Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Utility tax lawsuit thrown out; A post-secondary push; Heroin deaths continue to rise; and Jindal: I should have cut more


Utility tax lawsuit thrown out

State District Judge Mike Caldwell wasn’t buying the Louisiana Chemical Association’s contention that the Legislature’s decision to temporarily suspend one penny of the four-cent business utility tax exemption was passed unconstitutionally. Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press has the details:


Lawmakers properly passed a tax change aimed at raising $103 million to balance the state’s budget, a judge ruled Monday, dismissing a lawsuit by the Louisiana Chemical Association. The organization argued that the temporary suspension of a 1-cent sales tax exemption on business utilities didn’t receive the required votes for passage in the state House of Representatives and was unconstitutional. State District Judge Michael Caldwell disagreed.


At issue was whether a two-thirds or majority vote was required. The Constitution says a two-thirds vote is needed to raise taxes, but Caldwell agreed with the Legislature that only a majority vote is needed to temporarily suspend an exemption — a technical, but important distinction. A ruling for the Chemical Association would have blown another hole in Louisiana’s Swiss cheese budget. But even with a win for the state, all is not well:


Suspension of the business utility tax break expires in August. The suspension amounts to a short-term tax increase that heavily hits chemical plants…It’s unclear if the tax break suspension will generate as much money as was expected. At a recent state income forecasting panel meeting, the Legislature’s economist said fewer business utility sales taxes were being paid than had been projected and collections could be as much as 40 percent lower than expected.


A post-secondary push
The Advocate’s editorial board has well-deserved praise for education chief John White and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who last week approved a measure requiring all high school seniors to fill out free financial aid forms:


About 35,000 seniors will have to file the form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the melodiously nicknamed FAFSA…Most seniors already fill out the federal form, but a significant minority — about 15,000 a year — does not seek financial aid for college, probably because the students don’t have plans to go to college. But the reality is that the job market is changing fast, and many of those not filling out the forms may find that they need courses at a community college or a technical school.


“We have two problems,” said state Superintendent of Education John White. “First, we are leaving tens of millions of dollars every year because we are not applying for financial aid that will fund not just universities but community colleges and technical training. That problem is compounded by the fact that it is really the kids that need the aid the most that are applying the least.” The state’s idea is that as seniors find they are eligible for financial aid, they will seek the job training opportunities that will qualify them for skilled positions. The large majority of new positions in many businesses and industries now require education or technical training beyond high school. Not only federal aid, but some state TOPS scholarship awards are available.


The policy includes a parent opt-out. But to given students an extra nudge, the Advocate also encourages schools to provide more counseling to students and their families:


The federal form, as many parents can report, is not short and includes questions about family income. But filing the form and seeking federal aid can bring significant amounts of federal aid to the state, White said. The FAFSA form can be a bit of a bear, even for well-educated parents. We suspect that many families will need extra help filling out the form — assistance that typically comes from high school counselors and administrators, who are already overworked. That’s an important reality to keep in mind as this policy moves forward.


Heroin deaths continue to rise
East Baton Rouge parish coroner Dr. Beau Clark announced Monday that the parish had experienced the highest number of heroin-related deaths ever in 2015, topping the previous record set in 2013. With two weeks to go left in the year, 38 people have died of heroin overdoses. By comparison, the parish counted only five such deaths in 2012. The spike in deaths has led to renewed debate over the role of drug treatment and incarceration, reports Andrea Gallo of the Advocate:


Clark said he will push this spring for the Louisiana Legislature to stiffen penalties for heroin dealers. “Anyone who sells heroin should go to jail forever,” Clark said. The Legislature already passed a bill in 2014 that increased the maximum prison sentence for second-time heroin dealers to 99 years. First-time dealers can be imprisoned up to 50 years. Some legislators and community members opposed the law, saying it meant people convicted of selling heroin could stay in jail for longer than some killers or rapists. Instead, they questioned whether the state should invest more in treatment. The idea of stiffening penalties for drug crimes also comes at a time when many criminal justice advocates are pushing to reduce prison populations in Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country.


Rhonda Irving, who is the founder of a clean syringe and outreach program called Be Safe Baton Rouge, said in an interview Monday that she has noticed an uptick in the past few years of heroin users who come to her… Irving said jailing heroin dealers — who she said are oftentimes users themselves — is not the solution to stopping drug-related deaths. “The jails don’t have the capacity to imprison all the drug users, the heroin users,” she said. Irving said she would rather see law enforcement and lawmakers work together to enact new solutions to fighting the heroin problem.


Gallo notes that many users first become addicted to prescription opiates. But the street value of prescription drugs has risen due to state efforts to fight abuse, causing many to addicts to switch to cheaper heroin.


Jindal: I should have cut more

Gov. Bobby Jindal addressed the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday as part of his farewell tour, where he criticized his own plan for re-balancing the current-year budget because it did not cut enough money from critical services. The governor’s plan for patching a $470 million mid-year budget hole included borrowing $28 million from the state’s rainy-day fund – a move that Jindal claims was foisted on him by legislators who did not want to reduce higher education funding. As Nola.com/The Times-Picayune’s Julie O’Donoghue reports,


Jindal may have wanted more cuts, but many parts of his midyear deficit plan have already faced criticism. Specifically, Jindal recommended pushing off $126 million worth of Medicaid payments into the next financial cycle — instead of reducing services or finding ways to save money — which legislators reluctantly implemented.  Sparing higher education from cuts is also in line with the incoming governor’s priorities. Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, who takes office in January, has said he wants to increase public funding for universities and colleges over the next four years.


Number of the Day
15,000 – Number of Louisiana high school seniors–out of a total of 35,000–who don’t fill out the free federal form for financial aid (Source: The Advocate)