Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

House budget funds TOPS; cuts hospitals; Is Louisiana’s death penalty worth the price?; New Orleans takes back its schools and; Capital outlay gets an overhaul

House budget funds TOPS; cuts hospitals

The House Appropriations Committee redirected dollars from health care programs and other state agency priorities in order to fully fund TOPS scholarships that largely flow to students from middle-class and wealthy households, setting up a likely showdown with Gov. John Bel Edwards in the closing weeks of the legislative session. The committee also eliminated funding for the state Office of Inspector General, which has been aggressive in investigating fraud in the state film subsidy program, and gave sweeping new powers to Attorney General Jeff Landry. The AP’s Melinda Deslatte was there:


Edwards proposed to fund only about a third of the money needed to fully pay for all TOPS-eligible students. The Appropriations Committee came up with the remaining $183 million at the expense of other state agencies, in part by carving money paid to them in fees for services. Committee Chairman Cameron Henry said the governor placed a higher priority on the health department than higher education in his budget recommendations.

“We just balanced it a little bit more,” said Henry, R-Metairie. Edwards recommended protecting five safety net hospitals and leaving four others without state financing, saying it prioritized hospitals that are most critical to medical training programs. The committee reshuffled those dollars to instead spread them out across all nine hospitals, with each taking a cut.


Is Louisiana’s death penalty worth the price?

The death penalty in Louisiana is broken. That’s the inescapable conclusion from a new study by researchers from the University of North Carolina, who found that 82 percent of the death penalty cases that were resolved in Louisiana from 1976 to 2015 ended up with the sentence being reversed. With Louisiana’s public defenders fighting for fiscal survival, LBP’s Grace Reinke writes in a new blog that it’s time to put at least a temporary halt on death penalty prosecutions.


Suspending death penalty prosecutions for at least two years makes sense. This would give the 15-member Capital Punishment Fiscal Impact Study Commission (full disclosure: LBP Director Jan Moller is a member)  time to report on the true cost of having a death penalty, and whether the cost is worth it given the state’s other financial obligations. The short-term benefits of such a move are obvious, as it would allow the Louisiana Public Defender Board to redirect some resources to local public defenders who are now starved for cash. Alternatively, legislators should consider legislation offered by Shreveport Rep. Cedric Glover (HB 1090) and Sen. Wesley Bishop of New Orleans (SB 450) that creates a commission to evaluate whether funding is available before a death penalty prosecution can proceed.


The New York Times editorial board also weighs in on the issue, noting that Louisiana’s death penalty is not just “profoundly error prone” but also consistently racist.


Racism has always been at the heart of the American death penalty. But the report, in the current issue of The Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, drives home the extent to which capital punishment, supposedly reserved for the “worst of the worst,” is governed by skin color. In Louisiana, a black man is 30 times as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white woman as for killing a black man. Regardless of the offender’s race, death sentences are six times as likely — and executions 14 times as likely — when the victim is white rather than black.


New Orleans takes back its schools

With legislation moving through the Legislature that would return control over New Orleans schools to local officials, the New York Times takes a look at public education in a city that has drawn national attention for its massive charter school movement. As Kate Zernike reports, the bill approved by the House last week has its critics, but would give the city control of public schools that have been overseen by the Recovery School District since shortly after Hurricane Katrina.


People here say the national debate does not fit some of the nuances of the divide in New Orleans. For one thing, the local board itself runs its own share of charter schools. But what has resonated broadly here is the sense that changes to the schools were done to the city’s residents, not with them. This is a place where “Where did you go to school?” refers to high school, so the move to erase neighborhood schools and replace them with charters after Katrina angered powerful alumni groups. About 7,500 teachers were fired — most of them black — damaging the city’s black middle class, economically and politically. “This wasn’t just a loss of control over education, this was loss on a massive scale,” said Erika McConduit-Diggs, the president of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. “This very much feels like ‘finally.’ It will take things like this to heal those wounds.”


Capital outlay gets an overhaul

While the operating budget is drawing most of the attention at the Capitol, many legislators care far more about the state construction budget – or House Bill 2 – which also began moving through the House on Monday. This year’s version of the capital outlay bill, as Kevin Litten of Nola.com/The Times-Picayune explains, is a pared-down plan that mainly allocates money for projects that were financed in previous years.


Edwards pledged during the election campaign to overhaul the capital outlay process, saying he wants to devote at least 25 percent of the construction budget to fix Louisiana roads and bridges. But before that can be done, Edwards has said, the projects that are in the process need to be finished. “It was years of mismanagement, years of overselling, years of overpromising,” Edwards said. “Until we shore up the state’s finances and get on a more stable path with respect to the administration budget, these are going to be austere times as well.” Abramson told committee members that the construction budget is so overloaded, it would take 12 years to pay for everything that’s in it. In the future, Abramson pledged a process of prioritizing projects that will be “transparent, fair and affordable.”


Number of the Day

16 – Number of jobs eliminated in the state Office of Inspector General under amendments to next year’s state budget approved by the House Appropriations Committee. (Source: Louisiana Legislature)