Matters of Life and Death

Do state lawmakers comprehend they hold the powers of life and death for their constituents? After bill discussions, testimony, and debates like those heard Tuesday, it would seem they could hardly avoid recognizing the weight attached to their decisions. One of the Senate Judiciary committees was forcefully reminded of the import of what they do, as they considered a bill to abolish the death penalty. After the measure’s author, Sen. J.P. Morrell, pointed out the financial costs of sentencing someone to death (triple the cost of keeping them in prison for life), Bishop Shelton Fabre with the Houma-Thibodaux Catholic Archdiocese directed the attention to the metaphysical costs. “The search for justice does not compel us to seek the death penalty,” he said. “Execution simply offers an illusion of closure. Ultimately, it is revenge, not justice. “The most important reason to end the death penalty is the belief that life is sacred. Let us end the culture of death, and truly build a culture of life.” Sen. Bodi White (R-Baton Rouge) was unreceptive to the message. “I’ve listened to you patiently, Bishop, but do you really think if we repeal the death penalty here – where we have the highest violent crime rate in the nation, in the world – do you think the violent crime rate will go down?” White asked, aggressively. “I would hope so,” Bishop Farbe replied gently. “I don’t think it will,” Sen. White said, folding his arms across his chest. “Having the death penalty on books since the founding of this state has not deterred the crime rate, Sen. White,” Morrell responded. “Those who commit these crimes don’t value life at all – not even their own.” On a 4-1 vote, with White’s the only vote against, the bill was sent to the full Senate for consideration. The same committee was also slated to hear three ‘pro-life” bills, authored by Sen. John Milkovich of Shreveport, including a bill to ban all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Milkovich, however, was tied up presenting a bill in a different committee, so those bills were postponed for another week. Meanwhile, across the building, House Appropriations was hearing grim details on the extended costs of budget cuts proposed for the Department of Health. “Our public-private partner hospitals will close. Tens of thousands of recipients will lose services,” LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee testified. “Thousands of jobs will be lost.” “There will be a domino effect throughout the state economy,” Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne added. “This will further diminish sales tax and income tax collections.” “Under this worst-case scenario, right,” Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) responded. “But do we have an estimate of those job loss numbers?” “I was asked to do an impact analysis on the cuts as proposed,” said Manfred Dix, fiscal analyst for the Division of Administration. “With a $2.4-billion overall cut to LDH – that’s state general fund and federal matching dollars – 57,000 jobs will be lost from Louisiana’s economy in the first year.” That’s 57,000 residents who will be struggling for a way to make a living. Many of those lost jobs will result from closures of the public-private partner hospitals. The private partners for the former Charity System facilities in Lafayette and New Orleans have already notified the state that they intend to close if the state can’t or won’t fully fund its obligation. Dr. Gee noted that closing the New Orleans hospital will certainly result in deaths. “It’s the state’s only Level One Trauma Center,” she reminded the money committee. Taken aback, Harris said, “Well, hopefully this scenario won’t be the fact.” Conversely, in the afternoon, Gov. John Bel Edwards released results of an LSU study showing the economic impacts of Medicaid expansion, which began July 1, 2016. The study, conducted by Dr. Jim Richardson, shows 19,200 jobs have been created or retained, and the $1.85-billion in federal funds expansion added has been leveraged into nearly $3.6-billion worth of total economic activity for the state, improving Louisiana’s overall standard of living. Tuesday, the full Senate considered SB 274, banning the sale of assault weapons by anyone under the age of 21. Its author, Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans) told members of the upper chamber, “We need to do something to make our classrooms safer.” Sen. Eddie Lambert (R-Gonzales), argued, “This would mean a combat soldier under age 21 would be unable to purchase an assault weapon here at home.” “He can’t buy alcohol either,” Carter answered, “But he could still buy a hunting rifle or shotgun.” Reflecting some of the scare tactics used in propaganda disseminated to oppose to this bill, Sen. Bodi White asked, “If this is the first step, then what is step two?” The opposition propaganda was fairly pervasive. For example, the Super-PAC created to support Attorney General Jeff Landry, Citizens for Louisiana Job Creation, had issued a “gun grab alert” Tuesday morning. It said “the anti-gun left is attempting to prohibit some adults from owning weapons”. Additionally, there was a localized campaign in Acadiana, targeting Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), who cast the deciding vote to move the bill out of the committee. Ads run by gun advocates there urged citizens to boycott Mills’ businesses (he’s a pharmacy owner). When the bill failed in a full Senate vote of 9-26, Mills was among those who voted against it. Back in House Appropriations, it was also public testimony day, when citizens are permitted to weigh in on the budget proposals. Their stories are never easy listening, as disabilities advocates annually plead their desperate need for state funding of more waivers, granting in-home care assistance for their loved ones. This year’s pleas are especially distressing, with the billion-dollar-plus revenue dropoff due to the expiration of “temporary” taxes. This time, it’s not about years-long waiting lists: instead, nearly 72,000 residents currently receiving services through the life-saving waivers will be losing them. You see, these programs are considered “optional”. Particularly poignant was the testimony from Ashley McReynolds of Baton Rouge. Here is her story: “Please restore all the cuts to LDH services,” she said tearfully, because the Children’s Choice waiver is a lifesaver. “My son has a rare genetic disease known as Prader-Willi Syndrome. For Cooper, it literally feels like he is starving to death all the time. This isn’t, ‘oh, I skipped breakfast; now it’s lunchtime and I’m starving.’ It’s a week in the desert without food or water starving. “Prader-Willi also comes with other disabilities, including violent mood disorders. My son, age 11, doesn’t sleep through the night. He wears a breathing machine so he won’t drown in his own carbon dioxide exhalations, but he tears it off repeatedly during the night. “He gets angry, and starts self-injuring. He physical attacks us, his family. Not long ago he attacked his teenage sister so violently that she developed severe anxiety, and began pulling her own hair out in clumps, leaving bald patches. “Our family psychiatrist says I am suffering with PTSD. “After Cooper was born, we applied to the state for assistance, were put on the waiting lists, and ultimately got some respite care. Then legislative budget cuts killed off that program. But we made too much to qualify for Medicaid. “When Cooper was five, we decided to place him on another waiting list – for the only hospital in the nation providing inpatient care for Prader-Willi. It is in Pittsburgh. And while we waited for that, I finally got the call. Here at home, we were offered a Children’s Choice waiver. By the way, the call came while I was sitting outside Senate Finance, waiting to give budget testimony on the need to fund more waivers. “Things have been worse for us, and will get way worse if we lose this waiver. It has saved our marriage and saved our family from from bankruptcy. This waiver isn’t a service creating a life of luxury and glam – it’s survival. It lets me take a shower! It has given our family the life-saving choice to have Cooper with us. It has let Cooper live. “If it is taken away, we’ll go back to wondering how to pay for Cooper’s medications – which cost $3000 a month after insurance — and still keep the lights on. We will have to institutionalize him. “If you do this, you are eliminating more than a service. You are issuing a death sentence: the death of my family unit, and the death of me. It will be the death of our children.” House Appropriations is scheduled to unveil and vote on their budget recommendations Monday, April 16. Will it be life or death?