As you prepare to cast your ballot in the Nov. 4 election, here is a recap of The Advocate’s positions on various proposals on the ballot in the Baton Rouge 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.
Ascension Parish recreation tax: Yes
Growth in Ascension Parish during the past generation has been phenomenal, as families flock to the parish to take advantage of its public school system.
That’s meant a big increase in the number of youngsters in Ascension, and the parish’s recreation facilities and programs simply haven’t kept up with the growth.
That’s why we support a millage proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot that would dramatically expand parks and recreation opportunities in Ascension. We urge Ascension residents to vote yes.
The proposal, if approved, would levy a 5-mill property tax for 10 years, generating about $5.1 million per year. Proceeds would fund an ambitious — and necessary — plan to radically upgrade parks and recreation facilities. Among the highlights: a new sports complex, including a greatly expanded set of soccer, baseball, softball and football fields, and six additional basketball and volleyball courts; a theater for the performing arts; and four new water “spray” parks in Donaldsonville, Geismar, Dutchtown/Prairieville and St. Amant.
The recreation plan also would create miles of new walking and jogging trails. More information about the plan is available at www.ascensionrec.org.
The tax would equal about $5 per month for the average homeowner in the parish. As Ami Clouatre-Johnson, a member of the citizens’ advisory group that developed the plan, pointed out, that’s a modest investment, considering how much many parents spend on video games for their kids.
And spending on opportunities for exercise and the performing arts is a much better way to encourage alternatives to sitting on the couch.
Clouatre-Johnson said many Ascension families are spending lots of time in the car seeking better recreation options in neighboring Baton Rouge. The Nov. 4 tax propsoal would allow Ascension residents to offer a wealth of recreational opportunities closer to home. That would be a win for families and for quality of life within the parish.
Currently, there’s no dedicated funding for recreation in Ascension Parish. Parish government now allots a fluctuating amount of money for recreation out of its general fund. The amount allocated last year was $2.5 million, a modest amount considering the parish’s needs.
To continue to prosper, Ascension Parish needs a recreation program that reflects 21st-century realities.
East Baton Rouge Parish mosquito tax renewal: Yes.
EBR officials are seeking a 10-year renewal of a 1-mill property tax that funds mosquito control in the parish.
The need to control disease-carrying mosquitoes in south Louisiana is clear, as evidenced by continuing challenges with the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.
We urge a yes vote.
We hope voters approve the recreation tax on the Nov. 4 ballot.