By Ryan Noonan and Kaylee Poche, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — A survey by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab found that a majority of Louisiana residents support criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion, two major policies pushed by the John Bel Edwards administration.
The survey comes at a time when legislators are considering proposals to scale back last year’s changes in criminal justice and cut funding for some Medicaid programs.
Of those surveyed, 61 percent of Louisiana residents approve of the criminal justice changes.
Louisiana’s expansion of its Medicaid program also remains popular with residents, with an overall approval rating of 69 percent.
Among Democrats, 74 percent supported the criminal justice changes. Ninety-two percent approved of the Medicaid expansion, which Edwards, who is up for re-election next year, pushed through in 2016.
Republicans were notably divided on both issues. Forty-six percent of Republicans surveyed approved of the criminal justice changes and 42 percent disapproved. The Medicaid expansion received support from 47 percent of Republicans, while 46 percent disapproved.
The report was the fifth installment of the 2018 Louisiana Survey, a poll of 852 Louisiana residents by researchers at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
The researchers also have found general disillusionment with state political leaders. In the first installment of the survey, about half of the respondents said they believed the state is headed in the wrong direction.
Last year’s criminal justice package that found favor with a majority of respondents included changes in parole, sentencing and after-prison policies aimed at reducing the state’s notoriety as the incarceration capital of the world.
But support for letting judges determine sentencing without mandatory minimums–requiring minimum prison sentences for people convicted of certain crimes–decreased. Seventy-two percent of state residents supported judicial discretion in sentencing over mandatory minimums, down from 64 percent last year.
Additionally, 58 percent of those surveyed favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, significantly higher than the national average of 49 percent reported by Pew Research Center in mid-2016.
A House committee on criminal justice rejected a proposal to eliminate Louisiana’s death penalty Wednesday, after a version of the bill advanced in a Senate committee Tuesday. This seems to mirror the trajectory of a similar bill last year that died after rejection by a House committee despite its success in a Senate committee.
The state expanded Medicaid in 2016 to include those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. However, a lack of public awareness of the expansion exists, with only 35 percent of survey respondents reporting they knew about the expansion.
Favored by the public across party lines is the implementation of work requirements and copayments for Medicaid recipients, with 79 percent favoring work requirements and 69 percent favoring copayments.
Republicans have pushed hard for both measures, and Edwards has expressed his support for the two policies.
Both of the measures were attached to tax bills that died when the recent special session collapsed.
Changes to the Medicaid program also have been discussed during the current regular session. Because legislators failed to create any new revenue raising measures during the special session earlier this year, Gov. Edwards’ doomsday budget proposal could become a reality if legislators are unable to find an alternative solution before a temporary sales tax increase expires July 1.
Edward’s budget plan included a $656 million reduction in the Health Department’s budget and a loss of nearly $1.6 billion in federal matching funds.
While Medicaid, which is primarily funded by the federal government, would continue to receive state dollars under the proposed budget, some services are at risk.
They include a low income-based program providing long-term care for aged, blind and disabled individuals. Nearly 46,000 residents who receive funding for nursing homes and disability centers under the program could lose that coverage.