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Louisiana editorial roundup

March 28, 2018

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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March 28

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune says Louisiana lawmakers aren’t doing enough to earn their pay:

Louisianians spent almost $643,000 to send the Legislature to Baton Rouge for a 15-day special session in February and March. We got nothing for all that money.

Lawmakers were supposed to come up with a way to fill the budget deficit that is looming when almost $1 billion in taxes expire June 30, but that didn’t happen.

House members couldn’t even agree on which bill should go up for a vote first. So, two tax measures that probably could have passed failed because lawmakers didn’t trust each other. Republican leaders wanted a sales tax measure to go first, and Black Caucus members wanted a property tax revision to go first. Both bills died.

The Senate has to wait for the House to send it any legislation dealing with revenues, so senators had nothing to do. Since they didn’t hold as many meetings, the cost of the session was lower than expected — $42,865 a day instead of $50,000 or $60,000.

That is little comfort, though.

The Legislature spent almost $323,000 on per diem and mileage payments for lawmakers during the special session. They did little to nothing to earn that money, which is infuriating for taxpayers.

Legislators have had five special sessions in two years. They are meeting now in their third regular session in that time span. They have spent millions of the public’s money during that time on their compensation and staffing.

Yet the most important problem facing the state — how to balance the budget and provide needed services — is still unsolved.

The state is projected to have a budget deficit of $690 million for the coming fiscal year. That could affect everything from how much college students get in TOPS scholarship payments to services for disabled and mentally ill residents. The ramifications are broad.

There are 50,000 young people who rely on TOPS. Lawmakers could come up with funding later, but those students may not know how much they’re getting until after they are enrolled. Some of them are looking outside of Louisiana.

Because of federal rules, the state is notifying roughly 60,000 elderly or disabled Medicaid recipients that they could lose their benefits. The state health department is required to provide a 60-day notice to patients. Lawmakers may find the funding to keep them covered, but that won’t happen until mid-May.

The unproductive special session has left the budget in flux. Lawmakers are supposed to pass a spending plan during their regular session, but that will be an adventure since they haven’t agreed on what taxes will be in place.

They still can have a meaningful budget debate, though. “Is there a constructive outcome that could happen in this session? Yes. One critical one could be that lawmakers have a serious discussion about the budget and make a real decision about how much they want to spend and, if they want to cut, where that would be,” the Council for a Better Louisiana said in a pre-session memo. “Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, they can do it.”

Lawmakers’ behavior makes it seem as if there is deep disagreement over how much the state should spend on services. But CABL points out that they already have defined that amount.

“By using gimmicks to support spending levels during the Jindal administration and raising temporary taxes to do the same in the Edwards administration, they have by default established the levels of spending that a majority in both chambers believe is acceptable,” CABL said.

Now lawmakers just need to acknowledge what that level of spending is and come up with a rational way to pay for it.

Online: http://www.nola.com/

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March 22

The Advocate asks the state to not roll back on crime and jail reforms:

With Louisiana’s criminal justice reforms still in their infancy, some lawmakers are trying to push several bills in the current session of the Legislature that threaten to strangle progress in its cradle.

One such bill is House Bill 195, and we urge legislators to reject it. We hope that the bipartisan coalition of legislators and the broader alliance of liberal and conservative civic groups that worked so hard to pass the reform package last year keeps alert to snakes slithering in the legislative grass.

Sponsored by Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, HB 195 extends the three-year probation term back to its original five years, although with some court oversight that might allow some offenders to complete their obligations earlier.

The rationale for the three-year term is that many probationers — having difficulty as ex-cons getting jobs and otherwise re-entering society — often have technical violations, having missed a reporting date or another infraction that in the old system could be a one-way ticket back to jail.

Around the country, evidence has piled up that longer probation terms mean more chances for technical violations to put men back into jail. The shorter term is not a bleeding-heart initiative but an evidence-based requirement that, allied with more effective probation oversight, gives better results and saves the taxpayer money.

Mack’s bill squeaked out, 8-7, from the Criminal Justice panel he chairs. We hope that the full House questions this maneuver, because the best argument against all of the rollback bills is that they’ve arrived too soon.

One year just isn’t enough time to gauge how the 2017 reforms are working.

Louisiana is the No. 1 jailer in the world for our population. We have to make significant changes in all phases of the system, from courtroom to prisons to probation and parole. Every step involves public officials with vested interests in the system as it is, from sheriffs on the payroll for housing state prisoners to prosecutors who believe in throwing away the jail door key.

It’s a complex task, and it may require adjustment as time goes on.

But the plain fact is that the 2018 session has little to go on in terms of evidence that the 2017 reforms aren’t succeeding.

We urge the House and Senate to look hard at changes to what is almost their single constructive achievement in all of last year.

Online: http://www.theadvocate.com

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March 27

The Town Talk says state workers and Louisiana both benefit from proposed retirement changes:

If you really want to scare an older, long-time employees talk about changing their retirement plan.

That’s why Cindy Rougeou, executive director of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System (LASARS), has been making the rounds to get the word out about their proposal, Senate Bill 14, to change the retirement system for the majority of future state employees.

First, before any current and long-time state employees see this and panic, Rougeou stressed the new plan is for new hires starting in 2020, not existing employees. While some employees would have the option to move to the new plan if it is a better fit for them, current state workers can keep the plan they are on now.

With that disclaimer out of the way, why are they talking about changing the system in the first place? The main reason is that those long-term state employees are now more the exception than the rule. Years ago, when the retirement plan was first created, the goal was to create a system for career workers — employees who would work for 30 or more years. But that’s not the way the current workforce operates, Rougeou explained.

She said that since 2005 they have seen increased turnover rates in basic state jobs. As a result, under the current plan only 5 percent of workers are projected to get their full benefit. A staggering 70 percent could earn no benefit at all because they don’t stay on the job 5 years, the time it takes to become fully vested. Employees who leave before hitting their 5-year anniversary date get back what they put in, but they don’t get any of the interest earned or the state contribution.

Under the current system, which features a defined-benefit plan, employees pay in a percentage of their salary and the state pays in a percentage with a set payout at retirement age. Under the proposed change, the defined-benefit plan stays in place, but it is only part of the equation. In addition would be a new 401(k) plan that employees would have control over. And, that part of the plan would be portable, so if a worker leaves after only a few years they still have something to show for their time beyond what they paid in.

We like this plan for a number of reasons. First, the “hybrid” approach as it is called is more in-line with what workers see in the private sector. Most non-government employees have a combination, or hybrid plan, that is part defined-benefit plan, i.e. Social Security, and part employer-provided plan, which typically means a 401(k) account the employee can self-direct based on their investment preferences. That’s exactly the structure proposed in SB 14.

Second, the new plan approach addresses a major issue the state currently faces with unfunded liabilities. In the past, the state has chosen to spend some of the money that should have been set aside to pay for pension payouts on other things. That created a monetary hole that now has to be filled.

As the Public Affairs Research Council notes in their support of SB 14, “The main problems with the current retirement system stem from inadequately funding it on the front end, which results in a long and large accumulation of liabilities. This new plan is a chance to get it right and to fully pay the true costs of a retirement plan as we go rather than later when it will be more expensive.”

Another benefit is a planned approach to providing cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs. Under the current plan, a number of milestones have to be met to trigger a COLA payment, which means they may or may not happen. Retirees certainly can’t count on one. Under the new plan, a COLA would be budgeted every other year, which means those retirees on a fixed income can plan and better manage their finances.

From our perspective, the plan makes good sense for everybody. It better serves the current workforce without penalizing current long-term career employees, it offers better stability for financial planning for retirees and it addresses the current unfunded liability issue, which makes it a better solution for taxpayers.

Online: https://www.thetowntalk.com

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