There is no day rainier than today
by ALLISON CRYER
The next legislative session doesn’t start until April 2013, but lawmakers are already squabbling over how to spend the $130 million left over for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
The Louisiana Legislature’s economist told a state income forecasting panel last week that Louisiana closed the last fiscal year with a $130 million surplus, a result of higher than expected business tax income.
Earlier this year during the state’s legislative session, lawmakers approved the borrowing of $204.7 million from state’s “rainy day fund” to cover a shortfall in the state’s budget. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin wants the leftover cash to be used to repay the withdrawal from the state’s “rainy day” fund.
However, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration has made the suggestion that the surplus be used to fill a $94 million hole in the state’s Medicaid program, as well as to avoid deeper cuts to the LSU hospital system. Frankly, I think that is the first thing he has gotten right all year.
In July the Jindal Administration decided against expanding the state’s Medicaid program under the federal health law, combined with a provision that shrinks uninsured care dollars. Louisiana relies heavily on these federal funds to run its LSU public hospitals and support rural and community hospitals. Hospital leaders say the situation could leave some LSU-run public hospitals and small rural hospitals teetering on the edge of closure and give them little way to recoup money they spend to care for uninsured patients. In fact, Louisiana used $725 million in uninsured care dollars over the last fiscal year.
With fewer dollars than expected coming from the federal government, our state government could use an infusion of cash. It seems like legislators are arguing over a matter of principle, when the reality is that the drastic cuts to the state’s health care system stand to significantly decrease access to care for our disabled and elderly citizens, especially in rural communities.
Also, this week the U.S. Census Bureau released data that showed Louisiana’s people are getting poorer. Our state was ranked as the seventh poorest state in the nation with a 20.4 percent poverty rate in 2011 – 1.7 percentage points higher than in 2010. Statewide, there are about 910,000 people living below the poverty line.
Experts say that number translates to as many as 500,000 Louisiana residents – mainly working adults – who won’t get government health insurance. Like it or not, those 500,000 people are still going to get sick and inevitably the state and the taxpayer will have to foot the bill when the uninsured show up in private hospital emergency rooms.
There is really no day rainier than today when it comes to the state of health care in Louisiana. It seems irresponsible to put the money back in the rainy day fund, when there is such an urgent need today.
Decisions on the spending are expected to be debated during the next regular legislative session, which begins in April 2013. I sincerely hope that Louisiana lawmakers and the Jindal Administration make the right choice for our poor, elderly and disabled citizens by spending the surplus on health care. Now is not the time to stockpile when there are urgent needs to be met.
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