As you go to the polls for the Nov. 4 election, here’s a recap of The Advocate’s positions on various proposals on the ballot in the New Orleans area.
PROPOSED STATE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS
Nursing home funding: No.
The amendment would protect from cuts the “medical assistance trust fund” that is now in the law but not given constitutional protection. Funds generated for nursing homes and a few other providers by a Medicaid program fee would go into the fund — the bulk of the money, about $91 million, from nursing homes. The amendment will further straitjacket lawmakers in the future by requiring that the providers would be paid rates no less than the fiscal year 2014 average.
While there are several constitutional funds, it is remarkable that the fees for the covered providers would be set in the constitution.
In both this case and a second amendment on a future hospital fund, there would be a way for future Legislatures to reduce the appropriations for the program beneficiaries, but it would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers. Any cuts could not exceed the percentage of cuts from other programs.
This is controversial in part because the fund benefits only certain types of health care; home-health providers and other programs would not be protected in the same way.
Our concern is that further reducing budgetary flexibility would make managing the Medicaid program more difficult.
In times of budget shortfalls, the higher education budget as well as Medicaid spending outside the trust fund would, of necessity, suffer more severely.
Hospital trust fund: No.
Two wrongs definitely don’t make a right, and the same concerns about the medical assistance trust fund apply to this similar hospital fund. In this case, the hospitals would generate new Medicaid matching funds for the state. The funds created in the state budget would go into the “hospital stabilization fund” and would be protected from cuts in a similar fashion to the fund principally benefiting nursing homes.
Louisiana’s hospitals are an influential lobbying group, and as they hope to generate more revenues for the Medicaid program, they want to keep the funds for their institutions. The problem is that, as with the nursing home program under Medicaid, the state’s capacity to manage payments again would be limited.
Adoption of more restrictions on legislative authority could draw a larger bull’s-eye on the funding for state colleges and universities, because that is not protected in the constitution.
Delinquent tax sales: Yes.
A lawsuit blocked a New Orleans fee to a third-party collector for delinquent tax collections and sales. Hiring a contractor for this work has been done in several jurisdictions, but the courts found a constitutional problem: Parish tax collectors are authorized to do the work, not specifically contractors of the tax collectors. The amendment would clarify the law to allow, but not require, a fee to be paid to agents used by local government for collections. Particularly in smaller jurisdictions, tax collectors can use the expertise of a contractor in the often-complex process of collecting taxes due or selling abandoned property so that it can be put back into commerce.
Fund transfers for an infrastructure bank: No.
The amendment is a case of putting the cart before the horse. The amendment empowers the state Treasury to invest in a bank that would presumably function as a revolving loan fund that local governments could use for road improvements. But the bank has not yet been created by law. We believe voters are better served by seeing the whole package on this proposal.
Elimination of mandatory retirement age for judges: Yes.
This amendment, if approved, would eliminate the mandatory retirement age of 70 that’s now in place for Louisiana judges. We believe that many judges can continue to be productive past 70, and we support this change.
Higher millage cap for police and fire protection in New Orleans: Yes.
The constitution now allows New Orleans to levy a special, additional five mills on property values to fund police protection and another additional five mills to fund fire protection. This amendment would change each of those millage caps from five mills to 10 mills. New Orleans voters would still have to approve any additional taxes that could be proposed under this new arrangement, and we’ll wait to weigh in on those proposals when or if they emerge. Voters across Louisiana should be able to choose how much — or how little — to tax themselves for local needs without interference by the state.
Property tax exemption for disabled veterans: No.
The amendment would strengthen an additional break on property taxes that parish governments, with voter approval, are already authorized to grant disabled veterans. We are deeply grateful for the sacrifices of veterans and believe that government should support their interests. But property tax breaks are a clunky way to address veterans’ needs, and such provisions add needless complexity to the tax code. Veterans are better assisted by specific assistance programs, not tinkering with the property tax code.
Artificial Reef Development Fund: No.
This amendment would prevent lawmakers from using money in a special state fund for artificial reef development for other purposes. The state already has too many constitutional restrictions governing the state budget, limiting leaders’ ability to manage the budget in lean times.
Tax exemption reporting for permanently disabled residents: No.
This amendment is intended to ease participation in a property tax exemption for disabled residents. We believe that disabled residents should be helped through specialized programs, not exemptions in the tax code. Such exemptions usually lead to more exemptions for other groups, needlessly complicating the tax code.
Tax sales of property: Yes.
In the tangle of legal complications of blighted property, one of the biggest is the constitutional requirement that owners have three years to pay past-due taxes. In cases where taxes are not paid at all, an investor may buy a certificate for the property but still must wait three years in most of the state, except for Orleans Parish, where the redemption period was reduced to 18 months in 1995.
The amendment brings the rest of the state into line with Orleans’ rule. Blight is not just a New Orleans problem. We think this amendment can have a positive impact by speeding up the process of putting tax sale properties into commerce.
Increasing number of state departments from 20 to 21: No.
This amendment would allow the state to have more government departments, facilitating the creation of a Department of Elderly Affairs. We fully support providing coordinated services to the elderly, but Louisiana doesn’t need a separate department to advance that goal.
Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission membership: No.
This amendment seeks to micromanage the geographical make-up of membership on the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. That’s a bad idea, and this kind of restriction has no place in the constitution.
Lower 9th Ward: Yes.
The devastation of the Lower 9th Ward was one of the tragedies visited upon the city of New Orleans and its neighboring parishes after the 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina. The extent of the loss of houses alone drew the attention of the entire world. Unfortunately, at next year’s 10th anniversary of those events, much of the area will still be vacant lots.
That slow pace of recovery is frustrating, and this amendment and its companion legislation is the result. Passage of the amendment will require sale of the government-owned parcels for $100, a nominal sum that does not recover the costs of the property transfer, much less necessarily lead to appropriate redevelopment. With great respect for the desire of legislators to get something moving, the companion legislation for this proposal is flawed, as the BGR public policy group points out. BGR noted that the law requires the donations and sets a bad precedent for lawmakers basically giving away property that is under the authority of the city or the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
However, those flaws can be fixed and the effective donation of some of those lots might lead to progress in this neighborhood. We feel it’s worth a try.
Tax rebates, incentives and abatements: No.
This amendment limits legislation related to tax rebates, incentives and abatements to fiscal legislative sessions only. The distinction between fiscal and general legislative sessions doesn’t seem very practical in an age when we expect government to be as flexible as a business in managing its affairs. This amendment would sharpen that distinction even more.
Proposed Orleans Parish charter changes
New Orleans Home Rule Charter Amendment: Contracting: Yes.
The scandals that rocked City Hall during Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration were a potent reminder of what can happen when leaders use their influence to reward friends — and themselves. That reality underscores the need for city government to conduct its business transparently, motivated by merit and fiscal prudence rather than political expedience. In 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed an executive order aimed at reforming the city’s procurement process. Among the reforms was a centralized procurement office and the selection of contractors by expert committees conducting their evaluations in public.
The charter amendment on contracting would codify some of these reforms, giving them more permanence than an executive order that could be changed by a new mayor. We agree with the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research that this amendment should have gone further. It doesn’t require that selection committees use a numerical grading scale, nor does it specifically require the mayor to honor a committee’s selections. It’s an imperfect amendment but a step in the right direction. We urge voters to approve it.
New Orleans Home Rule Charter Amendment: Inauguration Date: Yes.
Starting in 2017, primary elections for mayor and City Council in New Orleans will take place in the fall. This amendment, if approved, would move the inauguration dates for mayor and council members from May to January, shortening the time between election and taking office. The change in inauguration, if approved, would begin in 2018 to coincide with the new election dates. This is a practical way to avoid a long period between elections and new terms of office. We recommend a “yes” vote.
Property tax for law enforcement district: Yes.
This proposal would allow the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District to capture proceeds from a 2.9-mill property tax now used for debt service and to use the money for other purposes as the debt is retired. The money could be used by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to help pay for operations, maintenance and upkeep of the parish prison and other facilities. BGR and Mayor Mitch Landrieu are supporting the tax.
Both the Orleans Parish Prison and the New Orleans Police Department are under federal consent decrees because of widespread problems within the institutions. Conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison have been deplorable, and the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall have been arguing about who will pay for the reforms needed to improve the prison.
If this tax proposal is approved, it could generate an estimated $5 million in its first year, 2015. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that produced the consent decree have estimated that when fully implemented, the reforms could cost between $10 million and $22 million a year.
While the tax proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot isn’t a cure-all, it’s a useful acknowledgement that improving the city’s law enforcement and criminal justice system will cost money. We support the proposal.
Mandeville area ballot issues
Amendment Package 1, technical changes: Yes.
This is generally a housekeeping amendment, including provisions meant to update language in the charter so that it tracks state election laws and the open meetings law. We support the changes.
Amendment Package 2, council vacancies, open meetings law: Yes.
This proposal shifts responsibility for filling council vacancies from the governor to the mayor in the event that the council fails to make a timely appointment, which seems a reasonable acknowledgment that local leaders are better able to fill vacancies in local government. It also requires that council members-elect comply with the Louisiana Open Meetings Law, a good way to advance government transparency.
Amendment Package 3, extending council term limits from two to three consecutive terms: Yes.
We’re generally skeptical about term limits for public officials. The ballot box, the most important potential term limit for elected officials, is already in place. This proposal would extend the number of consecutive terms for council members from two to three but outlaw the “musical chairs” practice in which term-limited members extend their tenure on the council by simply running for another seat. We favor eliminating term limits for council members altogether. These changes, at the very least, make term limits less restrictive.
Amendment Package 4, director of human resources: Yes.
Among other small revisions, this proposal changes the status of the city’s human resources director, who is half in the city’s civil service system and half outside the system. If approved, the amendment package would classify the director’s post as a civil service position.
Rededication of 1-cent sales tax: Yes.
In 1999, Mandeville voters approved a 1-cent sales tax, authorizing it to be used exclusively for city infrastructure. The tax generates about $4.6 million a year and has developed a large surplus, yet the city’s general fund, used to pay for other city services, is under stress.
This proposal, if approved, would extend the sales tax until 2029 and rededicate half of it to the city’s general fund. This kind of flexibility gives leaders greater latitude to spend tax resources where they’re most needed, which is critical as local governments, faced with state and federal cutbacks, shoulder more of the burden for providing services.