws; TOPS reform bills continue to flounder; Survey finds that Obamacare is reducing number of uninsured Americans; New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposes to pay city workers a $10.10 minimum wage; and NAMI Louisiana state conference April 4 and 5 in Baton Rouge. 20 – The number of years that someone convicted of a third charge of possession of marijuana can be sentenced to prison in Louisiana (Source: The Advocate)

Sheriffs shut down attempt to reform marijuana possession laws
A bid to bring Louisiana’s marijuana sentencing laws more in line with national norms was unexpectedly opposed by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association in a House committee hearing on Thursday, leading to a tense and at times angry meeting yesterday, reports the Advocate.  Bill sponsor Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said he had been told the sheriffs would remain neutral, according to nola.com.

Louisiana incarcerates more people, on a per-capita basis, than any other political jurisdiction on earth. That’s in large part due to drug sentencing laws that are among the toughest in the country. It’s a problem that everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to libertarian policy groups, the Times-Picayune’s conservative columnist to district attorneys have recognized. But reform attempts have traditionally run aground at the Legislature after opposition from the law enforcement community. Badon’s House Bill 14 would have reduced the punishment for a second pot conviction from five years to two, and the punishment for a third conviction from 20 years to five. It also would have removed pot possession from being used as part of the state’s “habitual offender” law. Eighteen people serving life in prison in Louisiana have a marijuana possession as one of their “three strikes.”

On the budget front, the Fiscal Office found the change would save taxpayers $48.6 million over five years – money that would otherwise flow to sheriffs, who get paid to house more than half of all state inmates. Next year’s budget includes $177 million for sheriff’s housing, and any laws that reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders would cut into that cash flow.

TOPS reform bills continue to flounder
Despite widespread acknowledgement that the cost of Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarships is increasing at an unsustainable rate, the program’s popularity with parents and students and ironclad support from Gov. Bobby Jindal continue to make just about any reform very unlikely.

The most recent set of reforms to run into the brick wall were proposed by Rep. Marcus Hunter. According to the Advocate, Hunter wants to require students to stay and work in Louisiana for as many years as they received a scholarship. Students who don’t meet this requirement would have to repay the state for their scholarships. Hunter’s HB 997 would also require students who lose TOPS grant to poor performance to pay back the portion of the scholarship they have already received.

Last year, a Legislative Auditor report found that 44 percent of students lose their TOPS scholarship at some point, the majority during their first year of school. Critics of the program say that the standards to qualify are too low and the state is wasting millions every year on students who don’t maintain eligibility or drop out. Previous attempts this session to cap or scale back the award amounts and increase eligibility standards have also been unsuccessful.

Survey finds that Obamacare is reducing number of uninsured Americans
The PBS NewsHour reports on a survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which found that 5.4 million Americans gained access to health insurance between the end of September and the beginning of March as a result of the Affordable Care Act. The survey was conducted March 6 and did not include most of the last month of open enrollment in the new health exchanges when sign-ups surged, meaning it almost certainly undercounts the number of newly insured. Coming after the president’s announcement that more than 7 million people bought insurance plan through the new health exchange — in line with the original goal, despite massive technical problems — the survey is another reason for optimism amongst ACA supporters.

The survey also notes that states that expanded Medicaid saw more dramatic decreases in the number of uninsured adults. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s continued opposition to Medicaid expansion will not only leave many adults uninsured and at risk of bankruptcy, but could contribute to as many as 500 or more avoidable deaths every year, according to a letter to Times-Picayune from two local physicians.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposes to pay city workers a $10.10 minimum wage
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled a pack of hiring and pay reforms on Thursday that included a guaranteed $10.10 minimum wage for city workers, reports the Times-Picayune. While a raise is sure to be welcomed by the city’s lowest paid workers, other parts of the reform package are likely to be more controversial, including provisions that give the mayor’s office more flexibility when it comes to job hiring and promotion. The changes would need to be approved by the City Council and the New Orleans Civil Service Commission.

Over the decades, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has been steadily eroded, as periodic increases have failed to offset the rising cost of living. Had the minimum wage kept pace since 1968, it would be $10.74 today. Numerous bills have been filed in the Legislature to implement a higher statewide minimum wage, and recent polling found that 73 percent of Louisianans — including a majority of both men and women, whites and blacks, and Democrats and Republicans — support a wage of at least $8.50 an hour.

NAMI Louisiana state conference April 4 and 5 in Baton Rouge
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Louisiana is holdings its statewide conference today and tomorrowin Baton Rouge at the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators on Florida Blvd. To register and for a copy of the full agenda, visit http://namilouisiana.org/.

20 – The number of years that someone convicted of a third charge of possession of marijuana can be sentenced to prison in Louisiana (Source: The Advocate)