Monday, April 4, 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016

The search for ‘painless’ budget cuts; Beam: Give wage hike a fair shot; Raises in the spotlight and; Incarceration capital of the world

The search for ‘painless’ budget cuts

With state government still facing a massive budget shortfall after the Legislature failed to raise enough revenue during its recent special session, the annual hunt for unicorns – a.k.a., painless budget cuts – is underway at the Capitol. Gov. John Bel Edwards has warned that the $750 million gap between revenues and expenses in next year’s budget means Louisiana might not fund most of its hospital partnerships. Legislators looking for alternatives to such doomsday scenarios haven’t come up with much. The AP’s Melinda Deslatte has the story:


The search for savings could boost support — or at least lessen Republican resistance — for one of Edwards’ top priorities, a planned expansion of the Medicaid program to give health insurance coverage to the working poor. The Edwards administration estimates the expansion could save Louisiana $124 million in the upcoming budget year, by taking advantage of enhanced federal financing streams available to pay for health services. The most lucrative area where lawmakers could scale back spending, however, seems to be a difficult one for the Legislature. Lawmakers have been unwilling so far to cut deeply into billions of dollars in Louisiana’s tax breaks. An ongoing Senate review of those tax rebates, credits, deductions and exemptions has drawn ardent defenders for most of the programs.


Beam: Give wage hike a fair shot

The inimitable Jim Beam has been around long enough to see many minimum wage proposals die in the Louisiana Legislature. Whether the governor is a Democrat or Republican, convincing lawmakers to give low-income workers a raise has always been an uphill battle in the Pelican State. But the Lake Charles American-Press columnist hopes this year is different.


Opponents say it’s bad policy for the government to legislate pay rates, and the capitalist system should determine when increases are warranted. They add that a higher minimum wage increases costs and forces raises at higher pay levels. Maybe so, but Louisiana has an opportunity to join the 29 progressive states that have raised their minimum wages. Do we have to continue to rank at the bottom in so many quality of life categories? Yes, there are some deadbeats out there. However, the vast majority of minimum wage workers are in the same situation many of us were in when we were at the bottom of the pay scale. You see them every day working at fast food restaurants and in convenience stores. Dedicated workers aren’t asking for much. Like us, they would like to be able to enjoy some of life’s extras and give their families hope that their everyday lives can be better.


Raises in the spotlight

Pay raises for state workers approved in the waning days of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration will cost the state $8 million in the current year and $15 million in 2016-17. While that’s almost a trivial amount in the context of a $750 million shortfall, the editorial page says they were fiscally irresponsible and wants to make sure future governors don’t pull a similar stunt.


Sen. Gerald Long, a Republican from Winnfield, is trying to make sure this kind of thing can’t happen the next time a governor is leaving office. His Senate Bill 49 would require any pay raises given out by the executive branch in the last 90 days of a governor’s term to get approval from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. That wouldn’t automatically kill a raise, but department heads would have to justify them. And lawmakers would have a chance to consider whether the state could afford to pay them. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously Wednesday. The House should approve it, too.

Meanwhile, The Advocate reports that a bill to grant cost-of-living increases to retired teachers and state employees is set for its first hearing in the Legislature this morning. The money to pay for the raises – which will be 1.5 percent for retired state workers but higher for school employees and state police – is coming from “experience account” that collects higher-than-expected investment returns.


The increased benefits will cost an estimated $380 million over time, according to fiscal estimates. Those costs will be picked up by the retirement systems, which receives its dollars from the contributions of employees and state agencies plus any gains made from the investment of those monies. Retirement costs state government about $2 billion a year, but is not a line item in the $25 billion budget. Rather, each agency pays its portion out of its appropriation.


Incarceration capital of the world

Anyone still curious why Louisiana continues to lock up more of its citizens than any other government in the world should look no further than the weekend editions of The Advocate. That’s where we learned from reporter Bryn Stole about the ways that harsh sentences for heroin may have dissuaded some drug users from seeking medical help for overdose victims.


A section of Louisiana’s second-degree murder statute, once little used, allows arrest and prosecution for second-degree murder if the distribution or dispensing of an illegal drug is the direct cause of a death. One defendant, Jarret McCasland, was convicted last fall of second-degree murder in the 2013 heroin overdose death of his 19-year-old girlfriend. He was recently sentenced to life in prison without parole. Other cases have had prosecutors or grand juries reduce the charges, opting for distribution counts instead, although those can also result in long prison stays. “It’s absolutely counter-productive,” Logan Kinamore, the director of the group No Overdose Baton Rouge and an advocate for public health services for drug addicts, said about these criminal cases. “It disincentivizes calling 911.”

In New Orleans, meanwhile, John Simmerman reports on a nonviolent heroin addict who faces a potential life sentence for stealing $31 worth of candy. Jacobia Grimes is no angel – he’s been convicted five times on theft charges – but even the sentencing judge is wondering if things have gone too far.


“Isn’t this a little over the top?” Zibilich wondered aloud over the threat of a “multiple bill,” an approach that leaves little discretion to a judge. “It’s not even funny,” the judge said. “Twenty years to life for a Snickers bar, or two or three or four.” The case appears to be an extreme example of a common practice in a state with one of the stiffer habitual-offender laws in the country, according to reform advocates.


Number of the Day

20,000 – Decrease, between 2006 and 2014, in the number of Louisiana children being served by federal child-care subsidies that allow low-income parents to access early care and education programs. (Source: CLASP)