By Ryan Noonan and Kaylee Poche, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE–With the first week of the special legislative session winding down, agreement on measures to solve the state’s looming $1 billion fiscal cliff still seems far away, as “voluntarily deferred” has quickly become the most commonly used phrase at the Capitol.
“Basically, nothing has happened,” Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, said. “The Republicans are pretty much saying the only way they will pass some revenue measures is if we implement policies. A lot of those policies we don’t agree with.”
All four Medicaid-related bills presented Thursday to the House Health and Welfare Committee were pulled from consideration, with the potential to be discussed at a later date. This continues the trend set in the House Ways and Means meeting Wednesday, where a majority of the tax-related bills were also deferred.
Republican leaders have said they want to see changes in programs like Medicaid if they are to consider Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposals for revenue-generating measures.
“Right now, you have philosophical differences,” Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, said. “And until we put them to the side and actually come together and focus on the solution, we’re not going to do anything, so why sit there and burn bridges in the committee?”
McFarland, who sponsored the last two bills on the agenda dealing with Medicaid copays and premiums, deferred his bills immediately after being called to present them.
“I’m not going to sit here to have it voluntarily deferred, so I voluntarily defer it,” said McFarland. “I can read the tea leaves.”
However, McFarland stated after that he did not intend to come across as discourteous.
“I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or sassy to anybody,” said McFarland in an interview afterward. “The members put a lot of time into being here, and I did that out of respect to them and all the people that were in the room. I mean if we’re going to do that, don’t sit there, debate it and then voluntarily defer it.”
The failure of committee members–nine Republicans, eight Democrats and one Independent–to reach an agreement went beyond party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans in the committee expressed significant concern over a bill requiring able-bodied adult Medicaid recipients to work, leading the bill’s author, Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, to voluntarily defer it.
Miller, who was critical of the bill, suggested that the administrative cost to implement the work requirements was not a good investment of the taxpayer’s money.
“I’m not against work requirements, I’m about what’s best to do with the taxpayers’ dollars,” said MIller.
“Right now, when we’re trying to figure out how to fund TOPS, higher education and LDH,” he said, referring to the Louisiana Department of Health, “and $350 million software, to me, isn’t the answer. I would rather give that money to a TOPS kid.”
“It’s a feel-good bill for them to say, ‘Hey, look what we did,’ but the numbers aren’t there,” he added. “You wouldn’t do that in your own personal bank account.”
The other bill on the agenda, sponsored by Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, designed to root out fraud in Medicaid eligibility determinations, was similarly criticized due to it’s projected $1 million administrative cost. The criticisms ultimately led to a deferral of the bill, causing some legislators to become frustrated.
“I’d like to vote for something–I’m tired of this,” said Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, after the decision to defer Bacala’s bill.
With the fiscal cliff looming in the distance, legislators face mounting pressure to reach a compromise before the regular session begins in March. But with so few proposals even reaching the voting stage, it seems they might have their work cut out for them.