Friday, April 8, 2016

Friday, April 8, 2016

Medicaid expansion on track; TOPS needs taxes; Vic Stelly bemoans special session; and “Money hungry” public defenders?

Medicaid expansion on track

Louisiana’s efforts to extend critical health coverage to low-income adults by July 1 remains on track after a House committee derailed several attempts to complicate the process. Legislation up for debate in the House Health and Welfare Committee  proposed everything from co-pays for Medicaid patients to a rollback of the expansion should the federal contribution drop. But, after more than two hours of heated testimony from advocates and growing opposition from the Louisiana Hospital Association, none of the bills got out of the committee successfully. Times-Picayune’s Kevin Litten was there:


The most forceful testimony came during testimony on House Concurrent Resolution 4 by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge. The measure was pitched as a way of rolling back Medicaid in the event that the federal government stops funding the program’s expansion. But this bill, which contained language that called for throwing Medicaid recipients off the insurance rolls, could have just as well been any of the measures that the committee was hearing, if the testimony was any indication. “Rep. Ivey, you speak about not trusting the federal government, but I wonder whether or not we can trust our state government to protect and advance our interests as it relates to health care,” said Joyce Plummer of the Micah Project’s Louisiana State Clergy Table. “The entire slate of bills that are being heard seem to be a very methodical way of compromising Medicaid expansion. … I think we have not been sensitive to those who are most financially vulnerable.”


TOPS needs taxes

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Thursday that Louisiana will not be able to fully fund the TOPS tuition assistance program next fiscal year without additional revenue. With the state facing a $750 million gap between revenues and expenses starting July 1, TOPS-eligible students and their families will be forced to pay at least part of their tuition cost, and some students with low ACT scores could lose the award entirely. Times-Picayune’s Julia O’Donoghue has more:


The TOPS program would require $300 million to fully fund. Only $60 million of that allocation has been secured so far. Edwards said his administration would be proposing to fund TOPS beyond the $60 million currently allocated, but he declined to say how much more would be provided. In the current structure, any student with a 2.5 grade-point-average in high school and a 20 score on the ACT qualifies for a TOPS scholarship to a four-year university in the state. The award covers the cost of tuition if the student attends a public college or university. The type of funding cut Edwards is discussing typically causes the ACT score needed to get the scholarship to rise. In other words, students with a 20 on the ACT or close to that score would at risk of losing the scholarship if TOPS is not fully funded.


Vic Stelly bemoans special session

There are many reasons why Louisiana’s budget has been unbalanced in recent years. But the root of the problem lies with the Legislature’s decision, in 2008 and 2009, to repeal the income-tax cuts that voters approved in 2002 as part of a tax swap authored by then-Rep. Vic Stelly of Lake Charles. Eight years after that fateful decision, Stelly writes on Times-Picayune that the state budget still hasn’t recovered.


It was interesting to note that three articles remain “exempt” from state sales tax. These are food for home consumption, residential utilities and prescription drugs. The reason that these items, commonly considered necessities of life, were spared is because they were part of the so-called Stelly Plan passed in 2002.  The plan put the exemption of state sales tax on these items in the Louisiana Constitution, and would therefore require a vote of the people to remove that exemption. I doubt very seriously if a vote for that purpose would be successful. The critics who insisted the income tax portion of the revenue-neutral tax reform plan be repealed in 2008 conveniently ignored the tremendous tax break our families received by the sales tax reduction. No one likes to pay taxes, but the action taken by the Legislature in 2008 has haunted our state for the past eight years.  It seems we haven’t recovered yet.


“Money hungry” public defenders?

The desperate situation of underfunded public defenders in Louisiana continues to make national headlines. A profile from The Atlantic’s Citylab shines a light on the state’s district attorneys continued skepticism of the budget shortfalls for lawyers providing indigent defense. One district attorney even called public defenders “money hungry” in a public response this week. As Citylab’s Brenton Mock explains, the lack of funding is not only a very real cause for concern, but is also a direct violation of well-known Supreme Court precedents:


The problem of underfunded legal defense is serious and un-anarchist enough that a few U.S. Supreme Court justices addressed it in their Luis v. United States ruling last week. In that case, Silas Luis sued the federal government over its seizure of her bank holdings, which prevented her from being able to retain a lawyer. Justice Stephen Breyer, who voted with the majority in Silas’ favor, reasoned that seizing her money would subject her to “overworked and underpaid public defenders,” which might compromise her Sixth Amendment rights to adequate counsel. … Louisiana district attorneys have come to the bizarre conclusion that this math only adds up to a plot for anarchy, and that court-appointed, fill-in lawyers are only out for the money. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Public Defenders office operates with half the budget of the city’s district attorney’s office.Here’s an interesting experiment: Perhaps the district attorneys should swap funding levels with the public defenders offices for a few years and see how they make out with their prosecutions.


In East Baton Rouge Parish, the lack of funding has prompted public defenders to warn judges in writing  that they no longer have the resources to defend their clients. As Trey Schmaltz of WBRZ-TV reports,


The letter, which was obtained by the WBRZ Investigative Unit Wednesday, cites budget issues and warns of layoffs at the office beginning next week. Contract services will be cut, too. Lawyers contracted to assist with cases in the 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge, the Baton Rouge City Court and Zachary City Court will be suspended. The bilingual attorney under contract will also be suspended, Public Defender Michael Mitchell wrote to judges in the area. Contract suspensions start April 15th, the same date as layoffs. Six investigators will be laid off from the staff and employees who keep their jobs could get pay reduced anywhere from 10% to 25%. There will be an even greater loss of revenue in the next budget year, Mitchell warned, since state funds paid to the office will be cut by $933,520.


One potential solution, discussed in a House Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Thursday, could re-direct more money to public defenders by redirecting dollars from death penalty cases. Times-Picayune’s Julia O’Donoghue says the bill made some lawmakers re-think the death penalty altogether:


The legislation would require 65 percent of the state public defenders board funding go to local districts. About 50 percent of the budget — which would be about $15 million in the current year — now goes to the local offices. About 28 percent of the state public defender board’s budget — $9.5 million — is currently devoted to providing death penalty defense, according to Jay Dixon, the state’s public defender. … Rep. Steve Pylant, a conservative Republican and retired sheriff from Winnsboro, has always been supportive of the death penalty. But he wondered aloud during the committee meeting Thursday if it was worth the expense anymore, especially when so many of the convictions get overturned.


Number of the day

$933,520 – Amount of State General Funds slated to be cut from the East Baton Rouge Public Defender’s Office budget in the coming year due to the state’s shortfall. (Source: WBRZ)