On Nov. 4, Louisiana voters will decide the fate of 14 proposed amendments to the state constitution. In this week's Commentary, we offer our recommendations on the proposed amendments. Next week — in time for early voting — we will make our endorsements in some of the contested elections. Whether you agree with our recommendations or not, we hope all our readers will vote in this important election.
Amendment 1: FOR
This amendment would protect an existing trust fund known as the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund. The fund receives money from fees placed on participating nursing homes, intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled and community pharmacies. That money is used to leverage many more federal Medicaid dollars — to compensate contributing facilities for care they provide to the state's poorest citizens. Louisiana is among 44 states that use this mechanism to leverage federal Medicaid dollars. This fund has been "raided" in recent years at the urging of Gov. Bobby Jindal to help balance the state budget. Amendment 1 would protect the trust fund from future "budget raids" and set minimum rates to be paid to participating health care providers. We recommend voting FOR this amendment.
Amendment 2: FOR
Amendment 2 seems related to Amendment 1, but they actually are distinct. Amendment 1 would protect an existing trust fund, while Amendment 2 would create a new trust fund. The existing fund affected by Amendment 1 deals with nursing homes, facilities for the developmentally disabled and community pharmacies; the fund to be created by Amendment 2 would set up a similar funding mechanism for Medicaid-eligible hospitals. Louisiana is one of only 10 states that does not use this type of funding, and Amendment 2 would cure that by establishing the Louisiana Hospital Stabilization Fund. The fund would be protected from "budget raids," and the amendment would set base level rates for participating hospitals. We recommend voting FOR this proposed amendment.
Amendment 3: AGAINST
Proposed Amendment 3 would allow local governments and tax collectors to use outside agents to collect delinquent property taxes and to help sell "adjudicated" properties. On its face, this may sound like a good idea, but the selection of outside agents easily could be politicized — and those agents could charge up to 10 percent for their services. This would further burden people who are having trouble paying their property taxes. We think tax collectors should do their jobs themselves. We recommend voting AGAINST Amendment 3.
Amendment 4: FOR
Louisiana has some of the worst highways and bridges in the country, and we need to find new ways to pay for improvements. Amendment 4 would allow the state treasurer to invest public funds in a yet-to-be-created Louisiana Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The amendment would not create the bank, but merely allow investment in it if lawmakers choose to create it. No taxes would be increased or dedicated. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 4.
Amendment 5: FOR
Louisiana currently forces judges to retire after they reach the age of 70, though judges who reach that age may finish their current terms. Amendment 5 would remove this mandatory retirement age. No other public officials on the federal, state or local levels have mandatory retirement ages, and people much older than 70 can serve on juries. Allowing judges to serve longer would save taxpayers money by reducing the drain on state retirement systems. Moreover, the state Supreme Court in recent decades has become much more vigilant about removing judges who aren't doing their jobs. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 5.
Amendment 6: FOR
This amendment is of particular interest to New Orleans. The state constitution currently allows the City of New Orleans to levy a special property tax of 5 mills for police protection and 5 mills for fire protection — not subject to the homestead exemption. Amendment 5 would raise the cap from 5 mills to 10 mills each. The amendment must pass statewide and in New Orleans to take effect, but even then the millage rate would not go up. The City Council would have to call a separate election and voters would have to approve a specific increase. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 6.
Amendment 7: FOR
Louisiana currently allows parishes to grant disabled military veterans a higher homestead exemption if they have a 100 percent service-connected disability rating. This amendment would address a glitch in the federal system that sometimes renders disabled vets ineligible for this well-deserved tax break. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 7.
Amendment 8: FOR
This amendment addresses yet another problem created by Gov. Jindal's habit of "raiding" special funds to balance the state budget. Amendment 8 puts the statutory Artificial Reef Development Fund in the constitution and protects it from future budget raids. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 8.
Amendment 9: FOR
Louisiana gives property tax breaks to permanently disabled homeowners by locking in the assessed values of their homes. Amendment 9 keeps this program in place and removes the requirement that permanently disabled persons under the age of 65 must apply for the assessment "freeze" annually. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 9.
Amendment 10: FOR
When blighted property is sold at auction outside Orleans Parish, deadbeat property owners can still "redeem" the property for three years. This effectively guarantees that nothing significant will happen to that property for three years. Amendment 10 would shorten the "redemption period" for vacant, abandoned or blighted property from three years to 18 months. The redemption period in New Orleans for such property is already 18 months. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 10.
Amendment 11: AGAINST
This amendment would increase the size of state government by adding a separate Department of Elderly Affairs. We think such a department is a good idea, but it should come about by eliminating or consolidating other departments. We recommend voting AGAINST Amendment 11.
Amendment 12: AGAINST
This amendment would require an additional member of the state Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to come from north Louisiana. This is a needless detail that has no business in the state constitution. We recommend voting AGAINST Amendment 12.
Amendment 13: AGAINST
This amendment only affects property in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. It would allow a city agency to sell vacant property in that neighborhood (and only that neighborhood) for far below its market value: a mere $100. We think this proposal would do far more harm than good to a neighborhood that already has seen its share of misfortune — and it may run afoul of federal regulations. We recommend voting AGAINST this amendment.
Amendment 14: FOR
The constitution already limits tax-related bills to legislative sessions in odd-numbered years. The same goes for bills dealing with tax exemptions, exclusions, deductions or credits. However, lawmakers still consider measures relating to tax rebates, incentives and abatements in any year. Amendment 14 would close this loophole and limit such measures to "fiscal" sessions in odd-numbered years. We recommend voting FOR Amendment 14.