Daily Report

This Afternoon's Headlines / Wed, April 23, 2014

Planning Commission OK's adding Holcomb as finalist for planning director

Interim Planning Director Ryan Holcomb will be added to the list of remaining finalists vying to be the next planning director of East Baton Rouge Parish. At a special meeting this afternoon, the commission voted 5-3 to consider Holcomb for the position he has been filling on a temporary basis since late November. He will be interviewed by the commission in early May, along with the two other finalists: Donald Broussard, an urban planner in Atlanta; and Frank Duke, formerly the planning director in Norfolk, Va. Today's action at City Hall is just the latest chapter in a national search process that began last November and was derailed in March, when the commission's top choice for the position withdrew. Since then, two other finalists have also bowed out. That prompted Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe to suggest last week that the commission hire Holcomb—who originally said he did not want the position, but has since expressed interest—on a full-time basis. Three commission members pushed to reopen the selection process to other applicants today, arguing it was only fair if Holcomb was going to be considered that others have a chance. That motion failed, however. Interviews for Broussard, Duke and Holcomb were scheduled for Monday, May 5. —Stephanie Riegel

Capitol Views: Breaux pushes for Medicaid expansion

The expansion of Medicaid landed back before the Legislature today, with a hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment that would direct the Jindal Administration to accept participation in the federal program. Among those urging the Senate Health and Welfare Committee to approve SB 96 today was former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, who said, "Medicaid expansion could not only improve our health outcomes, but also brings an economic boost to Louisiana." The Democrat, now a lobbyist, noted that Republican governors in nine states have accepted the expansion by using private insurance that required some co-pays from patients. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's senior policy adviser Jessica Stone warned that the Affordable Care Act includes a future reduction in Disproportionate Share Hospital payments, which could cost state hospitals up to half of the federal reimbursements they receive now for treating uninsured patients. The bill's author, state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, said, "If we fail to expand Medicaid, people will die in this state. We will continue to have the least healthy population in America." He added, "The governor refused to take action. If we do not accept Medicaid we will lose hundreds of millions of dollars we will have to make up." Testimony from about a dozen supporters of the bill, including the uninsured, a small business owner and doctors, took up the morning session. Opponents, including Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert, started testifying around 1:30 p.m. A similar bill last year got through the same committee, but failed on the Senate floor. This year's bill faces a higher bar, with a two-thirds majority needed in both houses and a vote of the people. Even then, Gov. Bobby Jindal has said that only he can sign off on accepting the expansion and that he would not do so. Still, Democrats are pushing for a vote to put Republicans on the record opposing the expansion. Also hanging over legislators' heads is a recent letter from the federal Center for Medicaid Services deferring $307 million in reimbursements the state is seeking from the fourth quarter of 2013 for its new public-private partnerships. DHH Secretary Kliebert said the federal decision is not final and that she is confident the state will get eventual approval, but lawmakers and hospital officials remain concerned.

—A House committee defeated a bill this morning that would have forced the three at-large members of BESE who are appointed by the governor to run for election. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 6-2 against the proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles. "Parents are much more involved in education today," he told the panel. "They feel like they don't have as much of a voice as they want to have." There are currently eight members of BESE who are elected and three who are appointed, and his HB 374 would have made all 11 seek election. Geymann argued an elected body would be more responsive to the people than one that's partially appointed. Stephanie Desselle, vice president of public policy for the Council for a Better Louisiana, testified against the legislation, noting 35 states have fully appointed boards and most are selected by governors. "They have no elected members at all," she said. LaPolitics has more from the opposition and an update on separate legislation that would add additional ethics requirements for BESE and the education superintendent.

(John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford will publish Capitol Views each afternoon on Daily Report PM through the end of the legislative session. The report is also available to subscribers at LaPolitics.com. Registration is available on the homepage.)

Louisiana Public Broadcasting is providing a daily video update featuring highlights of the session, which you can see beginning at 6 p.m. here.

Lamar gets IRS approval for REIT conversion

Lamar Advertising Co. has received approval from the Internal Revenue Service to convert to a Real Estate Investment Trust, the Baton Rouge-based company announced today via a press release. The conversion, which shareholders still need to approve, is expected to be made effective as of Jan. 1 of this year. REIT status allows a company to avoid paying corporate-level income taxes if it distributes at least 90% of its taxable income to shareholders in the form of dividends. As a REIT, Lamar says it will be allowed to treat its outdoor advertising displays as real property for tax purposes, noting some of its assets and operations will continue to be subject to state and federal corporate income taxes. "Furthermore, assets and operations outside the United States will continue to be subject to foreign taxes in the jurisdictions in which those assets and operations are located," reads the press release. Lamar completed an internal corporate restructuring at the end of last year that brought it into compliance with applicable REIT rules for the 2014 taxable year. As part of the restructuring, Lamar will be merged into a newly formed, wholly owned subsidiary—also subject to approval by stockholders. —Staff report

Amedisys finalizes $150 million payment to settle Medicare fraud case

Baton Rouge-based Amedisys has finalized an agreement to pay $150 million to the federal government to settle allegations that the company submitted false home health care billings to the Medicare program between 2008 and 2010, the Department of Justice announced today via a press release. Amedisys, which provides home health services in 37 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, is not admitting to any wrongdoing under terms of the settlement. Amedisys first announced the tentative settlement amount in a regulatory filing in November, saying it had begun setting aside funds to make the payment. The company also will enter into a corporate integrity agreement with the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services as part of the settlement, DOJ says. The settlement also resolves "certain allegations that Amedisys maintained improper financial relationships with referring physicians," DOJ says. In total, seven whistleblower lawsuits pending against Amedisys in federal court—six in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and one in the Northern District of Georgia—are resolved under the settlement. "As part of today's settlement, the whistleblowers—primarily former Amedisys employees—will collectively split over $26 million," DOJ says. "This settlement demonstrates the department's commitment to ensuring that home health providers, like other providers, comply with the rules and don't misuse taxpayer dollars," says DOJ Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart Delery in a prepared statement. —Staff report

Charlie Cook: Landrieu's re-election bid in danger; Jindal's presidential hopes thin

Sen. Mary Landrieu has a 50/50 chance, at best, to retain her seat in the U.S. Senate, says Charlie Cook, a Louisiana native who edits and publishes the respected Cook Political Report. While a recent poll showed Landrieu with a wide lead over Congressman Bill Cassidy, her best-known opponent, the senator only reached 42% support, a weak number for an incumbent, and in some polls she trails any generic Republican in a head-to-head election. Cook suggests Cassidy is a pretty good "vessel" for dissatisfaction with Democrats and President Barack Obama. He notes that some Republicans don't feel Cassidy is conservative enough, but says a more conservative candidate likely couldn't win. He says the worst-case scenario for Landrieu is a runoff with Senate control hanging in the balance, because her seniority might matter less than her party affiliation. Cook says he's "skeptical" of Gov. Bobby Jindal's chances to win the Republican nomination for president, instead identifying John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin as governors to watch. He says much of the Republican establishment is urging former Florida governor Jeb Bush to run. Bush reportedly said today that he's "thinking about running for president," but Cook says the former Florida governor's wife hates politics and may ultimately dissuade him. Among Republican senators, he says Kentucky's Rand Paul would have a better chance than Ted Cruz of Texas, whom the establishment would line up to oppose. He says the Democratic nomination is wide open if Hillary Clinton doesn't run. Cook spoke today at PAISA Day, held annually by LSU's Public Administration Institute. —David Jacobs

Business, school and civic groups urge lawmakers not to delay Common Core

A coalition of major business, civic and education groups in Louisiana delivered a letter to the Legislature today reaffirming its support of the controversial Common Core academic standards. The letter—which is signed by 33 organizations and companies, including BRAC, LABI, The Council for a Better Louisiana, Stand for Children, ExxonMobil and Cajun Industries—urges lawmakers not to further delay the implemention of the Common Core standards or the use of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam. "We are worried that delaying or eliminating PARCC will send a message to prospective businesses, investors and workers that Louisiana is not committed to improving its low education rankings or meeting the workforce demands of our growing, diverse economy," reads the letter. The controversy over Common Core has escalated in recent weeks as lawmakers have begun to take up bills that would delay implementation or remove the state from participation. Also, Gov. Bobby Jindal's public support of Common Core has all but disappeared, with him recently saying—to the dismay of Superintendent of Education John White—that he supports a bill to scrap the standards. Jindal also said he believes he could order the state to drop the tests if lawmakers fail to pass a bill doing so. The coalition that delivered the letter to lawmakers today is the same one that urged them in March not to make "political deals" on Common Core that could threaten the new education standards. —Staff report

News roundup: Louisiana Senate to consider equal pay proposal … Bill to derail lawsuits against oil and gas companies in Jefferson, Plaquemines stalls … Effort to restructure BESE appointment process voted down in committee

The great divide: Louisiana Senators will consider whether to prohibit private businesses in Louisiana from paying unequal wages to employees of different genders for the same job. The Associated Press reports the equal pay proposal by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, received the backing today of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. Supporters say Louisiana has the second largest gender pay gap in the country, but opponents of the proposal—including LABI and other business organizations—say current laws provide adequate protection for workers from gender-based discrimination. The bill moves to the Senate floor for consideration.

High water everywhere: The Legislature is moving toward derailing a lawsuit filed by a New Orleans-area levee board against 97 energy companies for coastal damage. But lawmakers appear to be backing off action against similar litigation filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes. The Associated Press reports that Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, has delayed hearings on a bill that would give local and parish governments another way to file the lawsuits, adding that unless a compromise can be reached, he won't bring up the legislation this session.

Staying the course: An effort to make more of the state education board's members elected by the public, rather than appointed by the governor, failed to win support today in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Currently, eight members of BESE are elected from individual districts around the state, and three are appointed by the governor. The Associated Press reports the committee voted 6-2 against the bill, which would have made the governor's appointments at-large seats elected by voters statewide.
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