Another Battle of Biblical Proportions in Louisiana House Committee

“Do you think somebody who can’t find a job should have to die?” Opelousas Representative Dustin Miller asked the Health and Welfare Committee chairman. “No, I think it’s going to help these people become more productive citizens,” Representative Frank Hoffman (R-West Monroe) replied. “We’re helping them by kicking them off health insurance?” Miller asked. “They’ll end up paying taxes and ultimately it’s going to make life better for these people,” Hoffman responded. The Health and Welfare committee began its work Thursday by taking up its chairman’s bill, HB 3, which would impose work, training, or community engagement requirements on Medicaid recipients. After being modified from its original form with an amendment setting up a “demonstration project” in selected parishes first, it ran into some immediate opposition. Committee member Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) immediately advised Hoffman she had committed to voting no on the bill, and would like more time to study the amendment She would reconsider her vote if he would delay action until Friday. “I don’t want to pull it,” Hoffman said. “It’s going to make life better for these people.” Miller voiced his objections, and then New Orleans Representative Helena Moreno weighed in. “With this bill we’re feeding into stereotypes, and labeling people as ‘those who don’t want to work’. We’re only targeting those on Medicaid,” she said. “Studies show unemployment could be harmful to health,” Hoffman maintained. The governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, sat next to Hoffman, and advised the committee, “This is something we were going to do without legislation, but it’s not a budget-positive measure. This is going to cost us money to put in place, and if we do remove people from Medicaid, they will cost the state more money in the long run.” Representative Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) asked, “Last time I checked, we were broke, broke, broke. Where’s the money coming from?” Representative Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall) interjected, “Yeah, there’s money involved. But I believe we need to push everybody to find work to do, and I don’t think we’re ever wrong to look at ways to use our taxpayers’ money better.” Miller wasn’t buying it. “This bill is only going to kick people off Medicaid. This is punitive!” he exclaimed. “Let’s kick ’em off. Now, you’re uninsured. You get sick. You go to the emergency room. Who pays the bill? The state does, right? So how are we being responsible with the taxpayers’ money?” Dawn Starnes, with the Louisiana chapter of NFIB – a small-business advocacy group – was livid. “The Medicaid program is a beast! It’s a wildfire raging and needs reform! We want to see some changes!” she remonstrated with the committee, stopping just short of pounding her fist on the witness table. That was enough breathing of fire and brimstone for committee member Robert Johnson (D-Marksville). “I don’t think this bill comports with doing what is best for ‘the least of these among us’,” he said. “At a time when we’ve been very generous with companies, we’re not being good stewards of the people’s money by considering punitive measures on some of our people – just because they’re poor.” Hoffman then acknowledged the writing on the wall, saying,”We still have some work to do, so I’m going to ask that we voluntarily defer.” There was no opposition to that motion. Next up was Tony Bacala’s bill to open state personal income tax records for verification of Medicaid eligibility. Citing “waste, fraud, and abuse” repeatedly, Bacala – a Republican from Prairieville – argued, “This is a bill about the integrity of the program that encompasses half our state budget, when you include federal funds. I just can’t ignore this!” That was in specific response to testimony from LDH Medicaid program director Jen Steele, that a review of 238 cases found five that listed questionable income. When supplemental proof of income was requested and received, all five retained their eligibility for Medicaid. Again, committee members indicated their disfavor of the bill, and Bacala voluntarily deferred his measure. That left two bills by Representative Jack McFarland (R-Jonesboro). HB 4 would require Medicaid recipients to pay premiums for their coverage, and HB 11 would require them to make co-payments for treatment and prescriptions. “I can read the tea leaves,” McFarland said, bitterly. “I voluntarily defer.” Leaders of the House Democratic caucuses spent much of the afternoon closeted with the Speaker and House Republican caucus chairman Lance Harris. The full House convened nearly an hour late due to the discussions, prayed and pledged, and then recessed for another hour and 45 minutes. The Speaker, caucus leaders, the Health and Welfare chair and Ways and Means chairman again withdrew to confer. The “come to Jesus” meetings apparently paid off, for when the House reconvened, Speaker Barras announced, “We have reconciled some of the debate this afternoon and evening. A couple of new options were presented, and we’re double-checking the fiscal notes on those items, particularly the revenue bills. Health and Welfare will meet Sunday at 2 p.m.; Ways and Means at 4, and the full House at 6.” Health and Welfare will be discussing and voting on Bacala’s HB 2 and Hoffman’s HB 3 only. Ways and Means will be doing Dwight’s HB 23 to clean the four sales tax pennies and renew a quarter of the fifth penny. But they will also take up Shadoin’s HB 22 – making the so-called “haircut” to corporate tax deductions and exclusions permanent. In addition, they will vote on three of Leger’s bills: HB 8, HB 14, and HB 16. HB 8 cuts the allowable state deduction for federal itemized deductions in half. HB 14 eliminates the state tax deduction for taxes paid to other states. And HB 16 reduces corporate payroll tax rebates. Does this mean the “Disciples of No” have joined other churches? Not necessarily, though we should know more after Sunday services.