Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Senate approves revenue measures; Measure reigning in TOPS costs passes Senate; Medicaid expansion resolution wins praise and; Rape victims no longer to receive bills for exams related to crime

Senate approves revenue measures
Eight bills – aimed at generating $715 million to help solve Louisiana’s budget crisis – won approval late Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee. As had been expected, senators chose to boost the increase in the state cigarette tax above the paltry $.32 cent per pack hike sought by the House. The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges reports::


HB119 began the hearing as a 32-cent increase in the existing 36-cent per pack cigarette tax. But the committee amended HB119 to raise the cigarette tax by a total of 64 cents per pack. At the new $1 rate, Louisiana would have the 32nd highest rate. The state currently has the 49th highest rate. The higher taxes on cigarettes and the other tobacco products would raise $102 million next year. The committee also approved House Concurrent Resolution 8, by Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, which would reinstitute 1 cent of the tax exemption that businesses receive on their utility bills. His bill would raise $103 million and would be on the books for only 16 months.


Despite the extra revenue, the big question remains whether the budget package that eventually makes its way to the governor’s desk will satisfy the “revenue neutral” requirement as defined by Gov. Bobby Jindal and Grover Norquist. Julia O’Donoghue of reports that a Jindal veto is looking more likely.


The Louisiana House of Representatives has so far resisted complying with a national “no tax” pledge Jindal is trying to keep. The governor has said he would veto any state budget that doesn’t meet the pledge guidelines laid out by Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy organization in the Washington D.C. area. Jindal needs both the state House and Senate to agree to some fiscal maneuvering in order to satisfy the ATR’s “no tax” definition. The Senate has tried to work with the governor’s requests, but the House hasn’t been so willing to go along with the administrations game plan. A few weeks ago, the lower chamber didn’t bother to work within the Americans for Tax Reform guidelines when passing initial version of the state spending plan that included tax increases. House members are also pushing back on one of two bills Jindal needs to make his commitment to his “no tax” pledge work. The governor is struggling to get a higher education tax credit through the Louisiana House. Without the measure, it will be very difficult to get the state budget in a position to comply with the ATR guidelines.


Measure reigning in TOPS costs passes Senate

Louisiana’s TOPS college scholarship program awards would be frozen at current amounts unless further increases are approved by the Legislature under a bill approved by the House on Tuesday. Currently TOPS awards automatically increase to match tuition increases. The program is expected to cost the state over $284 million next year. The bill sets up a potential fight from Gov. Jindal, who has been a vocal supporter of not limiting TOPS.  Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate reports:


Jindal and his staff, along with some legislators, have argued that it’s an effective cap on the program — seen as one of the most generous of its kind in the country. Supporters of the proposal say it’s about ensuring the program’s longevity and preventing larger cutbacks in the future. The proposal is being backed by higher education leaders and some of the program’s most ardent supporters. “We’re going to protect the TOPS program and make it sustainable for the future,” state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, said before the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Jindal plans to veto the measure. His staff did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on his intentions Tuesday after the bill’s passage. Because TOPS awards generally cover tuition costs, 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 on most campuses for the past six years, while the Legislature slashed general funding for higher education.


Medicaid expansion resolution wins praise

The editorial writers at The Advocate are happy about the final passage of a resolution that makes it easier for Louisiana’s next governor to extend Medicaid health coverage to more than 240,000 low-income adults. House Concurrent Resolution 75 was sponsored by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger and sets up a financing mechanism for Medicaid expansion by using a new hospital assessment approved by voters last year.


Medicaid expansion would relieve the state of some costs for health care for the uninsured, allowing a 90 percent match from the federal government under the Affordable Care Act. Under the Kleckley resolution, a new governor would have an option, not necessarily a sure thing. If one is working in a low-wage job without insurance, this seems a pretty lame initiative, but we have hopes that whether a Republican or a Democrat is elected to succeed Jindal in the fall, there will be considerable reason for the new executive to embrace the initiative. Let’s hope health care is a high priority in the fall campaign and that candidates for governor will give their explicit commitments to voters on this issue. Otherwise, the Kleckley resolution might not amount to much.


Rape victims no longer to receive bills for exams related to crime

The House gave final approval yesterday for two bills that address the way the state deals with victims of sexual assault and prevents victims from being charged for their own forensic exams.  The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp reports:


Under House Bill 143, some unclaimed gambling winnings will now go to a fund that will cover the costs. House Bill 835, meanwhile, would bar hospitals and clinics from sending bills to victims for the exams or healthcare services related to sexually-oriented criminal offenses, including testing for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy tests. Billings could go to the Crime Victims Reparations Board.


Number of the Day

$1.8 Billion – Annual cost to the state of tobacco-related disease. (Source: The Advocate ).