Sen. Bill Cassidy passes the Jimmy Kimmel test

By Robert Mann

I don’t know if congressional Republicans are wise enough to take his advice on health care, but if they wish to remain in power, they might listen to Louisiana’s senior senator, Bill Cassidy.

The low-key Cassidy is not only a physician who practiced for years at Baton Rouge’s now-defunct charity hospital, Earl K. Long Medical Center; he also understands the travails of the financially strapped patients he once treated. And unlike most GOP House members, Cassidy seems to believe fixing the health care system is more important than cutting Medicaid by $880 billion to finance a tax cut for millionaires.

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Screenshot of Sen. Bill Cassidy’s appearance on ABC’s “Jimm Kimmel Live”

Cassidy is not new to the issue. Instead of destroying Obamacare and replacing it with something as immoral as the House-passed American Health Care Act (AHCA), Cassidy and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins say they want to address Obamacare’s worst flaws.

Their bill, the Patient Freedom Act of 2017, would repeal the personal and employer coverage mandates while keeping Obamacare’s most popular features, especially the prohibition on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. The bill also would give states the flexibility to maintain portions of Obamacare, including the mandates, while fashioning their own programs. “If states like California or New York think Obamacare works for them, then God bless them,” Cassidy told the Senate when he introduced the bill in January.

Because of his legislation, Cassidy was already a player in health care reform. Now, thanks to ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, Cassidy could play a larger role in this debate — and in a way that could be politically advantageous to him.

After Kimmel disclosed that his newborn son had open-heart surgery for a congenital heart defect, the host pleaded with Congress preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions. “If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” an emotional Kimmel told viewers last month.

In a CNN interview a few days later, Cassidy said any bill he would support must pass “the Jimmy Kimmel test.” Cassidy explained that meant, “Would a child born with a congenital heart defect be able to get everything she or he would need in the first year of life?”

That pleased Kimmel, who invited Cassidy on his show last Monday night, whereupon Cassidy expanded the test to include “not only on the first year [of the child’s life] but every year thereafter.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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LSU grads, on your last day on campus, give your parents a tour of the library

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” Walter Cronkite

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A familar scene in LSU’s Middleton Library

By Robert Mann

To the LSU class of 2017: Congratulations on surviving college. Next week, your parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, and even aunts and uncles, will descend on the LSU campus to watch you march across the stage to receive your diploma.

That morning, the family might join you for one last omelet at Louie’s. Or brunch at the Faculty Club or dinner at the Chimes or Juban’s. Maybe, for old times sake, you’ll swing through the Student Union or drop by the bookstore for some LSU gear.

Whatever the case, please consider reserving ten minutes to take your family on a tour through the disgusting, decrepit Middleton Library.

Show them the repulsive 40-year-old tables and the grimy chairs where you studied. Point out the carpet stains that were there before your dad was a freshman. Be sure to walk through the bathrooms, which would shame even the most inattentive gas station attendant.

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The swimming pool at LSU’s Huey Long Field House

Point out the dangling ceiling tiles and the missing floor tiles. And don’t forget to take them downstairs to the basement where the government documents are housed and which doubles as a wading pool after a heavy rain.

Like most people who don’t work or study at LSU, they’ve had no reason to inspect the school’s buildings, which are ostensibly pristine.

Why would your mom and dad think LSU’s library is any less impressive than the edifices that grace most major public universities? How could they know they sent you to a school without a decent library building in a state governed by public officials who have given up on funding higher education?

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Alton Sterling case is just further proof that our justice system is not colorblind

By Robert Mann

Was there any doubt the U.S. Justice Department would absolve the Baton Rouge police officers who killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling last July? I never expected federal prosecutors would vindicate Sterling’s death by charging one or both of the two officers with violating his civil rights. And I cannot imagine anyone thought otherwise.

The Sterling incident speaks volumes about police-community relations, but also the powerlessness of people of color (especially if poor) when confronted by police or sucked into the justice system.

Indulge me a time-travel thought exercise. Take me back to July 5, 2016, and put me in Sterling’s place for his encounter with police. An officer would not jam his gun to my head and bark, as one of the Sterling family’s lawyers reported, “Bitch, I’m gonna kill you.” No one would die. That’s not because of my superior survival skills. It’s, rather, because I am white.

Over the 40-plus years I have owned a car, I’ve been pulled over by police a few times. Early on, I was fearful I couldn’t afford to pay the ticket; in more recent years, I’m fearful of the impact on my auto insurance rates. Never once, however, have I worried the officer emerging from his squad car would harm me. That’s because white people don’t have such fears. Black people do every day.

Even if police don’t kill them, impoverished black people know the consequences of an arrest — on a minor charge — can be life changing.

Haul me into court for a misdemeanor criminal charge (or even a felony), and I can afford a competent lawyer. If a jury heard my case, the panel would have only a handful of black members. A majority-white jury would likely give me the benefit of any reasonable doubt. In other words, my race or social status would be, at worst, a neutral factor, and, at best, an advantage. And, if convicted of a minor charge, I could afford to pay whatever fine the judge imposed.

This is not the experience of most black people tossed into our nation’s jails. Waiting months or years to face a jury, almost a half-million Americans — most of them poor and black — rot in state and local jails awaiting trial or formal charges (and 75 percent of them are not suspected of any violent crime). Most are kept in jail because they cannot afford bail. A speedy trial is a fantasy to most of them.

In Cook County (Chicago), Ill., a writer for The American Prospect wrote this month about observing 276 hearings in 10 bond courts. “Across all judges observed, the slim majority of defendants with private attorneys got an average of 166 seconds in front of a judge,” reporter Kamil Ahsan wrote. “By contrast, the vast majority of people with public defenders got an average of a mere 22 seconds.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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It’s not taxes, but Republican myths about them, that hurt Louisiana

By Robert Mann

It’s one thing to say taxes are too high. That’s a subjective judgment dependent on what you believe the government should provide. It’s quite another thing to argue tax increases always destroy jobs or that tax cuts reliably create more of them.

If you make that assertion, you should have more evidence than faith. Unfortunately, those pitching tax cuts as an elixir for state economies are selling snake oil.

The perennial struggle over taxes is now playing out in Baton Rouge. In particular, legislators are debating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan (the centerpiece of which is dead) to reform Louisiana’s antiquated tax system and replace the $1.4 billion in temporary tax increases lawmakers passed last year.

Opponents — mostly Republicans — object to any tax increase, especially on business. Unfortunately, the governor’s ill-fated plan conflicted with two tenets of Republican orthodoxy: Tax increases are always bad, but business taxes are even worse because they kill jobs.

“If the business community is forced to pay additional taxes to maintain the current or even higher levels of government spending,” the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) asserts, “we will have fewer resources available in the private sector to continue to create jobs, invest new capital in our businesses, and make the other necessary investments for them to grow and expand the private sector.”

One problem with this tax phobia is that GOP ideology about raising revenue keeps crashing into reality. Maybe Louisiana Republicans and LABI suffer from short-term memory loss. It wasn’t long ago that lawmakers slashed personal income taxes by $800 million a year and showered businesses with billions in credits and exemptions.

Did I miss the unprecedented economic boom that blessed our state? Last I looked, we had the nation’s fourth-highest jobless rate — 5.7 percent.

So, is Louisiana’s high unemployment caused by excessive business taxation? Probably not. In fact, of the 12 states with the highest business taxes, all but Alaska (which, like us, suffers from low oil prices) have lower unemployment rates than Louisiana.

The jobless rates in some of these high-tax states are much lower than Louisiana’s. For example, Iowa has the highest corporate tax in the country — a top rate of 12 percent compared to Louisiana’s 8 percent — but its 3.1 percent unemployment rate is almost half Louisiana’s and the eighth-lowest in the nation.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Decency demands we take no chances with the death penalty

By Robert Mann

The chance a terrorist will hijack my next flight to Atlanta is infinitesimal, but I will submit to a virtual strip search when I board that plane. And I’ll do it every time to gain the assurance I’ve dodged one of the rarest transportation calamities.

Many of us take similar precautions every day to prevent other unlikely occurrences. We pay a premium for safety features on new cars. We gobble multivitamins and dietary supplements to ward off diseases we have little chance of contracting. We part with thousands for alarm systems and even more for car and home insurance.

Our predilection to limiting the risk of rare misfortune extends to almost every aspect of life. Except in our criminal justice system, which sometimes seems designed to eliminate the risk that a defendant might be acquitted.

 Which brings me to the death penalty and why we should abolish it, as state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, propose. I’m not sure what chance their bill has in the current legislative session, but it’s probably less than the likelihood that an innocent person sits today on Louisiana’s death row.

The chance that Louisiana — or any of the 30 other states with the death penalty — might put an innocent person on death row is four times greater than your chance of being killed in an auto accident. It’s almost 50 times greater than your chance of drowning.

How do we know this? In an impressive, comprehensive study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) in 2014, four researchers concluded 4.1 percent of those in death row prison cells in the United States are innocent. And, they added, “it is likely that we have an undercount.”

We also know this because, since 1973, 157 death-row inmates have been exonerated. The most recent was a Louisiana man, Rodricus Crawford, finally exonerated on April 17 when the state Supreme Court dismissed all charges against him.

The study’s authors said that because of intense scrutiny in capital cases, wrongful executions (versus wrongful sentencing) are rare but probable. “With an error rate at trial over 4%,” they caution, “it is all but certain that several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 [that number is now 1,448] were innocent.”

This suggests that about 116 of the approximately 2,900 peopleserving on death row in the United States could be innocent.

If you had a 4 percent (one in 25) probability of dying in a plane crash (it’s actually one in 9,821), you’d be a fool to fly anywhere. If you had a 4 percent probability of dying in a car wreck (it’s one in 645), you would never leave your house.

Too many judges and prosecutors, however, are satisfied with a 4 percent error rate in handing down death sentences.

Argue all you want about the immorality of the government killing people. Protest the death penalty because of the cost of trying and housing death-row inmates versus those sentenced to life without parole. Those and other arguments resonate with me and others but are secondary to the near certainty that we have condemned dozens of innocent people to death row.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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GOP platitudes about belt tightening are no substitute for a plan to end Louisiana’s revenue crisis

By Robert Mann

Republican leaders in the Louisiana House have much in common with their counterparts in Washington. Congressional Republicans yammered about Obamacare for years. When they got the power to repeal and replace it, however, we discovered they never considered the replace part.

Likewise, in Baton Rouge, Republicans have long grumbled about bloated government. But given the opportunity to counter Gov. John Bel Edwards’ revenue proposals with a robust austerity plan, they are even less serious than their D.C. cousins.

On Monday, urging lawmakers to consider his revenue plan, Edwards again challenged recalcitrant House Republicans to quit carping about cuts and cough up a detailed program.

“When you make those sorts of statements, you’re only telling half the story if you don’t follow them up with the next piece of the equation which spells out the consequences of what you mean — exactly what you intend to cut,” Edwards said. “What college or hospital you want to close. What road in your district you’d rather not see built or re-paved.”

What Edwards argued was simple: If you think state government needs cuts more than it needs revenue, then put those cuts on the table.

That peeved Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, who seemed to suggest House Republicans have a plan. Barras explained Republican members are supporting some of the 140 to 150 budget bills in the current fiscal session of the Legislature.

Suggesting that their backing of several non-specified bills is a cohesive budget-cutting agenda is evidence Barras believes his constituents are as dense as he is derelict.

Imagine saying you are building a house. Interested, I ask, “Can I see your plans?” You reply, “Well, I have several sets of plans.” Constructing a house is like reforming a revenue system. If you have several plans, you have no plan at all.

The reason Barras and his colleagues won’t get behind a plan of deep budget cuts is simple: They know that putting their ideology on paper — specifying which prisons, colleges, hospitals and DMV offices to shutter — won’t be popular. Better to throw stones at Edwards, label him a tax-and-spend liberal, vote down everything and use the resulting failure as fodder against him in three years.

Like his ideas or not, Edwards is the only person at the Capitol with a real plan. Barras and his crowd are empty-handed and seem willing to let the state’s fiscal misfortunes devolve into a disaster because of their pathological aversion to taxes.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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Medicaid and other antipoverty programs reward work, not indolence

By Robert Mann

It’s a common delusion among some wealthy people that their success is a product of their industry and ingenuity. They regard poverty, therefore, as a consequence of indolence and ignorance. As the British journalist Walter Bagehot once observed, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people; it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”

I can understand the indifference of so many wealthy folks, particularly Republican politicians, toward the poor. What I don’t comprehend, however, is their eagerness to vilify, ridicule and punish poverty.

That’s what Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback did recently when he opposed the expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program that supports health care for low-income families. Brownback explained he vetoed the bill “because it fails to serve the truly vulnerable before the able-bodied [and] lacks work requirements to help able-bodied Kansans escape poverty.” In 2013, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed a similar slur against the poor as he opposed Medicaid expansion.

To the average person, Brownback’s and Jindal’s reasoning might make sense. Doesn’t giving health care to poor people make them reluctant to find a job with health insurance? It might, if most of those who would benefit were unemployed, which they are not.

By framing his opposition around the notion that the poor are shiftless moochers whose lethargy is to blame for their financial woes, Brownback, Jindal and others who parrot this reasoning are slandering those who live in poverty.

A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that the vast majority of Medicaid recipients (almost 80 percent) belong to working households. Sixty percent have jobs. Of those not working, all but 3 percent are sick, disabled, students, family caregivers, retired or those who can’t find work.

Medicaid expansion rewards work. In most states, those most in need of Medicaid’s expanded coverage earn too much to qualify for the existing Medicaid program, but too little to claim insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

The Medicaid debate is but one front in a conservative war against the poor who, many Republicans want you to believe, are lazy bums who need tough love far more than your charity. If you buy into this caricature, you’ve been conned.

Here’s the dirty secret the servants of the rich don’t want you to learn: Many poor people work long hours in low-wage jobs. “Among the poor between 18 and 64 who are not disabled or in school in 2014,” the Center for Poverty Research at the University California, Davis, reports, “51.8 percent worked for part of the previous year.”

It’s not that poor people are lazy; it’s often that their enormous industry is so rarely rewarded with a living wage. The game is rigged against them in so many ways.

State and local governments tax them at rates two and three times that of the wealthy. They often pay more interest for car loans, higher premiums for auto insurance and inflated fees for checking accounts. In Louisiana and elsewhere, unpaid court fees can get them tossed into jail, whereupon they often lose their jobs. In Arkansas, it’s a criminal offense to miss a rent payment.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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