Facing a $648 million “fiscal cliff” caused by expiring tax revenue, a divided Louisiana House approved an operating budget Thursday that includes deep cuts to health care services for low-income families and TOPS college scholarships. Needing 53 votes to pass the bill, House leadership mustered 55 votes to send the flawed proposal to the Senate. The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp reports:
The House budget plan would nearly defund the state’s safety-net hospitals, a move that the Louisiana Department of Health predicts would shutter hospitals in New Orleans, Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette and Bogalusa. It also only funds 80 percent of the money needed for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which would lead to cuts to scholarships for college students, and it would drastically reduce funding for medical education programs in the state, potentially leaving Louisiana with no functioning medical schools.
The budget bill now moves to the Senate, where its fate is unclear. But one thing is certain: senators cannot fix the budget by shuffling money around between programs. What’s needed is a special session where lawmakers can raise additional revenue. Julia O’Donoghue of Nola.com/Times Picayune
“I’m not sure we can solve the problems that need to be solved with the makeup of this budget,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, in an interview. “You can’t move the shells around enough to make all that work. I’m not sure we shouldn’t come to some agreement that we can’t do this now and let’s do this in a special session.” The prospect of a veto from Gov. John Bel Edwards also seems to be on the table. While Edwards wouldn’t say he would veto a state budget that includes $648 million worth of cuts if the Senate and House managed to agree to one, he also said a budget resembling the House proposal “would not become law.”
The AP’s Melinda Deslatte details the potential impact of the cuts, which also would cause steep job losses in the health care sector and could force some hospitals to close.
Jeff Reynolds, chief financial officer for the health department, said the budget proposal would eliminate mental health services, a program that helps children with disabilities and financing that keeps thousands in nursing homes. Supplemental financing for the safety-net hospitals and clinics that care for the poor would be nearly eliminated. Reynolds said that would close hospitals in Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette, Bogalusa and Lafayette. Thousands of people would be laid off, causing damaging ripples throughout the economy, he said. The state’s medical schools would lose training facilities and money.
Bill to protect children from “lunch shaming” fails
Current state law allows children to be denied a school meal if their parents are unable or forget to pay. House Bill 284 by Rep. Pat Smith from Baton Rouge aimed to change that policy, and prevent schools from singling out or withholding meals from children who lack funds. Several states have enacted similar legislation with little opposition from school leaders, but Louisiana school officials claimed that unless they are able to withhold meals and other school privileges from kids who can’t pay, they may see their cafeteria debt rise. In a 2-4 vote, the committee agreed with the opponents. Wilborn Nobles of the Nola.com/Times- Picayune reports.
Jeanie Donovan, policy director for the Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates for low- and moderate- income families, said she has not seen any evidence to show that taking away a student’s privileges will encourage parents to pay off the debt. Louisiana Education Department data found schools statewide denied 439 meals last year, and Donovan said it would have only cost the state $724 to pay for those meals. However, Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said those students were most likely fed some kind of meal, but it was just not the same as the meals given to students without lunch debt
The Advocate’s Stephanie Grace was not amused:
Back at the start of the legislative session, when Gov. John Bel Edwards urged lawmakers to pass a ban on so-called “lunch shaming” of students, I wondered aloud on social media how anyone could oppose a law preventing kids from being publicly humiliated because of their parents’ actions, and promised to name names of those who did. So here goes: Sens. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton and Bodi White, R-Central.
Investing in early childhood education
Most legislators recognize the importance of quality early care and education, thanks to the tireless efforts of advocates led by the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children. But lawmakers have left the state’s Child Care Assistance Program woefully underfunded, which has led to a growing waiting list of low-income parents who need help affording early childhood education for their young children. The lack of access to high quality early care and education not only affects child development and school readiness, but it also hurts the economy when parents can’t return to work. The editorial board of Nola.com/The Times Picayune says it’s time for the state to make a real investment:
House Bill 513 by Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, provides for $10 million in the Unclaimed Property Leverage Fund to be dedicated to the Louisiana Early Childhood Education Fund. The money would be used first for the Child Care Assistance Program waiting list. Currently, there is a waiting list of more than 4,500 children for the program. HB 513 wouldn’t take care of every child on the list, but it would certainly help. Not only does a lack of preschool put children behind, it can undermine their parents’ jobs. A 2017 report by the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, LSU, Loyola University and Entergy found that the availability of child care and preschool directly affects whether parents with young children are able to work. The report results were dramatic: 14 percent of parents turned down a promotion because of child care issues; 18.5 percent went from full-time to part-time work; 16 percent had to quit their job, and more than 40 percent had to miss work or leave early during a 90-day period.The report estimated that Louisiana’s economy takes a hit of more than $1 billion a year because of lost wages and productivity connected to child care.
Voting rights for former felons
The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy, yet Louisiana voting laws restrict people who have long completed a felony prison sentence from casting a ballot. A bill by Rep. Pat Smith that would have restored the voting rights of convicted felons five years after leaving prison died on the House floor this week. But Louisiana is also the subject of a lawsuit, which could be decided as early as this week, based on the state law that prohibits a convicted felon from voting when they are on parole or probation. Rebecca Beitsch with The Pew Charitable Trusts reports:
In Louisiana, where an estimated 108,000 people are disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions, people aren’t allowed to vote until they have finished their parole. For many, that means decades. At 72, Checo Yancy has been out of prison for over 14 years. But he’ll be on parole until 2056 and unlikely to cast a ballot before he dies. He is a plaintiff in a Louisiana case that seeks to restore voting rights to people as soon as they leave prison. The case may be decided as soon as this week.“I can bring my family to the poll, my wife, and son and daughter, and I have to sit in the car,” Yancy said. “No one speaks for me right now or speaks for my situation. No one hears my voice because I don’t matter.
Number of the Day
6.27 – percentage of voting age African Americans in Louisiana that are disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions, compared to 3.04 percent of the general population in the state. (Source: The Pew Trusts)