Friday, June 5, 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015

Senate finds money for hospitals; Public school funding formula shelved; New data on Medicaid expansion; and Advocate supports TOPS reform


Senate finds money for hospitals

With extra money available from tax and spending changes made earlier this week, the Senate Finance Committee added about $250 million to the state operating budget late Thursday before moving it forward to the full Senate for more debate. Most of the cash was used to plug holes in the health care budget – particularly for the private hospitals designated to serve the uninsured – after the House of Representatives used money from earlier tax changes to restore funding for higher education. As usual, Melinda Deslatte of the AP has the story:


All the gaps identified in the hospital deals were funded, and new money was provided to the medical schools so they wouldn’t have to absorb millions in insurance and retiree costs from the privatization deals. Additional dollars were poured into state parks, state museums and the state library to lessen planned cuts. More money was added into the state education department to shrink reductions and give the agency enough money for standardized testing plans. Dollars were provided to open a new juvenile detention facility, to continue operating a voter outreach program in the secretary of state’s office and to shrink planned cuts to the Agriculture Department.


With six days left before adjournment, the budget deal still depends on the passage of nearly a dozen tax bills that are working their way through the process, including an increase in the state cigarette tax to $1 per pack and an across-the-board cut to some tax credit programs. Legislators are also working on a package of bills designed to overhaul and cap Louisiana’s film subsidy program. But the biggest remaining sticking point is whether the final legislative package will satisfy Gov. Bobby Jindal’s anti-tax criteria.


Public school funding formula shelved

One reason the Senate had a little extra money to plug shortfalls is because earlier on Thursday the Senate Education Committee refused to adopt a financing formula for Louisiana’s public schools that included a 1.4 percent inflationary increase at a cost of $36 million next year. If the Legislature doesn’t adopt the new Minimum Foundation Program Formula, it means the current-year funding plan carries over to next year.


Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said programs and services across state government have taken cuts over the last seven years but the public school formula has been shielded from slashing. “In a time when we’re $1.6 billion in the hole and we’re struggling and we’re probably going to raise taxes on probably every person in the state, I’m struggling with ‘Hey, let’s get an increase,'” Walsworth said. “We can’t just stay in this silo and say there’s no one else out there.” The formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program, was crafted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Lawmakers can only approve or reject the formula BESE sends them. They cannot change it.


New data on Medicaid expansion

Figures released Thursday by the White House show that an estimated 193,000 Louisiana adults would get covered by Medicaid health insurance if the next governor elects to take advantage of available federal dollars. As’s Bruce Alpert reports, the figures come from the Urban Institute and are lower than earlier estimates that 242,000 low-income uninsured people would get covered through expansion.


For low-income workers, having access to Medicaid means fewer economic struggles, the report said. It estimates 27,400 fewer Louisiana residents would have trouble paying bills because the burden of health costs would be removed. But it would have broader benefits, beyond the new Medicaid beneficiaries, the White House report said. Because fewer people would lack health insurance, uncompensated health care costs would drop by $200 million in 2016, meaning lower offsets required from Louisiana employer-based health policies and Affordable Care private insurance. Hospitals would also suffer fewer losses. Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, said the report “leaves no doubt that the consequences of states’ decisions are far reaching, with major implications for the health of their citizens and their economies.”


Advocate supports TOPS reform

Add the Advocate’s editorial board to the growing list of parties convinced that Louisiana’s popular TOPS college scholarship program needs changes. On Friday, the paper called for Gov. Bobby Jindal to sign a bill that recently cleared the legislature which would end automatic scholarship increases.


The legislation would end automatic increases in the amount college students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students when tuition goes up. Instead, awards will remain at the 2016-17 level, unless the Legislature authorizes future increases. The bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is a good-faith effort on finances. This is, despite the governor’s concerns, not really a hard cap on the program. Repeated tuition hikes in recent years have led to ballooning costs for the program and spurred some to look into ways that it could be scaled back. Tuition has gone up 10 percent each year on most campuses for the past six years, while Jindal and the Legislature slashed general funding for higher education.


Number of the Day

$300 million – Amount the TOPS program is expected to cost Louisiana by 2020 without reform, up from $250 million today. In 2001, the program only cost $104 million (Source: The Advocate)