Session starts amid political tension

Session starts amid political tension

Louisiana legislators return to a politically fractured state Capitol for the start of a three-month regular session, where the state’s ongoing revenue crisis will remain unsolved as debates over education, health care coverage, gambling and the minimum wage will compete for the political spotlight.

Number of the Day

$6.8 billion - Total debt in Louisiana’s pension plan for state employees. Legislation filed for the upcoming session would create a “hybrid” plan for future state workers that includes a 401(k)-style investment account. (Source: The Associated Press)

Louisiana legislators return to a politically fractured state Capitol for the start of a three-month regular session, where the state’s ongoing revenue crisis will remain unsolved as debates over education, health care coverage, gambling and the minimum wage will compete for the political spotlight. With the state facing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall, House and Senate leaders hope to finish their work before the mandatory June 4 adjournment so lawmakers can return for another special session. The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp has a scene-setter:

Among some of the perennial issues at the Capitol that have previously been met with resistance, there are bills that seek to mandate equal pay for men and women, overhaul the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships and set a state minimum wage rate higher than the federal governments.  Lawmakers are also slated to take up proposals that didn’t make it through the special session that ran from Feb. 19 through March 5 with little outcome. Bills have been filed to create a new state budget transparency website, require most able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work or perform other qualified forms of community service to receive their benefits and impose a new cap on government spending. Each of those passed the House in the special session but didn’t make it into law as negotiations over revenue-raising measures imploded.

The AP’s Melinda Deslatte notes that hard feelings from the failed special session, particularly in the House, could spill over into the regular session and threaten progress on unrelated issues.

“A lot of people’s feelings have been hurt. Hopefully, we can put it behind us and move on and do the people’s work,” said Rep. Kenny Havard, a St. Francisville Republican. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who was a House member for two terms, said: “The level of acrimony and distrust is beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the 10 years I’ve been in state government.” While some policy changes can be rammed through the Legislature on the strength of a governor’s or legislative leader’s power, more often it takes the trust and bonds that colleagues develop over time to smooth passage.

 

The do-nothing Legislature

While some Republicans, including junior U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, are still not convinced that Louisiana faces a revenue crisis, the editorial boards of Louisiana’s largest newspapers beg to differ. They took stock of the special session in their Sunday pages and concluded that the political stalemate in Baton Rouge is holding Louisiana back and threatening vital services. Nola.com/The Times-Picayune:

The failure of the special session is going to make it extremely difficult for lawmakers to produce a workable budget. Without new revenues to replace the taxes that are expiring, next year’s budget will be short an estimated $692 million. That could mean devastating cuts for health care and higher education, which are the easiest programs to cut under state law. Residents who are disabled or mentally ill are the most vulnerable. Even if lawmakers come through with funding later, the 50,000 students who depend on TOPS scholarships may not know how much they’re getting until after they are enrolled. Medical students will be in the same bind. Some legislators already seem ready to give up on the budget before the regular session even starts. But Gov. Edwards and lawmakers owe it to Louisiana residents to lay out what they can pay for and what they can’t.

The Advocate notes that global credit-rating firms are taking notice of the Legislature’s dysfunction, which in turn could hurt the state’s efforts to attract business.

What does the state need? Just what the stalling Legislature did not accomplish: “a sustainable framework to maintain long-term structural balance.” That requires more out of legislators than just saying “no,” or raising vague Kennedy-esque doubts that reflect a failure to research the state’s problems. The S&P folks are more objective as well as better-informed. The S&P conclusions are a potent reminder that what goes on at the Capitol in Baton Rouge has consequences far beyond Louisiana. The state is now part of a global economy, so the audience for the Legislature’s actions includes observers around the world. What these onlookers witness can determine, among other things, whether businesses decide to locate here.

 

Louisiana needs a higher wage
The best anti-poverty program is a job that pays a living wage. But here in Louisiana, far too many workers are struggling to afford basic needs because their jobs don’t pay enough.  Senate Bill 162 would address this by requiring that workers be paid at least $8.50 per hour starting in 2020.  At a time when 42 percent of Louisiana households are financially struggling, this simple policy change can boost local economies by giving hundreds of thousands of hard-working Louisianans what they need most: a raise. LBP’s Jeanie Donovan explains in a new blog:

Although it only allows for a modest increase in earnings for workers in low-wage jobs, SB 162 would have a substantial impact on working families in Louisiana:

  • More than 71,000 Louisiana workers would get an immediate raise once the $8.50 wage kicks in, as their current wages fall below that threshold.
  • Another 122,000 workers earn slightly above $8.50 an hour, but would also see their paychecks increase as the higher minimum puts upward pressure on their wages.
  • More than 54,000 of the workers who would get a raise are married or single parents. About 105,000 Louisiana children would benefit as their parents earn more.
  • Nearly two-thirds (65.5 percent) of the workers who would receive a wage increase are women. Fourteen percent of all female workers in the state would see their wages rise as a result of the bill.
  • 113,000 workers who would benefit are 25 years of age or older and 90 percent work more than 20 hours per week.
  • More than 27,000 of the workers who would benefit have a college degree.
  • The average annual pay raise for directly affected workers (currently earning below $8.50) would be nearly $1,700.

The bill by Sen. Troy Carter, along with legislation on equal pay and lifting the state law that forbids municipalities to decide minimum wage rates for themselves, are up for debate in the Senate Labor Committee on Thursday.

 

Time to reform long-term care
Surveys consistently show that vast majorities of Americans want to stay in their own homes as long as possible as they age, and for many people that can happen with help from community service providers that provide help with activities of daily living such as cooking, cleaning and doctor’s visits. But in Louisiana, funding for long-term care services is heavily skewed toward institutional nursing homes. The Advocate argues in a Sunday editorial that shifting to a managed-care model could provide a better balance between nursing homes and home-care providers.

Louisiana is moving in the wrong direction. From 2009 to 2016, total home- and community-based funding for the elderly declined by 7 percent, even as nursing home funding increased by 34 percent. Not surprisingly, 30,000 people — roughly the population of New Iberia — are on wait lists for home health care services while nursing homes are overbuilt. The current system neglects the wishes of thousands of elderly and disabled, but it also ignores the interests of the Louisiana taxpayer. Analysts have argued that the state could reap $100 million from savings and policy changes by introducing managed care for elderly and disabled patients. One benefit of the changes is that, in theory, managed care companies would choose the best and cheapest options, while politicians tilt the scales in the opposite direction. The state already takes advantage of managed care oversight for regular Medicaid patients.

 

Number of the Day
$6.8 billion – Total debt in Louisiana’s pension plan for state employees. Legislation filed for the upcoming session would create a “hybrid” plan for future state workers that includes a 401(k)-style investment account. (Source: The Associated Press)