Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Equal pay and minimum wage up for debate; Advocates say proposed cigarette tax not high enough; Medicaid expansion still a possibility and; Budget winners and losers (so far)

Equal pay and minimum wage up for debate
Two bills aimed at making Louisiana workplaces more fair for women and tipped employees face a key hearing today at the Legislature.  Senate Bill 219 by Sen. Edwin Murray of New Orleans applies to companies with at least 50 employees and would require them to pay men and women the same wage for doing the same job. In an open letter to the House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations, Julie Schwam Harris, Advocacy Chair  for the Independent Women’s Organization and Co-Chair of the Legislative Agenda for Women, stated her case:


Women are working at a terrible disadvantage in our state.  Women earn on average about 66 cents for every dollar a man earns for full time year round work, a lower ratio than the year before. Louisiana ranks worst in the country.  The Louisiana Fair Pay Task Force Report of March 2014 had tables showing women made less whether the field was a traditional male or female dominated type of work.  Even after taking factors into account such as the type of work performed, care-giving differences, job qualifications, education level, and prior experience, a wage gap persists. We have heard these numbers being dismissed by opponents of the bill as just “statistics” but they are real statistics that present real problems for real women and their families. Strengthening equal pay protections benefits businesses and the economy.  Profits go up, not down, when a business is fair and equitable toward its employees.  As Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, explained in a letter to you last year that pay equality “ improves employee morale and retention, and helps the bottom line.  It puts more money in the family’s pockets to purchase goods and services otherwise not afforded.”


The Labor and Industrial Relations Committee will also take up a bill by Rep. Marcus Hunter of Monroe that would establish a minimum wage in Louisiana of $7.25 (the state currently abides only by the federal minimum wage) and increase the wages of tipped workers to $7.25 by 2017. House Bill 677 would also repeal a law that does not allow municipalities to establish their own minimum wage laws.


Advocates say proposed cigarette tax not high enough

Rain may have moved advocates who support higher cigarette taxes from the steps of the State Capitol to the nearby Visitors Center Wednesday, but it did not keep them from having their voices heard. A coalition including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Louisiana Budget Project, The Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, Louisiana Cancer Prevention and Control Programs and The Rapides Foundation rallied to support a higher tax on cigarettes than the additional 32 cents per pack proposed in House Bill 119. The Advocate was there:


Stasha M. Rhodes of the American Heart Association told the group of about 100 that an increased tax on cigarettes would raise additional revenues to help balance the state budget was lagniappe. The real goal was to price cigarettes high enough that youngsters couldn’t afford them and wouldn’t pickup the addictive habit. If Louisiana’s tax was more than a dollar per pack — like in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas — then statistics show that almost 35,000 people under the age of 18 wouldn’t start smoking, she said. Louisiana has the seventh highest percentage of smokers compared to the overall population and 4,700 youngsters start smoking each day, according to Invest in a Healthy Louisiana, the umbrella group that organized the rally and day of lobbying.


Medicaid expansion still a possibility
Legislation that creates a potential financing mechanism in case Louisiana’s next governor wants to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income adults is nearing final passage. As The Advocate reports, House Concurrent Resolution 75 by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley would pave the way for offering Medicaid coverage to an additional 240,000 people. It cannot be vetoed by the governor.


House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said the resolution is not a mechanism to expand Medicaid, nor does it make it easier for expansion to occur. He said it simply provides an “option” for when a new governor assumes office.    “It’s very, very clear the current governor’s position on Medicaid expansion. The reality is in a little over six months we will have a new governor,” said House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. Kleckley said the major candidates have already said they are open to Medicaid expansion in one form or another. “When they are sworn in they will have an option … to go forward.” Sen. Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville, noted that the legislation does not address what type of Medicaid coverage expansion would take place. “You are leaving it open to a new administration.” If the option is used, Kleckley said the Legislature’s fiscal advisers estimated it would save between $100 million and $200 million in state funds which could be used for other budget requirements.


Budget winners and losers (so far)
Julia O’Donoghue of takes a look at the winners and losers in the state budget as it left the House. The version of House Bill 1 that moved to the Senate last week is about $155 million short of what legislative leaders say they need to fund basic services next year – with most of that shortfall coming in health care services.

WINNER: Louisiana’s public universities and colleges

The Louisiana House made it their top priority to fund higher education as much as possible before the budget bill left its chamber. Under the spending plan sent to the Senate, Louisiana’s public colleges and universities will sustain a budget cut of around $40 million — far less than the $392 million cut that was being thrown around earlier in the budget process.

LOSER: Hospitals taking over the former charity system’s responsibilities

Money still hasn’t been found to fully fund the private operators who have taken over duties from Louisiana’s old charity hospital system that served the poor and uninsured. The House allocated $17 million toward these expenses, but the hospitals still need an additional $95 million.

This particularly affects the soon-to-be-opened University Medical Center in New Orleans. The facility needs an additional $88 million in state and federal funding to function at full capacity next year, according to LCMC, the operators which will run the hospital.


Number of The Day:

$155 million: the approximate financial shortfall in the proposed state budget in its current posture (Source: The Advocate)