Capitol Views: Second-chance bill passes on second try; bill tightens teacher sick leave; light oversight on Medicaid networks proposed

Reversing course from Monday, the Senate today approved a bill to grant parole eligibility to those serving life sentences for nonviolent or nonsexual crimes. The vote on reconsideration of House Bill 543 was 23-12, after the Senate rejected the bill, 18-19, on Monday.

Handling the revote, Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, said some members had the wrong impression that the bill would include violent offenders. He said many affected inmates would be those convicted during a five-year period when the original habitual offender statute applied to any three convictions, which the Legislature later changed to only violent offenses.

Under the bill, lifers who were 18 to 25 years old when sentenced could be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25 years. Those between 25 and 35 when sentenced would have to have served 20 years. It would be a 15-year wait for those sentenced between the ages 35 and 50, and 10 years for those over 50 when sentenced. They would also be required to have clean prison records and to have earned a general equivalency degree and received any necessary substance abuse treatment. Angola prison warden Burl Cain testified for the bill in committee.

The bill by Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, is one of several bills moving through the Legislature (others are by Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie) to address the state’s world-leading incarceration rate. She calls HB 543 “the bill of hope.” Martiny said for some it is “the light at the end of the tunnel.” It now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.

—In another setback for school employees, reversing one of their few victories this session, the House Education Committee today approved a bill to let local school boards set extended sick leave policy and to reduce current state-mandated benefits.

Currently, state law requires local boards to grant 90 days of extended sick leave over six years and establishes that employees be paid 65% of their salary during that period. Senate Bill 494 would reduce that to 45 days at 50% pay. The bill also would limit extended sick leave to 10 days at a time (unrestricted now) and to have it apply only to “medical necessity” to school employees and not for the care of a family member, as the current law allows.

BESE member Penny Dastugue testified that school boards need the flexibility in order to curb abuses to sick leave policy, particularly during tight budget times. Louisiana Federation of Teachers head Steve Monaghan protested the bill for taking more away from school employees in need. He noted that the same committee involuntarily deferred a House bill to do the same thing earlier this session. But then the Senate grafted the language of the House bill onto SB 494 by Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. Its last stop is the Senate floor before going to the governor’s desk.

—Last year, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill to give it oversight of the new Medicaid Coordinated Care Networks and authority to cancel the contracts with private providers at the end of their three-year terms. Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed that.

This year, SB 629 is said to do the same thing, absent the contract cancellation part—and it’s zipping through the process, this time with the governor’s support.

The bill by Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, would require DHH to make annual reports to Senate health committees on Bayou Health and the Louisiana Behavioral Partnership, which both activated this year.

Actually, the Legislature never had a direct vote on the massive privatization of Medicaid services, because the original authorization language was inserted as a little-noticed provision of the 2010 appropriations bill. Only later did the joint health committees get to vote on the rules for the program.

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