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Black Caucus president assesses 2012 legislative session

25th June 2012   ·   0 Comments

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

After the recent 2012 Louisiana Legislative session, there are still many questions left unanswered. Lawsuits have already been filed to challenge some of the measures that were passed. One thing is certain: this is a season for the Black community to be very vigilant regarding major trends and policies that seem designed to clearly benefit certain groups and institutions, while negatively impacting other.

Patricia Hayes Smith is President of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, the body that officially represents Black legislators in both houses. Smith shared some of her observations and concerns with The Louisiana Weekly, including an announcement about a new opportunity for citizens in general.


LA. WEEKLY: Has the LLBC issued a formal statement on the outcome of the session?

SMITH: Not as yet we have been meeting to determine a score card?

LA. WEEKLY: Did the Black community win more than it lost?

SMITH: It’s a mixed bag and it depends on your point of view. I think we gained and blocked so that our folks would not be impacted.

LA. WEEKLY: What would you say is the clearest victory?
SMITH: The state workers pension plan. We have a lot of folks who are state workers and we were able to stop all the changes to the pension plan with the except for one that looks at new employees coming in as of 2013. We were also able to stop the drug testing of individuals who are on assistance from the state. We stopped the move to eliminate tenure for current bus drivers, although new drivers won’t get tenure. We have a lot of bus drivers.

LA. WEEKLY: What about women’s issues?

SMITH: We did pass women’s equal pay but the governor vetoed that. Setting up task force to study He said it would take $300K to do the task force, which was not true, and it would take money away from the disabled. How he came up with that, we do not know. We had already had conversations with the department of labor which is our workforce commission. They had already agreed to do a portion of the gathering of information up to a point where if they ran into a problem that it would cost them money they would have just come back to the committee. They had already agreed to that but he vetoed that bill so that does negatively impact us.

LA. WEEKLY: Some of your victories were vetoed by the governor.

SMITH: The other bill we had passed, which would have helped as well, was HB 1106 by Katrina Jackson which would give rebates to folks who donate to public schools. He vetoed that bill on the basis that it would provide money to schools outside of the MFP formula. Schools receive monies outside of the MFP formula all the time in the form of grants that they may apply for or other donations that they may get. But this one bothers us because most of our children are in traditional public schools. But yet he did sign a bill a rebate bill to individual to scholarships for vouchers for private and parochial schools. That bill doesn’t even have a cap on it. They can donate millions of dollars and if the money is used for scholarships they are guaranteed to get 95 percent of their money back as well as a tax credit for a donation to a non-profit. They are getting more than dollar-for-dollar back.

Jindal also looked at a local bill in Baton Rouge where the majority of people who ride the busses are African-American. The tax passed but we had to look at governance over the dollars once they had been collected. Rep. Regina Belle had a bill in 865 that would have allowed for a new governance board to be formed with oversight from the Metro Council in Baton Rouge. Well he vetoed that bill. That was an interference in a local issue that concerns us greatly. We believe that was a kind of vengeance back on the Representative because she did not agree to vote for something they wanted her to vote for.

LA. WEEKLY: Sounds like there was a lot of contention.

SMITH: Education reform was a major struggle and the pension issue was a major struggle and we’re still going to be fighting in days to come because lawsuits have been filed in both cases. The upside depends on how individuals look at the Ed reform and the voucher program. I still contend that because we don’t actually know the kind of schools that will sign up to actually take the state vouchers; that we don’t know whether or not it’s going to be a successful program. It’s not good knowing that no more than 2,000 will be able to take advantage of vouchers statewide.

LA. WEEKLY: What’s the good news in the area of education?

SMITH: We did allow for college course credit transfers. Of course we already had a reciprocal policy where you could transfer from a two year college to a four year and take your credits with you. Now they are going back, assigning numbers, making sure the course numbers are consistent between two-year courses and four-year courses so that helps us in being able to keep credit. At the K-12 level, we put in a program that provides educational services for long-term suspension or expelled from school. Those who are expelled are dropouts all schools have to have a plan in place and there is going be the ability schools with AMI kids to be able to take those children and the dollars will follow the child to those schools. That will keep the kids off the street.

LA. WEEKLY: Health is a major concern, particularly with facilities being shut down all over the state.
SMITH: We do have a mental and behavioral health services preservation act which preserves many of the state funds for mental health services. We now have now required cancer treatment that will cover any drug that was injected or intravenously administered, cancer medication. Now that’s part of your health insurance. Children who have autism can be now be carried on your health insurance. It’s interesting that we find a lot of African American children are born with Autism.

LA. WEEKLY: Speaking of children, they always seem to be the easiest target for cutbacks and punitive measures what came out that could help them?
SMITH: We put in some better programs for child day care centers to help individuals with centers. We did pass an anti-bullying bill. I’m a little concerned about it, but at least there is a bill there tat we can watch go through the process and see how it’s going to impact our kids. We’ve had so many kids across the state that have committed suicide but more than that are being bullied everyday. There was just a lawsuit filed in Pointe Coupee by a mother whose child is at an elementary school who she says gets bullied everyday. We also passed a bill that will allow school boards to sell their used personal computing devices to parents or guardians. If a school or a district decided to change out their computers there will now be an opportunity for parents or guardians to purchase those computers. That was never allowed before.

LA. WEEKLY: Louisiana is still the world’s largest incarcerator. There’s been a lot of talk lately, but what legislative action have we seen?
SMITH: We had a number of penal reform bills pass. I had two bills to pass, one on good time for habitual offenders, another one on habitual offenders who get life sentences to be eligible for parole. We changed a number of other good time methods being calculated in the system. All of that impacts the minority community because we have so many people in the system.

LA. WEEKLY: Voting rights are a big issue nationally. Any progress on our front?

SMITH: There is also a bill that changed the voting times from 6 a.m .to 7 a.m. There had already been a bill to change the closing time from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. So now the window of voting is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We need to keep our eye on that as a community to make sure that it does not limit any individuals from going to the polls, especially workers who have shift work. The justification is that many of the commissioners are elderly and the 14 hour day was a lot tougher for them, as well as saving money.

LA. WEEKLY: So what does the rest of the year hold for the Caucus?
SMITH: The caucus is looking at the opportunity to make tours to talk about many of these bills and prepare folks for next year, we were able to get the budget passed but we have a shortfall coming up next year as well. To gather information on what our folks are really interested in. We are preparing to launch a non-voting membership for the LLBC. We will give regular citizens to be a non-voting member of the caucus. That gives you many opportunities to join us when we have activities and as well as insuring that we have your input in anything that we do in the legislature.

This article was originally published in the June 25, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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