- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

June 2

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on House Concurrent Resolution 75:

While it is far from a done deal, the Legislature has made available to a new governor early next year a path toward expanding insurance coverage for lower-paid workers in Louisiana.

A bonus for lawmakers unhappy with Gov. Bobby Jindal: House Concurrent Resolution 75 is an instrument that cannot be vetoed by the governor.

HCR75 would allow Louisiana hospitals to assess fees on themselves to attract more federal dollars for uncompensated care of uninsured patients. It would only take effect if the state agrees to change Medicaid income qualifications to sign up uninsured people who make too much to get the government coverage but too little to buy adequate insurance on the private market. An estimated 240,000 additional Louisiana residents would be eligible.

Oddly, the resolution by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, has sailed through the Capitol. It’s odd because many lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature have opposed Medicaid expansion when it was pushed by the Democratic minority.

Kleckley said the resolution is not a mechanism to expand Medicaid, nor does it make it easier for expansion to occur. He said it simply provides an “option” for when a new governor assumes office. Because the resolution authorizes a hospital fee - but does not create a law, like a regular bill - it is not subject to a Jindal veto; Kleckley’s resolution also would expire next spring, giving a new governor the option of expanding Medicaid but not making it a requirement in law.

Medicaid expansion would relieve the state of some costs for health care for the uninsured, allowing a 90 percent match from the federal government under the Affordable Care Act. Under the Kleckley resolution, a new governor would have an option, not necessarily a sure thing.

If one is working in a low-wage job without insurance, this seems a pretty lame initiative, but we have hopes that whether a Republican or a Democrat is elected to succeed Jindal in the fall, there will be considerable reason for the new executive to embrace the initiative.

Let’s hope health care is a high priority in the fall campaign and that candidates for governor will give their explicit commitments to voters on this issue. Otherwise, the Kleckley resolution might not amount to much.




June 1

American Press, Lake Charles, Louisiana, on hurricane preparedness:

Once again all eyes will be turning to the Gulf as we get ready to begin another hurricane season. Our annual weather watch begins in earnest today.

The upcoming hurricane season will likely be quieter than average, with six to 11 named storms predicted.

“A below-normal season doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. As we’ve seen before, below-normal seasons can still produce catastrophic impacts to communities,” said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.

Hurricane season lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30. …

The National Weather Service will provide graphics indicating which areas are at risk of flooding from storm surge - water pushed inland by hurricane or tropical storm winds. These won’t be official warnings, but will be color-coded to help people estimate how deep the water is likely to be in their neighborhoods.

“It is the water that kills, not the wind, in a hurricane,” Sullivan said.


June 2

Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, on marijuana reform:

When a jury found Cornell Hood II guilty on a fourth marijuana charge in 2011, a St. Tammany Parish judge initially sentenced him to life in prison. Mr. Hood’s lawyer argued that the sentence under Louisiana’s habitual offender act was excessive and unconstitutional. Before the court could consider that motion, the defense and prosecutors struck a deal for a shorter sentence: 25 years with a chance for parole.

Under legislation this session to reform sentencing for marijuana possession, Mr. Hood’s case might have gone very differently.

A fourth offense would still be a felony charge with prison time. But if the amount of marijuana was small enough and there were no other complications, the maximum sentence would be no more than eight years.

That is still a long time to spend in jail for a non-violent offense. But that and other sentencing changes moving through the Legislature would be a significant improvement over current law.

The Senate could give final passage to one of the sentencing reform bills Monday. House Bill 149 by Rep. Austin Badon - which after being amended is almost identical to Sen. J.P. Morrell’s Senate Bill 241 - has cleared the House and the Senate Judiciary C Committee.

The full Senate ought to approve it. Then it likely would end up in a conference committee to work out differences between the bills.

Sen. Morrell’s bill passed the Senate and is pending in the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice. It should be an easy “yes” vote for the committee and the full House.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday he would sign the Badon or Morrell legislation into law if it makes it to his desk. He also said he would sign Sen. Fred Mills’ Senate Bill 143 to set up procedures for patients to get medical marijuana if it passes. Marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Louisiana for decades but rules for growing or dispensing it were never passed.

“Our view on medical marijuana was, it had to be supervised and had to be a legitimate medical purpose and his bill meets that criteria,” Gov. Jindal said.

As for the Morrell and Badon bills, he said: “We are fine with the idea of providing rehabilitation and treatment for non-violent drug offenders, and I think this bill does that. I think that’s good for those offenders, and it’s good for taxpayers. That’s another bill that if it got to our desk we’d sign that as well.”

The fact that these bills are likely to end up on the governor’s desk is remarkable.

Reduced penalties for possession of marijuana didn’t even get out of committee a year ago. The legislation was retooled, and Sen. Morrell worked hard to get the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association on board. The association’s opposition to the 2014 legislation doomed it, so avoiding that this year was essential. Sen. Morrell said the sheriffs were mainly concerned about the distribution of larger amounts of the drug, which still carries stiffer penalties.

What the bill does is provide greatly reduced jail time and fines for a first offense that involves possession of 14 grams or less. In addition, someone given probation would have to attend a court-approved substance abuse program.

The bill also reduces a second possession conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor and provides a second-chance for first-time offenders. They can get a one-time expungement of a marijuana conviction as long as they don’t commit another offense for two years.

Under current law, someone caught with a small amount of marijuana for a second time faces up to five years in prison. On third offense, the sentence can be 20 years - which is dramatically more than in neighboring states.

This sort of draconian punishment for non-violent and drug offenses has made Louisiana the incarceration capital of the world.

Reducing excessive sentences and having fewer people charged with felonies could make a huge difference in people’s lives - especially in their ability to get or keep a job to support their families.

Having a smaller prison population also would save the state millions of dollars in incarceration costs. Legislative staff estimates that Sen. Morrell’s bill alone would save more than $16 million over five years.

Mainly because of mandatory minimum sentences, Louisiana’s prison population doubled over the past 20 years to 40,000. “Only 37 percent of offenders in Louisiana have been convicted of violent crimes … and the average sentence for a drug-related crime is almost 10 years,” according to Blueprint Louisiana, a statewide citizen group focused on reforms in criminal justice, education and other issues.

Using that many resources for prisons absorbs money that could be better used for education or health care or other vital services.

Violent offenders absolutely ought to be in prison. But Louisiana routinely locks up people for lengthy sentences who have never been convicted of a violent crime. That isn’t right - or smart.





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