LABI gives positions at issues conference

By: JEAN L. KAESS

MORGAN CITY -- Louisiana Association of Business and Industry leaders updated St. Mary Chamber of Commerce members on a variety of topics from the group’s education stance and retirement to workers’ compensation.

In the education realm, LABI Vice President of Governmental Relations Jim Patterson said some improvements have been made, citing a dropout rate decrease and teacher pay increase as well as a nationally recognized accountability system, but, he said, more changes are necessary to create the quality workforce business needs.

Patterson noted that 71 percent of the state’s public schools earned grades of C, D or F and that students meeting the fourth grade reading proficiency state standards are at 71 percent, but only about 18 percent meet national standards.

Overall, the state stands 47th in national education rankings, Patterson said.

To better that standing, LABI envisions reform, including increasing pay for highly effective teachers; making tenure a reward for the best teachers, not an automatic reward; and only after three years of “not effective” ratings and multiple opportunities for intensive assistance would a non-performing teacher lose certification.

Also, LABI believes the state should expand opportunity scholarships statewide to qualified students attending failing schools and reward performance by proven charter school operators through streamlined expansion.

Empowerment of school leaders should come through centering resource decisions like hiring, firing and tenure hearings with the superintendent, not the school board. Further, LABI believes the “last in, first out” layoff criteria should be replaced with performance criteria, Patterson said.

In the early childhood education arena, the organization is lobbying for better leveraging of the $1 billion plus spent annually as well as creation of an accountability system and alignment of any conflicting standards that might contradict that movement.

In the area of retirement, Louisiana State Employees Retirement System pension debt has risen from $5.6 billion in 2001 to $18.5 billion in 2011. To understand this amount, Patterson said that to retire this debt completely, every man, woman and child in Louisiana would have to pay $4,090.

Possible solutions include consolidation of retirement systems or a hybrid pension plan affecting new hires.

Either way, Patterson said, “when you want to get out of the hole, you have to stop digging it,” indicating that the changes for new hires is a good place to start that process.

Concerning workers’ compensation in the state, costs grew 11 percent between 2007 and 2009, while medical costs associated with the program grew 26 percent. Both are the highest among the 16 states studied by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute.

Core elements of the reform LABI backs include allowing medical provider networks similar to health insurance, clarify that the law is not designed to favor either the claimant or the employer and allow the payer the right to cure when he finds a clerical error in payments to workers’ compensation instead of instituting large fines as is the case now.

Among the technical elements of reform LABI backs are allowing vocational counselors to do their jobs, removing the requirement for employers to discontinue benefits in order to dispute a claim, make fraud disqualification begin at the point of the fraudulent act and create a Workers’ Compensation Review Board.

The right to trial by jury in civil cases also is a topic being tackled by LABI.

The threshold to demand a jury trial in Louisiana is $50,000. In 36 states across the country, the amount is $0. Among the 13 others, the next closest to Louisiana is a threshold that falls between $10,000 and $15,000. Further, Louisiana is one of two states — along with Colorado — that does not grant a constitutional right to trial by jury, Patterson said.

Finally, Patterson said an $895 million budget shortfall is projected for fiscal year 2013. Those losses are in Medicaid, $538 million; Minimum Foundation Program, $104 million; Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, $70 million; and pre-kindergarten funding, $41 million.

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