During this year's legislative session, the state budget crisis often has overshadowed other critical issues. One of those other critical issues is the way Louisiana treats victims of sexual assault.
Last year, a report by Rebecca Catalanello of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune revealed that some Louisiana hospitals have sent large medical bills to women who report sexual assault and subject themselves to forensic medical tests (aka rape kits). Most states pay for such tests through their victims' compensation programs. Catalanello's report got wide play in Louisiana and across the country. State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, summed up the reaction when she said, "Talk about being traumatized twice."
Moreno made changing the law a top priority. She proposes a creative, long-term solution: using unclaimed winnings from casinos and racetracks to increase the budget of the Crime Victims Reparations Board (CVRB), which would then help pay for rape exams. Moreno's proposal is contained in three legislative measures. House Bill 143, which was approved by the House Appropriations Committee last week, covers the funding. The second part of the proposal is covered in HB 835 (formerly HB194), which would prevent emergency rooms and hospitals from billing victims of rape; instead, invoices would go directly to the CVRB. A third bill deals with technical matters.
There is precedent for the state taking unclaimed winnings. In 2011, Nevada dedicated 75 percent of unclaimed winnings to its state treasury for general budget purposes. Moreno's HB 143 is much narrower in several ways. First, the amount of unclaimed winnings in Louisiana is much smaller than in Nevada — just over $1 million a year — and second, any funds collected under her bills would go toward the CVRB and rape tests, not to the state general fund.
Moreno's bills have received widespread bipartisan support. Their backers include the Louisiana Hospital Association, the Legislative Women's Caucus and the Independent Women's Association — and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said the legislation would be "removing unnecessary burdens that have gotten in the way of ensuring that these victims receive the assistance that they deserve."
The main opposition has come from the Louisiana Casino Association (LCA), which holds unclaimed gambling funds. The LCA's position is that gambling winnings belong to casinos until winners demand payment. We respectfully disagree. After a period of time — which can be written into law — unclaimed winnings are more like abandoned property. Wade Duty, executive director of the LCA, has also suggested that casinos already pay enough in gambling taxes. That's a separate issue, wholly unrelated to unclaimed winnings that don't "belong" to casinos. Collecting unclaimed winnings thus is not a tax, and the two shouldn't be conflated.
Some sloppy reporting has further confused the issue. One national report went out under various versions of the headline, "Casinos against bill requiring them to pay for rape exams." The gambling industry isn't being required to pay for anything; the exams would be funded by property (money) left behind at casinos.
Moreno's bills will be considered by the full House soon, though no date had been set as of press time. We urge passage of all three measures.