Tell Us What We Want to Know (Even If We Don’t Know What That Is)

On the second day – first full working day – of this third special session, the Senate, with nothing to do, wasn’t meeting at all. In fact, they won’t be back till Thursday evening. Proposed legislation in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has initial responsibility for the sales tax bills addressing the purpose of this special session, was perfunctorily explained, with minimal questions from committee members, and no public testimony asked or given. That’s primarily because the “preferred” sales tax solution (at least, preferred by House GOP leadership) wasn’t being officially enrolled until the full House convened in late afternoon. That bill, HB 10 authored by Rep. Paula Davis, and co-authored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, would renew four-tenths of the fifth penny of state sales tax, and generate $421-million. While Davis didn’t get her bill drafted in time for Monday’s session opening, she was able to make a House GOP Caucus video talking about it, in time to be released Tuesday morning. In it, she says, “You will hear in the media and from this administration that we are fighting over a small percentage of a penny, and that it’s not a big deal. What we’re fighting over is much larger and more important than that. Over the last two years, our budget has grown by over $4-billion. We simply cannot continue to grow the size of government while we have the slowest economy in America.” Important to note, however, that Rep. Davis voted for the budget which begins July 1, not once – but four times: concurring with the Senate amendments to it during the regular session, to override the governor’s veto of it during the second special session, and twice again for the same budget during the second special session. Now she’s standing up against funding everything she voted to include? That’s part of the House Republican leadership’s plan. The rest involves revising the already approved and signed-into-law budget, taking some of the money now allocated for health care and moving it to other budgetary areas. House Appropriations made the first moves toward implementing that scheme Tuesday. First they called economist Greg Albrecht from the Legislative Fiscal Office to see if there might be any money they’d missed. “If the Revenue Estimating Conference met tomorrow, what are the numbers? Are there any changes that we can include?” Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry asked Albrecht. “Between now and July 1, we don’t expect substantial changes except recognizing revenue raised in last special session and this one,” Albrecht responded. “Is there anything else?” Henry probed again. “I mean, members here are questioning how much money to raise. We raise it, and then two days later, more money magically appears from where an agency had it stashed!” “That’s not my area,” Albrecht said, with a rueful chuckle. “I do revenue. That’s an appropriations-side thing. That’s y’all.” Henry, who has been thoroughly incensed over the Senate “finding” 66.7-million more LDH dollars during the second special session, didn’t conceal his annoyance when he questioned that department’s officials. “Are there other pots of money out there?” he asked LDH Secretary Gee, and the department’s chief financial officer, Undersecretary Jeff Reynolds, in clipped tones. “We never seem to get all of the information while you are here.” “$40-million of that has been in the budget for weeks,” Reynolds replied. “That amount was in the version of the budget passed during the regular session. The majority of the rest – some $20.9-million – was added by senators during the second special session. Over our objections, I might add.” Speaker Pro Temp Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) asked Reynolds for clarification of that statement. “In accordance with discussions we’ve had with you, we reduced the income compatibility variable to qualify for Medicaid from 25-percent to 10 percent. At the insistence of Senators Hewitt and Allain, HB 1 identified money not needed in our budget, on the presumption that people will be disqualified from the Medicaid program,” Reynolds explained. “We are not comfortable with that, at all. We don’t have any accurate numbers – just anecdotal assumptions by those Senate members. And we won’t know if this is right or wrong before November, when we start getting the monthly reports for the new fiscal year. “My feeling is that this will require a midyear reduction,” Reynolds wrapped up his answer to Leger.. Rep. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge) then felt the need to voice his displeasure over the amount of money made available for LDH. “We feel slighted at times because we are not getting all the information,” Edmonds said, adding, “When we don’t ask an exact question, you don’t give us an exact answer. Are there any other funds besides these that now have money in them, like a Hurricane Gustav or Isaac fund that might or might not have money in it—act of God funds, pharmacy, any and all – that if I don’t know about, I don’t know to ask about?” “I can’t spend a dollar without the legislature appropriating it,” Reynolds answered simply, clearly a bit confounded by the blaming tone and the weird logic driving Edmonds’ question. You see, House Appropriations held no hearings on the budget during the previous special session. The Republican-dominated committee did not call any department heads to testify or answer questions about what was essentially a spending plan rewritten by the Senate near the end of the regular session. In other words, how could LDH – or any other department – officials provide information or answer questions when they were never asked? Rep. Scott Simon (R-Abita Springs), chairman of the House Health Committee, had a question for LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee: “How many people are enrolled in Medicaid expansion now?” “473-thousand, presently,” Dr. Gee answered. “Don’t get real comfortable with that number. We’re going to revisit this again in the next couple of days,” Simon said with a smirk, implying that the controlling members of the committee do intend to strip funding from the Department of Health and apply it elsewhere. Henry took over again, questioning LDH’s using funds to pay 89-percent of the so-called “13th payment” to the managed care organizations. It’s a debt that’s been rolled over repeatedly, incurred in the final year of the Jindal administration. “Was that the best use of the money? We here didn’t know that money was even available!” Henry fumed. “It was allocated in the supplemental budget bill, specifically for the purpose,” Reynolds responded. “The House approved it.” Yet Reynolds, who has been with LDH for 30 years, and a couple of weeks ago announced he’s leaving the end of this month to take a similar position with LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, didn’t point out the other obvious part of Henry’s prevarication about not knowing the money was available. That supplemental appropriations bill? Henry is the author. The Appropriations chairman had another “saving” question/suggestion for LDH, as well. “What about the Civil Service pay raises – do you intend to implement them?” Henry asked Reynolds. “We have to,” Reynolds replied. “This legislature appropriated the money for them, and Civil Service approved them.” “Why can’t you just go to Civil Service and ask for a waiver?” Henry inquired. “I believe it’s called a ‘layoff avoidance plan’ waiver.” With the enacted FY 2019 budget, LDH is guaranteed its full funding, and under Civil Service law, the only way they could avoid implementing pay raises is if the department was required to sustain a massive budget cut – one that would otherwise require layoffs of state workers. That could be where House Appropriations is heading, with all of this – massive cuts to health care, despite Gov. John Bel Edwards, Senate President John Alario, and Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur all making statements that this special session call does not permit re-legislating anything but one small section of the budget. It would be cruel and dishonest for House Appropriations to do this, but it would be entirely in keeping with the modus operandi of this group dominated by some of the hardest of the hard-line Republican extremists in the House. Remember, this is the committee that originally advanced a budget (during the regular session) de-funding the public-private partner hospitals, while reducing the amount of income profoundly disabled nursing home residents could receive to retain their long-term care benefits. Instead, they fully funded TOPS. And it’s this same group that cried foul when notices went out to those nursing home residents regarding their impending loss of eligibility for benefits. Once the Senate changed the budget around, fully funding health care, but cutting most other state departments by 24%, this same group of House Republicans proudly claimed – at the end of the regular session. “We saved the people of Louisiana.” They stuck with the budget plan to fully fund health care throughout the second special session, not questioning any departments about the impacts of that budget – and now, they apparently want to go back and gut health care yet again. And through it all, there’s still the sales tax question. Republican hardliners – who also control what bills get out of Ways and Means – are now stuck on the 4/10 of a penny proposal, while Democrats and moderates are still lined up behind the half-penny. Ways and Means will debate and advance sales tax bills on Wednesday, and Appropriations will move their budget modification bill, as well. One thing is certain; it’s going to get ugly…again.