- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

May 26

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on legislating school policy:

A story of good intentions, if not legislative success, is the bill that aims at reducing out-of-school suspensions for the youngest children in public schools.

A measure by Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, started out as a proposal to end the suspensions in kindergarten to third grade. As she said, and the Senate’s education committee agreed, out-of-school suspensions of such young students can be counterproductive.

Yet Broome revamped the bill in another Senate panel to reduce its effect drastically. Under the revised version of Senate Bill 54, school authorities would only be banned from handing down out-of-school suspensions for most school uniform violations.

Those problems represent just a tiny fraction of the 7,400 instances of public school students in the earliest grades being sent home last year.

“It is a baby step,” Broome said of her revamped bill.

The baby steps are justified, given that the bill attracted considerable pushback from school boards and teacher groups. The reason: discipline problems, even in the very earliest grades.

“They thought I was trying to take their authority away from them for discipline,” Broome said after dialing back her measure. “That was not my motivation. My motivation was to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Opponents said previously that the original ban proposal would handcuff school officials, who they said sometimes have no choice but to suspend a student who is disrupting a classroom.

Disruption? It happens, even in the earliest grades. The original bill was opposed by the Louisiana Association of Principals, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

The revised bill now goes to the state House.

While this is a well-intentioned proposal from Broome, the idea that the Legislature should set rigid rules for everyone under its broad jurisdiction ought to provoke some thought about this kind of bill. Schools, whether traditional public schools run by elected boards or charter schools run by independent nonprofit boards, are complex little societies, and children - particularly in the elementary grades - can be bundles of trouble as well as joy.

The teachers and principals closest to the problem ought to have discretion in how to deal with discipline problems, even as Broome rightly points out the data that show students sent home in the earliest grades are at risk of falling behind - with serious long-term consequences for their successful schooling.

Even uniform violations might be symptoms of more serious problems with elementary students. In a world in which ever-more-rigid requirements are laid down from on high, we hope that members of the Legislature should remember that the professionals closest to such problems have the authority and discretion to make judgments in difficult cases.

The problem identified by Broome is a real issue, but a new law might not be the best way to approach it.




May 27

American Press, Lake Charles, Louisiana, on reform bills:

The Legislature is moving on two fronts to increase oversight and operations of the state Office of Group Benefits. OGB handles health care insurance for 230,000 state employees, teachers, retirees and their dependents.

Plan members have been unhappy with the management of the office by the Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and their grievances led to a suit being filed in state district court.

The major complaints center around a $500 million reserve fund that has been rapidly depleted, the changing of health care plans with little public input and big premium increases.

Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, is author of Senate Bill 260 that changes the makeup of the Group Benefits Policy and Planning Board. It would be reduced from 15 to 11 members, and most of them would be appointed by the Legislature.

The legislation also creates a Group Benefits Estimating Conference of six members that would develop planning, premium rates and budget information.

Any new plan of benefits or the annual plan of benefits submitted by the commissioner of administration would be subject to review and approval by the appropriate standing committees or subcommittees of the Legislature.

Plans submitted by the commissioner would have to include an estimate of the costs and an estimated rate structure for a three-year period.

S.B. 260 was approved 38-0 in the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, is author of House Bill 370. It establishes the Group Benefits Actuarial Committee composed of the commissioner of insurance, the state treasurer and the legislative auditor or their designees.

Broadwater’s measure clarifies that the authority of the commissioner of administration to establish benefit plans must be done under provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, which will guarantee public input on what is taking place.

H.B. 370 was approved 95-0 in the House and is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana published a study of OGB operations that called for an auditing committee. Robert Travis Scott, president of PAR, said the Broadwater bill will ensure more open government.

Frank Jobert, legislative director of the Retired State Employees Association, said, “This gives us another level of oversight, someone looking at it from an independent perspective that gives us a comfort level.”

Any actions taken by OGB have a widespread effect. Those who are covered have seen plans changed and premium increases over which they had little control. Legislators have also been on the outside looking in.

State government and local school boards have a major stake in the outcome since they pay 75 percent of the premiums.

We hope the committees holding both OGB reform bills will give them a quick hearing since the legislative session has to end by June 11.




May 24

Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, on discrimination not being tolerable in New Orleans:

Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued an executive order Thursday (May 21) to make clear that discrimination of any sort isn’t tolerated in New Orleans. In a city famously tolerant and welcoming that should be obvious.

But the mayor is rightly concerned that Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is consumed by presidential ambitions, has sent the opposite message to the world with an executive order of his own.

The governor signed the “Marriage and Conscience Order” Tuesday (May 19) after a House committee effectively killed legislation to protect businesses opposed to same-sex marriage from losing state licenses, tax benefits or other sanctions.

The governor’s order captures the essence of House Bill 707 but is more limited in scope because he only has authority over executive branch agencies. There may be little practical impact even on them since the order cannot create new law.

But Mayor Landrieu is right to worry that New Orleans, with an economy heavily reliant on conventions and tourism, could be harmed by the negative message the governor’s order sends to gay couples.

Already some New York legislators have called on their governor to restrict travel to Louisiana because of Gov. Jindal’s order.

“With this executive order, I am issuing a clarifying call to the nation that New Orleans is an accepting, inviting city that thrives on its diversity and welcomes people from all walks of life with open arms,” Mayor Landrieu said in a written statement. “In New Orleans, we believe religious liberty and freedoms should be protected and discrimination prohibited, and we have passed our own laws to reflect that principle.”

Religious freedom is a dearly held right in this nation - protected by the Constitution, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed during the Clinton administration and a similar state law passed in 2010.

But gay rights advocates and some legal experts argued that HB 707 could have sanctioned discrimination against same-sex couples if their marriages become legal in Louisiana.

Rep. Mike Johnson, the Bossier City Republican who introduced the bill, said the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would legalize gay marriage in part prompted the legislation. He amended the bill to say that no discrimination would be allowed.

But that didn’t persuade the members of the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee, which voted 10-2 to shelve the bill. The 10 votes included four Republicans. Only Rep. Johnson, who is on the committee, and Chalmette Republican Rep. Ray Garofalo voted to keep the bill alive.

That should have settled the matter. But Gov. Jindal couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try to burnish his conservative credentials nationally.

Sadly, his ambitions could prove costly for Louisiana.

Michael Hecht, CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., told the House committee that Louisiana’s recent economic gains could be undone if the state is perceived as discriminatory. “We’re beginning to convince the world Louisiana is a great place to business,” he said. But the positive perception is “fragile.”

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Stephen Perry, who was a top aide for Republican Gov. Mike Foster, said the state could lose millions of dollars in tax revenue because businesses or events go elsewhere. That could include the loss of Super Bowls, Final Four tournaments and national championships for New Orleans, he said. The Jefferson Chamber of Commerce said Friday (May 22) that the governor’s executive order will be destructive.

It isn’t only tourism and economic development officials who are worried about the repercussions if Louisiana is seen as being hostile to gay people.

Earl Shipp, vice president of Dow Gulf Coast operations, issued a written statement Tuesday opposing Rep. Johnson’s legislation.

“Dow opposes House Bill 707 and any similar efforts to hinder our ability to recruit talent to our growing Louisiana operations. We call upon our legislative leaders to focus on making our state more competitive and economically sound instead of taking actions that divide us as citizens,” he said.

“Inclusion of our LGBT colleagues is a matter of fairness and equality. It is also a business imperative. And as we expand our operations throughout the Gulf Coast region, creating thousands of jobs, we urge the Legislature to help us foster that same sense of fairness and inclusion,” he said in the statement.

Dow, which employs more than 6,000 people in Louisiana, was the second major corporation to oppose the proposed marriage conscience act. IBM had earlier stated its opposition.

Yet the governor has put those businesses, Mayor Landrieu and many others in the difficult position of having to argue that - appearances to the contrary - Louisiana isn’t hostile to gay people.

Mayor Landrieu’s executive order - not the governor’s - expresses who we are.

The mayor says: The City of New Orleans is proud to be a culturally rich community of faith, inclusion, tolerance and diversity. A place that values freedom of religious expression and freedom against discrimination.

Gov. Jindal’s executive order can be revoked by the next governor in January, and we hope that happens.

Until then, we should all work to make sure Mayor Landrieu’s message of tolerance and inclusion is the one that is heard.



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