Oct. 28, 2014 05:58 PM

If you care about the wellbeing of Louisiana's college students, vote against Amendments 1 and 2.

[Editor's Note: The Times-Picayune has a story out this week about a new report showing that between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, Louisiana cut its annual higher education budget by more than $459 million, a decrease of 28 percent. Only South Carolina (30.39 percent) and Arizona (32.25 percent) cut total state funding for public colleges and universities more than Louisiana, according to the report. Read that story here. And read Robert Mann's latest column below to understand why it's important to vote against Amendments 1 and 2 on Nov. 4.]

At first glance, two ill-conceived constitutional amendments on the November ballot might not appear to harm Louisiana college students. Their passage, however, would be further proof that the wellbeing of Louisiana's young people remains among our lowest priorities.

UL's Lafayette's main administrative building, Martin Hall

It's a complicated issue, explained well in a voter's guide published by the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, but the basic situation is this: the state imposes a fee on nursing homes, intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled and community pharmacies. That money goes into the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund and is used as a state match to draw down federal dollars, much of which goes to compensate the nursing homes and other facilities who provide services to the poor and others who qualify for Medicaid.

Good so far.

Amendment 1, however, would give the trust fund, in PAR's words, "the more protected status of a constitutionally established fund, which could be altered only by another constitutional amendment. It could not be raided for other spending purposes in the annual budget process or during mid-year budget cuts."

Worse, the amendment would lock in current reimbursements paid by the state to providers. Payments could go up, but would never drop below a "floor" established by the amendment.

In other words, this is a sweetheart deal carved out by legislators for the very powerful and politically connected nursing homes.

It gets worse.

Amendment 2 would create a similar arrangement for the state's hospitals, allowing a new fee that would go into a Hospital Stabilization Fund and then be used to draw down federal money. Similar to Amendment 1, this amendment would create a floor for reimbursement rates.

"The amendment would eliminate the government's ability to make targeted cuts to hospital providers," PAR notes. The amendment, as PAR further observes, would permit a decrease in hospital rates "only to address a state budget deficit and only if two-thirds of the Legislature agrees during a session or two-thirds of the joint budget committee agrees out of session. Even then, the rate reduction could not be more than the average reduction experienced by other types of providers in the Medicaid program."

In other words, a very inflexible state budget, already overloaded with constitutionally protected funds, would become even less flexible.

Nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities will be guaranteed their funding, even if fees are insufficient to match the payments they receive. If hard budget times hit us again and they will, eventually the nursing homes and hospitals will be paid first.

The only way to mitigate the mess created by these amendments would be a two-thirds vote of a Legislature already controlled by the nursing homes and hospitals. In the case of Amendment 1, it could only be changed by a vote of the people.

In the meantime, you know what will be cut during the hard times? Other health care providers, like doctors and home-care providers, colleges, state police and other critical services. That's because they don't have special budget protections, like that which these amendments would give to hospitals and nursing homes.

No one is suggesting that nursing homes and hospitals don't deserve adequate funding. It's just that programs for our youngest citizens are almost always the ones that get shortchanged.

It's not only Louisiana that favors older Americans over our youth. The U.S. government has been funding programs that help older Americans, at the expense of the young, for generations. In 2011, federal spending for programs benefiting those over age 65 amounted to $1.2 trillion. Programs for those 19 and under received $444.7 billion.

Actually, it's no wonder elderly Americans get what they want from the federal government and the states. They actually vote.

Want to understand why Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators believed they could get away with slashing funding for colleges, which sent tuition skyrocketing? Wonder why Congress regards Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct (as they should be), but won't do anything about student loan debt?

Just look at voter turnout statistics. Older people vote and young people, generally, do not.

During the last midterm elections, in 2010, when only 26 percent of Louisiana voters under 30 went to the polls. Compare that with the 70 percent of those between the ages of 60 and 69 who voted in the same election. In the 2012 presidential election in Louisiana, voters under 30 made up just 22 percent of the electorate, while those over age 45 accounted for 51 percent of those who voted.

Not voting has dire consequences for those groups who stay home on Election Day.

Of course, the fact that nursing home owners run the Legislature has more to do with money and campaign contributions than the age of the electorate. But legislators and governors are also fully aware of the relative passivity and disinterest of younger voters.

They know they can get away with cutting programs that help young people.

Not much will change until those of us who care about funding for schools and colleges demand that our priorities be placed on par with those of politically connected nursing home owners.

As you head to the polls next Tuesday, ask yourself: Why is it a no-brainer to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that guarantees a minimum state expenditure for nursing homes but no one would think of the same for our schools?

The answer should tell you everything you need to know about our state's misplaced priorities.

A journalist and political historian, Robert Mann holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU. He writes a weekly political column for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

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