Churchgoers and members of civic organizations joined Saturday in Baton Rouge to launch a statewide organization dedicated to addressing socio-economic issues across Louisiana.
The hundreds of people gathered chose the name Together Louisiana for the new coalition during a conference at Shiloh Baptist Church on Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive called “Our State of Affairs: A Citizens’ Issues Conference.”
The conference was organized by Together Baton Rouge, the Jeremiah Group in New Orleans, and Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith, among others.
The Rev. Lee T. Wesley, a founding member of Together Baton Rouge, said the idea of forming a state group emerged several months ago after leaders in Baton Rouge met with groups in Monroe and began discussing upcoming legislative issues.
“At that point, we realized that there were issues that had statewide implication, and just one local organization could not effectively deal with it,” he said.
The organizations that met Saturday will go home to their respective areas and give out the information on the new organization and its goals to their constituents, Wesley said.
“This was a teaching opportunity for leaders to go back to their community and pass on this information to folks in their areas to empower them,” Johnson said.
A diverse crowd spent much of the day in workshops designed to inform them about socio-economic issues ranging from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed tax overhaul to public education.
The Rev. Leroy Johnson, pastor of Berea Missionary Baptist Church in Alexandria, helped lead a seminar about crime and punishment in Louisiana.
Johnson said a number of the organizations have been meeting annually for several years to discuss social issues common among several Louisiana cities.
“Most of the time, the same problems that you have in Alexandria, you have also the same problem in Monroe,” Johnson said. “So what we do is, we strategize and see how we can have effective change.”
Sandra Franklin, of Alexandria, said she attended the workshops on public education and crime because she believes there’s a correlation between the two issues.
“I’m all about prevention and early intervention,” she said. “I know this is (about) getting to the children and preparing their minds to go forward in a positive direction.”
Franklin, a member of Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith, said the workshops were thorough.
“What I loved about the education (forum) — they went out and engaged people and talked to them,” she said.
The crowd also assembled for a discussion panel on three controversial topics — Jindal’s tax plan, Louisiana’s budget shortfalls and health care.
Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, fielded numerous questions about Jindal’s tax overhaul proposal, which calls for dropping the state’s personal income and corporate taxes in favor of raising state sales taxes and taxing services that are currently tax-free.
Moller said that while he is also worried about the outcome of Jindal’s proposal, he is “thrilled” a discussion about taxes is taking place.
“There’s really no more important conversation we should be having than how much should we be collecting in taxes,” he said.
The Rev. Melvin Rushing, pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist and Progressive Baptist churches, re-read a statement he gave Friday at a State Capitol news conference about the proposal.
Rushing and other members of the clergy said they believe the calculations in the plan are flawed and will raise tax burdens on lower- and moderate-income families.
“We have a profound concern that decisions are being made right now based on this flawed analysis,” Rushing said Saturday.
The Jindal administration has said taxpayers will save more through the elimination of income taxes than they will pay in increased sales taxes.
Tim Barfield, executive counsel for the state Department of Revenue, said in a statement Friday that more than 80 percent of the expanded sales tax base does not affect families and individuals.
Another panelist, Dr. Fred Cerise, former head of LSU’s hospital system, spoke at length about Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid in Louisiana through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Jindal has said he won’t accept federal funding because it is an improper growth of a costly and inefficient government entitlement program that would weaken the private insurance market.
Cerise, however, said he didn’t buy the claim that the state can’t afford it.
“This is by no means, in my opinion, a perfect law, but it is a vehicle that the federal government has provided to provide widespread access to people in this state,” he said. “You might argue the federal government shouldn’t do this. I would not buy the argument that the state cannot afford this expansion.”
Cerise was reassigned by the LSU Board of Supervisors in August from his job as director of the LSU hospital system.