Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bomb in the beehive

Monday evening, the Louisiana State Capitol building had to be evacuated after what police termed a "credible" bomb threat was called in to them.  "Credible" is a funny word to use to describe someone's "visions from God" but OK. 
A male caller told the Baton Rouge Police Department that “he’s having visions from God that bombs are being placed in the State Capitol,” said Baton Rouge Police Cpl. L’Jean McKneely Jr.

The caller has also repeatedly placed calls to the Police Department since the first call was made and hangs up, McKneely said.
We might forgive our prophet if the "bomb" in his visions actually had turned out to be Cameron Henry's budget. The Lord's revelations are always tricky to interpret after all. And a budget proposal that forced the House to choose between horrific unacceptable cuts to state hospital services for the poor or fully funding the TOPS program is a pretty suspicious package.  Fortunately the lawmakers on hand had already managed to defuse that device.
But in a Thursday night vote, House members narrowly voted in favor of cutting $72 million from TOPS to shore up funding for the public-private hospital contracts to run the safety net health care services, including those that host medical training programs. An effort to partially reverse that move, giving half of the money back to TOPS, was defeated Friday afternoon.

“For this session, the priority of health care and our hospitals takes precedence over TOPS,” said Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston. “We’re going to fund TOPS — maybe not at the level that some people want, but it’s not going away. The hospitals, on the other hand, might.”
Legislators have had to make a ton of tough choices this year. But this one didn't have to be as dramatic as the House Republicans made it appear. The budget proposal they submitted deliberately forced this argument by fully funding TOPS at the expense of the hospitals and the Inspector General's office.  It was never a serious proposal and everyone seemed to know it.
That plan finally was unveiled Monday by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry. Swiftly approved by committee members, many of whom had not read the amendments, it has been criticized ever since.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, referred to Plan Henry as “a scheme.” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards called it a “political stunt.” And Dr. Rebekah Gee, whose mammoth Department of Health and Hospitals bore the brunt of the proposed spending cuts, called it “leprechaun financing.”

The independent, nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana called the plan a “faux budget that appears to score some political points in one corner, while exacerbating serious problems in another.”
Henry's "political stunt" was meant to set the debate parameters in two important ways. First, it was an assertion that Republicans want to fund their priorities through cuts only rather than through new revenue measures in a possible special session later this year. More on that in a minute. Secondly, it was an attempt to bait liberals into an ill advised argument over whose "entitlement" is more important.  As it turned out several did, in fact, take this bait. Most notably, our friend Lamar here.
State Rep. Henry and many of his colleagues appear to still be suffering from denial. Make no mistake: Fully funding TOPS isn’t their number one priority because it’s the most critically endangered program in Louisiana. Right now, due to a lack of funding, foster children sleep on the floors of local offices of the Department of Children and Family Services. It’s their number one priority because the vast majority of those affected by cuts to the program are white kids from middle-class and upper-class families, families that are more likely to vote Republican, more likely to donate to Republican campaigns, and more capable of influencing public opinion.

Instead of even entertaining the prospect of targeted and responsible tax increases in order to solve a problem they created, Rep. Henry and his colleagues would rather defund health care for poor people. Because, to them, that is nothing more than an entitlement program. The $300 million a year that we spend to subsidize college tuition for predominately white kids (75%) from predominately affluent families (58%), well, that’s a scholarship!
There's additional context here having to do with a decade of cuts to higher ed funding courtesy of Bobby Jindal, Cameron Henry and friends. Those cuts are what have caused the price of tuition - and therefore the TOPS program- to grow out of control. So it's really Republican fiscal irresponsibility that has us in this situation. Lamar explains all of this in his article so he clearly understands it.  But Republican "starve the beast" scheming is always meant to set up otherwise avoidable choices between perceived white or minority benefits. Why even engage them in such a toxic dialogue? It's obviously what they want.

Besides, now that they've been made to take the money back out of TOPS in order to save the hospitals, Henry's faction has lost bargaining leverage over the coming special session. Once there, the governor will want to focus on finding revenue by eliminating special privileges and inequities in the tax code.  Republicans are far more likely to help him do that if there are items in the budget they still want to fund.
The special session would be the second time this year that lawmakers have been asked to consider raising revenue to fund state services. Earlier this year, lawmakers agreed to raise the sales tax and increase the cigarette tax, as well as remove some sales tax exemptions, to try to infuse more money into the state’s coffers.

Edwards has charged a tax and budget task force with coming up with recommendations for how the state can come up with more money to fund the coming year. A second special session likely would focus on some exclusions in the tax code.

By law, the budget that lawmakers pass this session must be balanced, so they can’t account for money expected in the special session. That means the budget approved will likely contain deep cuts to some programs that lawmakers can try to back-fill if they raise revenue.
In other words, it matters that the hospitals are fully funded now and TOPS is not yet because TOPS is the program Republicans are more likely to help "back-fill" later on. So every Democrat in the House should have jumped all over this strategy, right?  Well, as it turns out, #NotAllDemocrats.
Fourteen House Republicans broke with their political party and voted for the hospitals to receive the $72 million intended for TOPS. The measure passed 49-43 on Thursday night. Two Democrats, New Orleans Rep. Neil Abramson and New Roads Rep. Major Thibaut, voted against it. 
Oh dear, there's our friend Neil again.  For the umpteenth time this year we find Abramson pointedly aligning his position with the Barras-Henry wing on a high profile issue. Neil's support for Taylor Barras over Walt Leger as Speaker helped secure his own chairmanship of Ways and Means.  From that post, Neil supported Republican efforts to scale back the "penny scrubbing" sales tax measures during the first special session. And now he's voting in support of Cameron Henry's attempt to save TOPS by bombing hospitals. What gives?

When we asked what gives, Team Neil responded.

But, as we've just taken pains to explain above, that's exactly backwards.  What we're trying to do here is fund the hospitals now so we have a better chance at forcing Republicans to help "back fund" TOPS later.

I'm sorry if it looks like we're trying to "vilify" the guy. But the current operating theory supposes that Neil is setting up for a break with the party in case he wants to run for Senate as a Republican next time around. And after a while these little incidents add up to what we might consider a "credible" threat.  Or maybe we're just having visions.

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