In a few months the federal government will begin the once-a-decade process of trying to count every person in America. The Census count is critical for Louisiana, as it helps determine how much money the state will receive for programs such as housing assistance and transportation. That’s why local officials in Baton Rouge are working to boost participation levels in low-income, minority communities. Lea Skene of The Advocate reports from a community meeting in North Baton Rouge:
Poor and minority communities are often hard to count because of transient living situations and a general mistrust of federal authorities. Advocates argue that achieving an accurate representation of those groups would produce a more equitable distribution of political and financial resources across America. … Meeting organizers said federal authorities have identified Baton Rouge as a “hard to count” area based on past response rates. About 70 percent of parish residents participated in the 2010 census, down from 72 percent in 2000. The average response rate nationally has hovered around 75 percent, according to federal data. Louisiana as a whole also has seen relatively low response rates, with some parishes dipping below 50 percent during the last count.
The case for civil legal aid
Louisiana is one of only four states that provide no money for civil legal defense, which can leave low-income people exceedingly vulnerable when confronted by complex legal matters. That means that low-income Louisianans who get ensnared by child custody disputes, bankruptcy, divorce or other civil matters can expect no help from state government. It wasn’t always like this: As recently as 2008, Louisiana dedicated $500,000 per year for civil legal defense, but that funding was eliminated by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The Nola.com/The Times-Picayune editorial board thinks it’s time for the state to pony up so that low-income Louisianans are at less of a disadvantage in civil court:
Amounts budgeted by other states vary from $556,000 per year in Arkansas to nearly $72 million in Texas. Texas has made a serious commitment, obviously. Funding there comes from a portion of the state’s proceeds from class action lawsuits. Louisiana should at least be able to spend as much as Arkansas or Mississippi, which spends $708,000 a year. (Southeast Louisiana Legal Services) handled more than 12,000 cases with a direct impact of $23 million, according to the organization. The money SLLS gets for clients can make a significant difference. “Say we help a veteran get his disability benefits. That has a direct economic impact which goes on annually,” SLLS executive director Laura Tuggle said in an interview. But, she said, “We find ourselves having to make hard decisions and turning people away for a lot of things.
Caution on the franchise tax
Louisiana’s corporate franchise tax brought in $120 million last year — which is about $3 million more than the entire general fund allotment for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. Legislation filed by Rep. Phillip DeVillier would eliminate the tax over a five-year period, starting next year. While critics say the franchise tax is outmoded, any plan to eliminate it should be accompanied by a plan to replace the lost revenue. That’s why the Baton Rouge Area Chamber is urging a cautious approach. Caitie Burkes with the Baton Rouge Business Report:
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber […] says it supports taking a big-picture look at tax reform, pointing to recommendations from the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. Their 2017 report not only recommended phasing out the corporate franchise tax but also giving away fewer tax exemptions in favor of a “broad-based, low rates” approach. “While we favor getting rid of the tax, we think it’s more important to support a comprehensive fiscal reform package, like that outlined by the HCR 11 Task Force, that makes our state’s taxing both fairer and simpler while also protecting higher education and healthcare,” says BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp in a prepared statement.
Should felons serve on juries?
About 36,000 Louisianans who are on probation or parole had their voting rights restored on March 1 thanks to a new state law. But just because they can vote doesn’t mean they can serve on a jury. Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge has filed legislation to change that during the upcoming legislative session. Julia O’Donoghue reports for Nola.com/The Times-Picayune:
Restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions has been a hot topic in the country for the past several years, with many states loosening restrictions on who can vote with a criminal record. The issue of jury duty has flown under the radar, said James Binnall, a California State University at Long Beach professor considered a national expert on the topic. “This hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, and certainly not as much as voting has,” Binnall said in an interview Friday. “But it’s starting to get some traction.” The federal court system and 28 states permanently ban people with felony convictions from serving on juries, according to a 2018 academic article from Binnall. Louisiana is one of those states. The only way someone with a felony conviction can serve on a jury in Louisiana is if they’re first pardoned by the governor.
Number of the Day
89 – Number of LSU Health New Orleans medical school graduates in a class of 181 who chose to stay in the state for their postgraduate residency programs. That’s a 3 percent uptick from last year, which school officials attribute to more stable funding for higher education (Source: Nola.com/The Times-Picayune)