- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Overshadowed by a hotly contested statewide battle for the U.S. Senate and congressional races are 14 proposed changes to the state’s constitution on Tuesday’s ballot.

Two amendments affect health care funding and have renewed debate on whether the constitution is the proper place for further restrictions on the powers of the governor and Legislature to determine how the state spends money.

Other amendments deal with tax breaks for the disabled, the retirement age of judges, taxes and blighted property in New Orleans, and limits on the Legislature’s ability to consider tax rebates and incentives. Still others involve membership on the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission and the maximum number of executive branch departments.

At the top of the ballot are the two health care amendments.

WT/CHUNKY TEXT

Overshadowed by a hotly contested statewide battle for the U.S. Senate and congressional races on Election Day on Tuesday are 14 proposed changes to the state’s much-amended constitution.

Two amendments affect health care funding and have renewed debate on whether the constitution is the proper place for further restrictions on the powers of the governor and Legislature to determine how the state spends money.

Other amendments deal with tax breaks for the disabled, the retirement age of judges, taxes and blighted property in New Orleans, and limits on the Legislature’s ability to consider tax rebates and incentives. Still others involve membership on the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission and the maximum number of executive branch departments.

At the top of the ballot are the two health care amendments.

Amendment 1 would revise the state’s Medical Assistance Trust Fund, which is funded through fees collected from nursing homes, intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled and community pharmacies. That money is used to draw federal matching funds from the federal Medicaid health care program for low-income people.

The amendment would require the federal matching dollars be allocated to the groups that have been paying the fees and prevent lawmakers or the governor from raiding the fund for other spending. It also would establish minimum payments to health care providers - payments that could be reduced only with a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate or, if the Legislature is not in session, a two-thirds vote of the joint budget committee.

Amendment 2 would establish a fund to stabilize Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals, allowing the state to collect a fee to generate matching federal dollars while establishing a base reimbursement rate for hospitals that could not be reduced without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or its budget committee.

Critics, including some advocates for health care for the elderly, say the amendments would protect a certain segment of health care at the expense of home-based services and hospice programs. Other critics say the amendments would, by imposing more restrictions on lawmakers, effectively make public colleges more vulnerable to cuts in financial downturns.

Opposing the amendments are government watchdog groups Council for a Better Louisiana and the Louisiana Budget Project. CABL in its analysis of Amendment 1 says the desire of any group to seek constitutional protection of its revenue sources is understandable. “But CABL believes the Legislature needs the flexibility to make all kinds of budget decisions when revenues are short and for that reason we oppose this amendment.”

Supporters argue the amendments would help protect hospitals and nursing homes from cuts that could threaten patient care.

Other amendments deal with:

- Property tax exemptions (Amendments 7 and 9).

Amendment 7 affects parishes that grant a homestead property tax exemption of $150,000 - double the usual exemption - to veterans with a service-connected disability of 100 percent. The amendment would allow the exemption to go to veterans considered 100 percent “unemployable.”

Amendment 9 affects any state resident with a disability considered permanent. Currently, such residents can keep parish assessors from raising the taxable value of their homes by annually certifying that they have an income that falls under a certain threshold established by the state - currently just under $70,000. The amendment would eliminate the need for such certification.

- Artificial Reefs (Amendment 8)

That debate over how and when the constitution should be used to keep government officials from tapping various funds arises again with Amendment 8. The measure would protect the Artificial Reef Development Fund from being tapped to cover stage budget shortfalls. Money for the fund comes from grants, donations and revenue from arrangements the state makes with oil and gas companies to convert non-producing offshore platforms into artificial reefs. The state gets half of what companies save by turning a platform into a reef instead of removing it. The state proceeds are used to operate the reef program as well as to fund the state’s wild-caught fish certification program and enhancement of fisheries.

- Blighted property (Amendment 10).

Currently, the constitution allows property on which taxes have not been paid to be sold at a tax sale. However, it can be repurchased by the owner if the taxes and associated costs are paid back within three years of the sale - meaning the person or business that buys the property at the tax sale must wait three years to gain clear title. Amendment 10 would change the three-year period to 18 months.

- An Elderly Affairs Department (Amendment 11)

Amendment 11 would increase the number of state executive branch departments from 20 to 21. That would trigger legislation passed in 2013 creating a new Department of Elderly Affairs. Backers say it is a move that is needed to efficiently deal with the needs of a growing population of older people. Opponents say services to that population already are being delivered through existing departments and another executive branch department, rather than increasing efficiency, could grow in size and expense.

- The state Wildlife and Fisheries Commission (Amendment 12)

Amendment 12 would require that two at-large commission members come from parishes north of a line created by Allen, Avoyelles, Beauregard, Evangeline and Pointe Coupee parishes. Backers say it is needed to provide geographic balance to the commission. Opponents say the issue should be left to the Legislature.

- The city of New Orleans New Orleans (Amendments 6, 13)

Amendment 6 would allow New Orleans’ City Council to seek approval from the city’s voters for higher property tax millages to support police and fire protection.

Amendment 13 would allow a New Orleans agency to sell property it acquires in the Lower 9th Ward - one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina - at below-market value.

- Other governmental functions (Amendments 3, 4, 5,14)

Amendment 3 would allow local tax collectors to hire a third-party agent to sell property seized and sold to cover delinquent taxes. Amendment 4 would allow the state to invest money in an “infrastructure bank” - as yet uncreated - that could loan money for transportation projects. Amendment 5 would remove a constitutional prohibition on judges running for re-election once they reach age 70. If Amendment 14 passes, the Legislature could consider legislation on tax rebates, incentives and abatements only in every-other-year fiscal sessions.

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Online:

PAR’s analysis of amendments: https://bit.ly/1tKBFyT

CABL’S recommendations: https://bit.ly/1nD7acn

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