Monday, May 2, 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016

Tax task force recommendations hastened; Capital outlay faces closer scrutiny; More support for “ban the box”; Lafayette mental health network developing

Tax task force recommendations hastened

Less than two months since convening, Gov. John Bel Edwards  is asking that the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy provide recommendations to fill the remaining $600 million state budget gap for next fiscal year by May 15.  Legislation creating the task force requires a report in September, but Edwards plans to call for another special session in June to fill the budget hole before state agencies, hospitals, TOPS, and other entities must make drastic, permanent cuts. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports on task force members’ thoughts on the potential means for raising needed revenue.

“If you want money in a special session, you have to look at income taxes,” [Dr. Jim] Richardson said. That could mean almost anything from changing brackets in order to draw more taxpayers into higher rates to decreasing itemized deductions, which would increase taxes owed. In the end, the state needs to move towards lower income tax rates, but with fewer deductions and covering more taxpayers, Richardson said. That’s part of the long-term plan. “Accordingly, the task force recommends that, if the state needs additional revenues after the completion of this regular session, the state make appropriate increases in the personal income taxes with changes in brackets and/or deductions,” stated one of four draft resolutions aimed at starting the conversation.

Task force members caution that a rush to meet next fiscal year’s budget needs not overshadow the group’s mandate to suggest long-term structural changes. Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press shares member concerns.

One concern I have is the more focus and attention we put on the special session, in particular in trying to fix a particular number for the jam they’re in right now, the less we’re going to be able to focus on the whole long-term structural purpose of this committee,” [Robert Travis] Scott said. Richardson and other task force members said the group should seek input into the special session, to make sure any tax changes proposed would conform to the goals of longstanding improvement to how the state raises and spends its money.


Capital outlay faces closer scrutiny

Long considered a wish list rather than an actual budget, the state construction budget known as capital outlay faces close scrutiny by the House Ways and Means Committee this session. Capital outlay is used to finance both state and local projects, and contains more projects than Louisiana can afford or finance, leaving a long list of projects waiting for funding. The governor then may favor certain projects considered by the State Bond Commission for lines of credit, providing a powerful point of leverage to garner legislative votes. Melinda Deslatte reporting for the Associated Press has more on the capital outlay process and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plans to redirect funds:

Louisiana finances items in the construction budget by selling bonds to investors for upfront cash, with the debt paid off over decades. The state faces cash flow problems for projects, because of the over-commitments and borrowing limits tied to the state debt ceiling. A debt cap enacted in the early 1990s requires that annual repayment requirements fall under 6 percent of the state revenue forecast. That limit is expected to force lessened spending on construction work for several years. Edwards wants to steer the limited money available mainly to roadwork and a backlog of deferred maintenance on state-owned and college buildings.


More support for “ban the box”

The Times-Picayune/ editorial board expressed support for a state-level “ban the box” measure currently moving through the legislature that would eliminate the requirement for applicants to unclassified state jobs disclose felony convictions in the initial job application. This increases the likelihood that an applicant makes it to the interview phase in the hiring process where any criminal history may be discussed face-to-face. A surprising legislative coalition of Republicans and Democrats has developed around the measure. Here is more on support from the coalition:

The vote Tuesday was the result of work by both Black Caucus members and conservative Republicans aligned with the Family Forum. That alliance is encouraging. If lawmakers can see past their usual differences to work together for the good of Louisianians, the state will be better for it. “I can tell you this. We must do something,” said Republican Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Southern Baptist minister in Baton Rouge. “Let’s put some of these men and women back to work.” The state employs tens of thousands of people, and ensuring that jobs are open to former inmates could make a significant difference.


Lafayette mental health network developing

With the intention of forming a network and developing solutions for serving the mentally ill in Lafayette and surrounding areas, representatives from the criminal justice system, social service providers, community-based services, and others came together recently. The lack of sufficient government-funded psychiatric care due to decades-long de-institutionalization across the country and in Louisiana, means that the mentally ill are left to deal with their issues alone and often end up entangled in the criminal justice system where law-enforcement personnel are mal-equipped to deal with the mentally ill. Billy Gun of The Advocate provides insight.

Police arriving on a call…often are ill-prepared for what they have to deal with, said Ray Biggar, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor. Biggar said more training in “de-escalating” the situation is needed…[T]here are plenty of inmates who suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and varying forms of schizophrenia. According to Sheriff’s Office Corrections Director Rob Reardon, the number of inmates under psychiatric care who are incarcerated over the course of a year downtown increased 93 percent from 276 in 2011 to 532 in 2014…They’re in jail because they get into trouble, many times for petty offenses. And once released many don’t stay released, often committing another crime because of the illness or because they’re homeless and trying to survive.

Number of the day

93 percent – The percentage increase from 2011 to 2014 in the number of inmates held in the downtown Lafayette Parish jail who need psychiatric care. (Source: The Advocate)