12 March 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Prefiled bills -- Week of Mar. 11, 2005

THE GOOD: What blessings for the state emerged in this week's crop of bills. Several would bring greater tax liberty to Louisianans: HB 47 by Rep. Pete Schneider and HB 48 by Rep. Peppi Bruneau which would restore deductibility to varying degrees of federal itemized income taxes; HB 52 by Rep. Ken Odinet which would eliminate the discriminatory $50,000 (inflation-adjusted) income cap that disallows senior citizens a property tax exemption; SB 11 by Sen. Robert Barham that would shift costs more equitably in regards to the homestead exemption and help out the finances of poorer jurisdictions by taxing the first $10,000 of value, then exempting the next $75,000 (the current first $75,000 would remain for the elderly and disabled); and a non-pecuniary bill, HB 37 by Rep. Steve Scalise that would create an independent, permanent inspector general's office for the executive branch (the current version can be abolished by executive order by the governor).

But the best bill of this week, because of its wide-ranging, very desirable impact to the political system, is Rep. Loulan Pitre's HB 40 which creates an intriguing and excellent correction to Louisiana's nonpartisan blanket primary as it relates to elections, especially federal congressional. Currently, the Supreme Court forces Louisiana to hold a separate general election because of the possibility that, as a result of this system where all candidates run in a single election and any can win with at least 50 percent plus one of the vote, a candidate could be "elected" to Congress prior to the federally-mandated election day of the first Tuesday after the first Monday in even-numbered years. Pitre's bill would reword state law to allow the return to the old system where the primary election occured before the national election day, with other state and local primary contests, saving the state money and our members of Copngress a potentially late start.

Even better, his bill forces a measure of partisan (or even no partisan) choice in all elections. Instead of the current system where, if no candidate secures an absolute majority in the pirmary election the top two vote getters would contest a general election, the bill mandates that the two cnadidates could not be from the same political party. This would create incentives for parties to try to unite behind a candidate, create more partisan choice in a general election, and diminish the oppotunity of unserious or "spoiler" candidates that hold back the growth of minority parties. This one makes for a great political science debate as well as does something practical.

THE BAD: On the surface, HB 36 is quite salutory in motive. It seeks to make any health plan offered in the state include coverage for colorectal cancer screening. Early detection in this form is voluntary and not only saves lives but, from the state's perspective, could save it money depending on whether the treatment of this ends up on the state's Medcaid expenditures (since it refers to private insurance presumably that would pick it up, unless treatment exhausted a person's benefits and assets which could throw these costs onto Medicaid).

But Rep. Rick Farrar goes too far when the bill does not allow insurance companies to count the cost for screening against an insured person's deductible amount. In essence, Farrar is pushing this cost onto insurance companies which then will cause one of two things to happen, (1) the company passes it on to the buyers in higher premiums or (2) the state's Insurance Rate Commission may cap rates lower than a company would need to be able to pass the cost along so it takes a hit in its profits (or, worse, reduces its ability to pay out claims).

What is all adds up to is the state sticking its nose into the marketplace where it shouldn't. Let insurers choose whether to offer this coverage; if people demand it, it will become part of the package and perhaps not applied to a deductible. Since it is private insurance, the state's payout risk is minimal, too low to warrant this abrogation of liberty.

THE UGLY: The dog here is Rep. Billy Montogmery's (the lead author) HB 54 which does have the laudatory effect of making much uniform the allowable court fees charged dedicated to operations of marshall's and constable's operations. But it gets ugly because it is made uniform at a higher level, in most instances doubling from $15 to $30, and is a hidden "user" tax increase on those utilizing the court system (usually against their wills). While its better for law enforcement functions, even the more ancillary ones generally undertaken by marshalls and constables, to have access to more resources, fee-based methods are unreliable, particularly in this case because the money generated is totally out of control of the marshalls and constables (for example, they don't have arrest power to "create" a court user -- a defendant who may be unable to pay the court costs anyway -- that would increase their fees. It is exactly this mentality which has gotten Louisiana's indigent defense into such big trouble. There must be a better, more reliable and more accountable, way of boosting funding for marshalls and constables. (Note: Rep. Art Morrell's HB 43 was almost as ugly for allowing the doubling of court costs in Orlerans to $500, but at least he confined this to one parish.)

SCORECARD: 55 prefiles in the House (including the three budget bills which have yet to be put into formal legislative language; 15 prefiles in the Senate. House withdrawals number 1, Senate withdrawals number 1.
Note: HB 4, the Feb. 18 ugly bill of the week, was the one withdrawn from the House.

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