Louisiana House panel refuses expanded vote by mail

Mandie Landry                                                        (Photo Credit: Rep. Mandie Landry)

Published: May 19, 2020

By: Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service

A Louisiana House committee Tuesday rejected legislation that would have allowed all registered voters to vote by mail in all state elections, including this fall’s presidential contest.

More voters than normal can cast mail-in ballots in 33 states and Washington, D.C., this year to reduce health risks from the coronavirus. Some states, such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, rely entirely on mail-in ballots for all their elections.

Red states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Alaska also have decided to conduct their presidential primaries this year entirely through mail ballots. Michigan, a political swing state, announced Tuesday that it would send mail-in ballots to all its voters for the fall election.

New Orleans Democratic Rep. Mandie Landry’s House Bill 419 would not mandate voting by mail but simply allow it to be used more broadly. Before the House and Governmental Affairs committee, the measure failed in a party-line, 9-5 vote.

Democrats have pushed to expand voting by mail to give access to voters who may be afraid to go to the polls, especially with the risks from COVID-19. Louisiana’s current absentee voting laws allow registered voters to vote by mail, but only under certain conditions, such as military deployment, being away for college or being 65 years of age or older.

Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that more absentee ballots could lead to voter fraud.

“I feel expanding it would be detrimental to the security of our elections,” said Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton.

But data has shown that voter fraud is rare when it comes to voting by mail. In fact, Louisiana has one of the best voting systems in the nation, according to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican.

Since 2004, only four cases of voter fraud have been confirmed in Louisiana, said Charlie Stephens of the Louisiana Vote-By-Mail initiative. None of those cases involved mail-in ballots.

Voting by mail could make the election process more secure by creating a paper trail during a time in which cyberattacks have become more common, said Landry.

Read more at The Advocate.

Resolution pushes for flexible college admissions in wake of pandemic



Published: May 19, 2020

By: Hailey Auglair, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — The House Education Committee advanced a resolution Tuesday asking Louisiana universities to adopt a flexible and holistic admissions approach amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many students were unable to take the ACT in April after it was canceled due to the novel coronavirus. The House resolution asks the Louisiana Board of Regents to let schools assess potential students applying for the summer and fall semesters by looking their full academic records rather than just test scores, as some may not have any.

“Many of the students were not able to take the ACT in April, and that’s moved until September,” said Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, who authored the resolution. “Because of this crisis we ought to do everything and anything we can to look at the whole student for the summer and the fall. I don’t know of any university who is not doing that. I just think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Referring to the impact of the virus, Tom Galligan, LSU’s interim president, said at a recent Baton Rouge Press Club meeting that he expected “we are all going to be more flexible than we might have otherwise been in the past as we learn how to deal with these issues.”

LSU’s move to holistic admissions in 2018 sparked controversy with the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education in the state. Without consulting their own LSU board of supervisors, school administrators began admitting students who did not meet the minimum requirements for ACT scores and grades in an effort to attract more students.

LSU touted bringing in the largest, most diverse and highest-achieving freshman class in its history in 2018 — its first year using a holistic approach to admissions.

Former LSU President F. King Alexander argued then that other universities across the nation looked at resumes, essays, recommendations and more to assess potential students rather than just test scores and GPA.

Read more at The News Star.

Senate votes to curb car accident lawsuits in Louisiana

Published: May 19, 2020

By: Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—The Senate voted 29-8 Monday to pass a bill that could lower auto insurance rates by limiting damage suits by people injured in car wrecks.

The bill by Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, would change aspects of Louisiana’s tort laws that Republican lawmakers and business lobbyists say make it too easy to file lawsuits after car accidents.

Louisiana drivers pay the second highest car insurance premiums in the nation, after Michigan.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said the bill would reduce insurance rates by at least 10%, and rates could be reduced by as much as 25% in some cases.

Some Democrats said the bill should mandate a minimum reduction of 25%, but Republicans opposed pushing for reductions of more than 10% from most companies.

“I think there is enough uncertainty… that it is very difficult to guarantee any kind of result,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell. “I’m really not a fan of the 10% that is in the bill either, because I think it is a dangerous precedent.”

The bill passed by enough votes to suggest that the Senate could override a veto by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has expressed opposition to it.

Talbot’s bill focuses on four key components of tort law. The bill would decrease the monetary amount an injury has to be worth to be decided by a jury rather than a judge; prohibit plaintiffs from suing insurance companies directly; increase the time parties have to file lawsuits to encourage settling out of court; and prohibit using evidence of a plaintiff receiving payment from sources besides the defendant.

Proponents say that judges, who are elected, receive major donations from plaintiff’s lawyers and are more likely than juries to award significant damages. They also say that Louisiana is one of the few states where injured people can sue insurance companies directly and that these changes would encourage more insurance companies to write policies here, increasing competition and lowering rates.

Democratic lawmakers argue that there is not enough evidence to support that changing these laws would result in lower premiums, and tort reform would make it more difficult for people injured in car accidents to receive the compensation they deserve.

“We’re making it more difficult for people to get in a courtroom and have their case resolved,” Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, said Monday during the floor debate.

Read more at KALB.com.


Senate committee rejects resolution to suspend gaming industry taxes

A Senate committee rejected a gaming tax proposal by Sen. Barrow Peacock, standing at right in this photo with Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge.

Published: May 17, 2020

By: Maria Marsh, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — A Senate committee on Friday rejected a resolution that would have suspended taxes on promotional play wagers in the gaming industry and cost the state $29 million in tax revenues.

The Senate Revenue and Fiscal Committee voted 4-3 against the proposal by Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier, with three of his fellow Republicans among those opposing it.

The resolution was an attempt to fuel the gaming industry’s reopening following a nearly three-month halt in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was one of several proposals this week by Republican lawmakers to provide tax breaks to help businesses that have been hurt by the virus.

The House Ways and Means Committee passed resolutions to suspend severance taxes on oil and gas and suspend business franchise taxes for a year to help companies and their workers rebound from the shutdown.

But other lawmakers expressed concern that the tax breaks would add to the $1 billion in revenue losses that the state faces as a result of the virus. That would make it harder for the Legislature to balance the budget and could force it to make larger cuts in health services and higher education.

Legislative analysts estimate that suspending the oil and gas severance tax would result in a loss of nearly $514 million in revenues for the state in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Suspending the franchise taxes levied on many types of business operations would decrease state revenue by  $378 million.

In debating Peacock’s bill, multiple senators voiced concern about the cost of the resolution. That tax break also would have expired after one year.

“We would be voting to cut $29.3 million dollars out of next year’s budget,” said Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, who opposed the resolution. “And on that hope, we would be hoping that it’s going to generate more money in revenue than we’re giving away?”

Read more at the Shreveport Times.

Louisiana House agrees to let colleges continue to set fees

BR. legopening.050520. 0203 bf.JPG                               (Photo Credit: Bill Feig)

Published: May 15, 2020

By: Hailey Auglair, LSU Manship School News Service

The Louisiana House passed legislation Friday that would let public colleges and universities in Louisiana continue to set the levels of their mandatory undergraduate student fees.

The institutions must report any changes in fees to the Legislature and explain why they decided to adjust them.

Universities have raised fees substantially in recent years to offset cuts in state appropriations, and a law allowing them to set the fee levels was due to expire on June 30.

All 95 of the House’s 104 members attending Friday approved House Bill 689, sending it to the state Senate for consideration.

Many students and their families have been upset about the steadily rising fees. But with the state facing a budget hole of at least $1 billion as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities are bracing for more cuts in state appropriations. The extension would provide them with leeway to raise fees if they cannot otherwise make up the shortfalls.

The universities turned to fees to raise funds because Louisiana, unlike most states, requires legislative approval of tuition increases.

During another freeze in state aid in 2018, LSU raised student fees about $282 a student, for a total of about $17 million, according to a report from The Advocate.

Interim LSU System President Tom Galligan said recently that he is planning for about a 10% cut in state funding, and LSU has instituted spending and hiring freezes.

Galligan added that the university gets most of its funds from tuition and fees and only 25% from taxpayers. LSU officials have said in that 75% to 80% of the school’s budget came from state appropriations a decade ago.

Read more at The Advocate.

Contract tracing tracks coronavirus spread, but Louisiana lawmakers are reluctant to embrace it

BR.covid19testing.033120. 0083 bf.JPG (Photo Credit: The Advocate)

Published: May 13, 2020

By: Kathleen Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service

Republican Louisiana legislators said this week that many of their constituents are uneasy about contact tracing, a key tool in the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan to determine who has been in contact with someone who tests positive for the virus so they can quarantine and prevent further spread.

As Louisiana residents have become eager to return to work and see economic revival, Gov. John Bel Edwards has announced what he sees as a reopening plan based on advice from health experts and White House guidelines. The plan includes ramping up the state’s COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing capacities to enter the first phase of reopening on Friday.

Under President Donald Trump’s guidelines, contact tracing is crucial to reviving the economy while continuing to protect public health and safety, and a bill passed by Congress requires states to submit plans for testing and tracing to receive federal funds to pay for them.

National epidemiology experts say that no state can reopen safely without contact tracing to keep the virus from spreading again.

Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, said his constituents have expressed discomfort with the idea.

“A lot of people are very reluctant to embrace the idea of contact tracing,” Crews said at a hearing. “We don’t know the extent of it. We don’t even know if there will be repercussions for people who choose not to answer the questions or isolate. There are no answers to my questions, so I’m very reluctant to embrace any idea for financing this stuff if we don’t even know what the plan is.”

“There are still states’ rights, and a lot of people here in Louisiana put a big premium on liberty,” Crews said.

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, spoke of a similar reaction among residents of his district.

“My phone rang off the hook this weekend with calls about this contact tracing,” McFarland said Monday.

Edwards said the state will have the capability to administer 200,000 tests a month for COVID-19. It also has created a group of 250 people to begin making contact-tracing phone calls Friday. This gives the state the capacity to make over 700 calls in four weeks.

Read more at The Advocate.

Bill to increase penalties for felons possessing guns moves forward

Published: May 12, 2020

By: Paige Daniel, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—A Senate committee voted 4-1 Tuesday to forward a bill that would designate possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a felony as a crime of violence.

Currently, the minimum sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is five years. Changing the possession of a firearm by a felon to a crime of violence would ensure harsher penalties, such as lengthier jail sentences.

Mike Ronats, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, cited statistics showing that between 25% and 48% of murders involving firearms are committed by felons.

According to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, there were 436 homicides committed with firearms in the state in 2018. This means between 109 and 210 of the murders were committed by felons.

“The decision that we make today is not just about this crime,” Ronats told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary C. He added: “It’s about how that crime affects the other crime, the larger picture, and that being homicide.”

Sheriff Mike Tregg of St. John the Baptist Parish is also a proponent of the bill, which was proposed by Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge.

“I have too many young men dying,” Tregg said. “I intercept their social media. They’re fascinated with guns. Children, 15 years old. I’m only here today to ask you guys to strengthen what we’re doing so we can send a message before they commit that crime.”

Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, opposed the bill, stating that it was “chipping away at criminal justice reform.” Carter also questioned its urgency, saying violent crimes have gone down and that the bill would add to the state’s corrections costs.

“We are going to be facing undoubtedly an unprecedented deficit because we have so many unknowns,” Carter said.

Read more at KALB.com.