“User pays” is not justice

“User pays” is not justice

Louisiana’s criminal legal system is financed, in large part, by fines and fees, rather than state funds, placing a heavy burden on the people with the fewest resources. Worse, no one really knows the full scope of the problem as efforts to collect data on the use of fines and fees in local courts have come up short. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard writes about a New Orleans woman who ended up owing $4,342.50 in fines and fees after a traffic stop that originally resulted in $647.50 in tickets, and explains that efforts to reform the system continue to flounder at the Legislature. 

Because nobody really knows how much each of the courts rely on fees and fines, the Legislature last year passed legislation requiring the courts to report their revenues and expenses to the Supreme Court. Nobody has had a chance to vet the accuracy of the submissions to the high court. The Legislative Auditor’s Office points out that only a small fraction of the user-pay costs is being captured. The office is looking for the additional fees being sent to various agencies. About 1,555 entities collect fees of some kind through the courts, including all 64 sheriffs, 18 children’s advocacy agencies, 78 city marshals’ offices, 387 justices of the peace, and three quasi-private criminal laboratories.

Reality check: Moving away from the “user pays” system would require lawmakers to replace the money with revenue from general tax collections. It’s one more reason the Legislature should not be approving new tax breaks during the current session. 

Collisions with the spending cap
Louisiana’s surging revenues – including a $700 million budget surplus and more than $1.2 billion in unspent revenue for the current fiscal year – means the state is likely to bump up against its constitutional cap on spending. That is complicating efforts by Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature to divide up the money. The Public Affairs Research Council reports that the two sides are discussing ways to sidestep the cap, which can only be lifted with a two-thirds vote of each chamber. 

They are negotiating over what spending can be excluded from the limit, and they are weighing possible workarounds to avoid having to take a vote to raise the cap, such as socking money into funds to spend in later years. Among the spending tangled up in the debate are Edwards’ recommendations for road and bridge work, state and college building repairs, coastal protection projects and payments for Louisiana’s share of Federal Emergency Management Agency storm response and recovery costs. It also could affect lawmakers’ work to pay down a debt to the federal government for flood protection system improvements across the New Orleans region after Hurricane Katrina. 

Several bills filed this session — HB 80, by Rep. Edmonds, and HB 593 and 656, by Rep. Geymann — would impose additional arbitrary caps on state spending, making this problem worse.

Fairness for minority contractors
The new federal infrastructure law will steer billions of dollars to Louisiana in the coming years for roads, bridges, water system upgrades and other needed projects. Former state Rep. Ted James, who recently became a regional administrator with the Small Business Administration, says in a guest column in The Advocate that the Biden administration wants to make sure that small, minority-owned companies get their fair share of the contracts that spring from these investments: 

Last year Black-owned businesses constituted 20% of all small businesses, but only received 2% of federal contracts. Women, veterans, rural business owners and other socio-economic groups didn’t fare better either. … This year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order increasing the federal contracting goal for small, disadvantaged businesses to 15% by 2025. This one change will put an estimated extra $50 billion into the hands of America’s small, disadvantaged businesses over the next five years. The SBA will negotiate to set interim contracting goals for Fiscal 2022.

Protecting the right to vote
Many conservatives in Louisiana, and around the country, have bought into the lie that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump and have decided to tamper with an election system that has been working well for years. The inimitable Jim Beam of the Lake Charles American-Press writes that state legislators are resurrecting some election-related bills that were vetoed last year by Gov. John Bel Edwards, apparently believing they now have enough votes to overturn the governor’s veto. 

Rep. Les Farnum, R-Sulphur, wants a supplemental annual canvass of registered voters. Edwards vetoed a similar 2021 bill, saying there was already an annual canvass and called it an unfunded mandate on local officials. Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, wants state central political committees to appoint additional poll watchers. Edwards in his veto message said there was no good reason to further politicize the operation of elections by inserting political parties in the process. Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, wants to prohibit the use of private funds for election-related expenses by a public official or agency. Edwards’ veto last year was his second of a similar bill. He said the Legislature receives and spends grants and donations, but this bill outlaws it for other public bodies.

Programming notes: The latest episode of LBP’s Didja Know? Podcast dropped on Monday morning. Click here to hear Executive Director Jan Moller and Policy Analyst Jackson Voss discuss the Louisiana Recovery Agenda, which shows how Louisiana can use its surplus dollars to build a more equitable recovery — or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. 

The next episode of #RacismDismantlingtheSystem will air live from the Whitney Plantation on Tuesday, March 22 at 3:30 pm CST. The conversation will focus on how plantations have historically presented the story of slavery, and how we can change that narrative. You can tune in on LBP’s Facebook live

What we’re watching: Today at the Legislature, the House Appropriations Committee will dive into the budget for criminal justice programs, including the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. And the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee meets at 1 p.m. to hear several bills, including one that would extend the Quality Jobs tax giveaway program, which doesn’t work very well

Number of the Day 
2% – Percentage of federal contracts that were awarded to Black-owned businesses, which make up 20% of all small businesses. (Source: Small Business Administration via The Advocate)