by Will Racke
Louisiana’s ongoing budget battle received national attention last week, when the office of Gov. John Bel Edwards sent letters to thousands of elderly and disabled Medicaid recipients, warning spending cuts proposed by Republican lawmakers could result in the cancellation of critical health programs — including funding for nursing homes and long-term care.
News of the letters, mailed Thursday to 37,000 people, was picked up by several national media outlets, including CBS News, Huffington Post and CNN, which ran a story under: “Tens of thousands of Louisiana residents could face eviction from nursing and group homes.”
The Edwards administration sent the ominous notices in response to a balanced budget Republicans in Louisiana’s House advanced in April, which slashed state Medicaid funding. Republicans reacted furiously, saying Edwards was interfering with the budget process and using the sick and elderly as political pawns.
The decision to send the letters as lawmakers were working through the budget process was an “unprecedented, irresponsible political move,” Republican state Rep. Lance Harris said.
“It’s an unnecessary political scare tactic done to intimidate and frighten the most vulnerable into believing they will be kicked out on the street if the Governor doesn’t get everything he wants,” Harris wrote Thursday in an op-ed for The Hayride, a Louisiana-based conservative political commentary site.
The dust-up comes as Louisiana faces an acute budget shortfall, which has forced state lawmakers to choose between deep spending cuts or tax hikes in a state having the nation’s highest combined state and local sales tax burden. The state will plunge off a “fiscal cliff” of about $650 million on July 1, when temporary revenue measures expire.
Edwards’ office defended the letters, saying they were needed to give the state’s Medicaid recipients advance warning about potential funding cuts and program closures. The mailing was “scary but not a tactic,” said Jay Dardenne, commissioner of administration and chief budget officer for the governor, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Louisiana Republicans accused Edwards of acting with a less-than-noble intentions, however. The main reason the letters were sent out so early in the budget process was to whip up political support for tax hikes that could be used to fund Edwards’ $3 billion Medicaid expansion, Republicans said.
“The governor is choosing to use the political scare tactic of evicting nursing home patients rather than working with Republicans to make the state work more efficiently,” Rep. Ralph Abraham, who represents Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, wrote on Facebook. “His goal is to scare people into pressuring legislators into raising your taxes so that he can fund his unaffordable pet project: Medicaid expansion. It’s shameful.”
Edwards’ warning was “political theater at the highest level,” a Republican source close to the negotiations told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Amid the hysteria over the idea of elderly residents being kicked out of nursing homes, the Louisiana Senate’s finance committee proposed a budget that fully funded the state department of health at $12 billion — an increase over 2017 funding levels. A balanced budget, the proposal included across-the-board cuts of roughly 25 percent to most other state government departments, The Advocate reported.
In a blow to Edwards and Democrats, who had demanded consideration of additional revenue, the Republican-controlled Senate passed the finance committee’s proposal in a 27-10 party line vote on Tuesday. The bill would normally move to a conference committee where both chambers would iron out their different versions, but the proposal will be tabled while lawmakers discuss additional revenue measures in a special legislative session beginning May 22.
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Will Racke is a reporter at Daily Caller news Foundation. Follow Will on Twitter.