Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday made back-to-back appearances in Baton Rouge to appeal to supporters and community leaders on two of the key issues he’s facing — the state budget shortfall and expansion of the Medicaid health care program.
The effort to plug a $600 million gap in the state budget that begins July 1 and the looming launch of looser qualifications for Medicaid, which Edwards has hailed as a way to save the state millions of dollars while providing health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of residents, present two of the biggest tests for the Democratic governor’s administration in the next three months.
As Edwards sat on the stage for Together Louisiana’s discussion on the state tax structure, leaders of the interfaith group, which often advocates policies to help the poor, outlined a report on “the unfairness and inadequacy of our state tax system” that took pointed aim at the recent special legislative session.
The Rev. Theron Jackson, of Shreveport, citing an analysis from the Washington-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, said tax hikes from the special legislative session earlier this year will disproportionately affect poorer residents. Legislators raised about $1.1 billion for the coming year’s budget — much of that through temporarily increasing the state’s sales tax.
Jackson, who referred to the reliance on sales tax hikes as “the big swap” in return for lower income taxes for the wealthy and corporate exemptions, said the state has seen a shift over the past eight years that’s akin to “wealth redistribution.”
“This calls for righteous indignation,” he said.
Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11 facing a $2 billion shortfall in the state budget, pushed the increase in the sales tax and removal of some sales tax exemptions as a temporary measure to quickly inject money into the state’s coffers.
But Jackson argued that the quick fix is still hitting poorer people the hardest. Based on the institute’s analysis, the impact on those who make below $32,000 a year will be six times greater than those who make more than $1.2 million, when comparing the special session tax hikes as a percentage of annual income.
“We know that there are few options to fill holes when they are immediate and urgent,” Jackson said. “There’s still an impact of the things we do temporarily.”
Edwards plans to call a second special session after the regular session ends in June to continue work on the state’s finances.
He told the gathering of about 300 clergy and community leaders at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in downtown Baton Rouge that he won’t agree to any more sales tax increases in the second special session, though he claimed that some legislators have pushed for further sales tax increases, rather than less regressive structural changes.
“We have a lot of serious needs, and we cannot stay where we are,” Edwards said. “We have to do better.”
He has repeatedly said he’s looking to a new task force to provide recommendations for balancing the budget, with much of the work likely coming in 2017, when lawmakers can more freely consider legislation that relates to finances.
He told the faith group that he believes the state has several options for removing tax exemptions and credits and rebalancing the income tax structures.
“All of those things should be on the table,” he said.
Appearing less than an hour later at a Baton Rouge health clinic that serves a mostly low-income population, a more upbeat Edwards launched a statewide tour to encourage more people to sign up for the growing Medicaid program. About 375,000 people in Louisiana are expected to gain health coverage under new enrollment requirements that take effect July 1. Louisiana will become the first state in the Deep South to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. Edwards has made its success a top priority in his first three months in office.
“This isn’t just about expanding a program for the sake of expanding a program,” Edwards told a crowded waiting room at the Capitol City Family Health Center on Florida Boulevard. “Every number is a face and a name — like yours.”
Linda Simms, of Baton Rouge, said she already receives health care coverage through Medicare, but wanted to attend the event to get information that she can share with other people she knows who will qualify under the new Medicaid enrollment standards.
“Others can’t be here because they had to work,” she said.
Adults who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $33,460 for a family of four — will become eligible under the expansion. Currently, the program is limited mostly to children, pregnant women and people who are disabled.
Edwards told the patients at the clinic that he sees Medicaid expansion as one step toward improving overall health quality in Louisiana.
“I believe Medicaid expansion is an important step but we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
He mingled with people before and after announcing that Medicaid delivery in Louisiana will be rebranded as “Healthy Louisiana” to reflect that goal, instead of “Bayou Health” as its currently known. Edwards and his team unveiled a new logo and website for “Healthy Louisiana” at the event, but Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee said no additional money is going toward the rebranding efforts.
“This is about the right kind of messaging,” said Gee, who met with patients alongside Edwards at the clinic. “It’s about getting healthier.”
Edwards also again touted the estimated $184 million savings the state will see through expanding Medicaid and shifting health care to a more defined program, rather than leaving the uninsured to seek out costlier alternatives.
“The benefits of Medicaid expansion are for all of us,” Edwards said.