HITHER AND YON: The Punishment Of Neil Abramson

Last week, Rep. Neil Abramson was instrumental in killing an uncommonly bad tax-hike bill, HB 11 by Rob Shadoin, which would have clobbered Louisiana taxpayers by greatly reducing the amount of federal taxes we can deduct from our state tax burden. We covered those proceedings here at the Hayride Friday.

In casting the deciding vote that junked Shadoin’s bill, Abramson greatly enraged the Louisiana Democrat Party, of which he is a member, and Gov. John Bel Edwards – who lambasted Abramson for killing the bill just after he did so…

“When you vote against additional revenue, you are voting to cut TOPS, higher education, K-12 education, and life-saving health care services including our safety-net hospitals,” Edwards said in a written statement.

“That’s the choice some legislators are making, and that’s the choice they will have to defend to their constituents,” according to the governor.

And by the weekend, the backlash against Abramson had crystallized into something which has become eerily familiar on Saturdays and Sundays in Louisiana – a Tyler Bridges hit piece on people who displease the Democrats and their governor.

This one starring the New Orleans House member, who is widely rumored (to the extent that you can term it a poorly-kept secret) to soon be switching parties to Republican in order to prepare for a 2019 run for the state Senate seat now held by Conrad Appel.

Abramson’s actions angered Democrats and Republicans alike in both the House and the Senate, and left his colleagues openly bad-mouthing him. The level of hostility toward Abramson was remarkable, given the enormous power he wields at the Capitol as the chairman of the House committee that plays the dominant role in rewriting tax law and approving construction projects.

“Neil Abramson is the person I trust least in the Legislature,” said state Sen. JP Morrell, who is not only a fellow Democrat from New Orleans but is the Senate’s lead negotiator on the construction bill as chairman of the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

House Democrats are especially unhappy. Abramson was the only member of the party to break ranks in January when the Republican candidate was elected speaker over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ preferred Democratic candidate. Abramson further antagonized Democrats on Wednesday when he joined nine Republicans to cast the tie-breaking vote to defeat a tax measure before his committee that Edwards badly wanted. Three Republicans voted for the measure.

Afterward, few lawmakers were buying Abramson’s explanation that he voted to reject the bill because he feared changes made to it would raise taxes on low- and middle-income taxpayers.

State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, who sponsored the changes and was present throughout the hearing, noted afterward that Abramson could have easily asked her to explain the impact but did not do so.

“What I’ve learned is we have to watch everything he does because some of the things he says do not bear up under scrutiny,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, the legislator closest to the governor.

Sam Jones is John Bel Edwards’ floor leader in the House.

The piece goes on to note that Abramson usually skips votes on abortion bills, which is generally thought to reflect the reality that he tends to a pro-life position but his Uptown liberal district is decidedly pro-abortion. And then, there’s the fact that Abramson is the devil because the law firm at which he works, Liskow & Lewis, commits the sin of oil and gas law.

It follows, perhaps, that his voting record in the House shows that he mostly sides with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business.

“He is widely considered to be an extremely intelligent individual who is widely versed in the law,” said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

In 2015, when Abramson won re-election to a third and final term in the House, he received contributions from $1,000 to $2,000 from such petrochemical companies as Chevron, Hilcorp Energy, Phillips 66, Dow Chemical and Koch Industries.

In 2014, two environmental groups complained that Abramson’s work at the Liskow & Lewis law firm created a conflict of interest on a key bill. They said he needed to recuse himself from the bill, which aimed to derail a lawsuit seeking damages from 97 oil and gas companies for causing part of Louisiana’s coast to disappear. Anne Rolfes, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Jonathan Henderson, of the Gulf Restoration Network, said Liskow & Lewis represented one of the companies.

Abramson said he saw no need to follow their request because he was not involved in the case. He ended up not voting on the bill, he said, because of a funeral.

Asked about the episode recently, Rolfes noted that her group worked with Abramson’s constituents to get him this year to support another measure, House Bill 469, that would have required Vertex Refining to install air monitors around its plant in Marrero. Residents in his district have been blaming Vertex for odors in their neighborhood, across the river from the plant.

HB469 lost badly, 24-65. Abramson was one of 15 members who didn’t vote.

“When something is tough, he walks,” Rolfes said. “That is clearly his strategy.”

The piece is ridiculous in how transparently it trashes Abramson for having killed that tax bill. The Advocate doesn’t even try to hide its role as Edwards’ media muscle anymore. Bridges got 1,526 words in Sunday’s paper for that rhetorical assault.

Abramson might as well get it over with and switch parties now. It’s not like he’s going to get any worse press than he’s already getting.

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One element of the lie being told by Edwards’ friends and the Democrats about how Medicaid expansion will save the state money is the identification of who the people signing up for Medicaid will be.

The essence of the “save us money” claim is that the federal government pays 60 percent of what it costs to treat the indigent in emergency rooms but 90 percent of Medicaid, so if you expand Medicaid you’ll save essentially 30 percent of all the cost of that medical traffic.

Except the truly indigent are usually already eligible for Medicaid and simply never bothered to sign up. What Medicaid expansion does is pick up the working poor or the lower middle class, who make a little too much money to qualify for Medicaid but don’t have health insurance.

Or – and here is where the dreaded Reality kicks in – they had health insurance but between the costs of private health insurance skyrocketing thanks to Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion, their employer has decided to dump their health care plan.

And now, thanks to the Times-Picayune, we know that there are companies extant who actually facilitate this phenomenon…

Medicaid expansion in Louisiana has long been pitched as a way to save the state money, get uninsured people healthier and help stabilize Louisiana’s fragmented health care system.

But for the New York-based BeneStream, Medicaid expansion also has created a business model. The company’s CEO, Benjamin Geyerhahn, founded the company on the idea that because the working poor stood to benefit the most from Medicaid expansion, there were probably going to be companies out there that needed help ensuring their employees enrolled.

Geyerhahn was right: Since states began expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, BeneStream has enrolled thousands of Medicaid patients for companies that seek out their services because large numbers of their employees don’t earn enough to pay for private insurance. BeneStream, in essence, becomes something like a human resources department on contract for companies with workers who would otherwise be uninsured without Medicaid expansion.

And an example of how this works…

Bob Bartles, executive director of the nonprofit Hope Haven in Burlington, Iowa, said he decided to hire BeneStream because so many of his employees earn about $11.25 an hour. The nonprofit helps people with disabilities.

“Our experience with health insurance has been very painful,” Bartles said. “The cost kept going up but the quality of coverage kept going down. People were paying more for less services.”

Many of his employees were eligible for Medicaid expansion but didn’t know it. After hiring BeneStream, Bartles said, many of his employees began Medicaid enrollment and saved money because they weren’t buying the private insurance the nonprofit provided.

“We want everyone to have health insurance and we’re OK if it’s us, and we’re OK if it’s Medicaid,” Bartles said. “It’s a wonderful thing, and particularly where dollars are precious, it’s a real cool deal to get better health insurance.”

Put this together, and what you get is a seamless operation to move people out of private health insurance and onto the government dole.

Of course, Medicaid is quite literally the worst health insurance anyone can have, and since the reimbursement rates are so bad and the bureaucracy so onerous most worthwhile doctors won’t touch Medicaid patients – which means if you’re a Medicaid patient you probably end up at the emergency room anyway rather than a doc’s office, so while the federal government might be picking up 90 percent of the cost of Medicaid that cost gets inflated beyond all reason.

And when a whole industry springs up around facilitating moving people out of private insurance and into Medicaid, it’s hard to see how the state saves money. Louisiana was paying zero percent of the cost of the privately insured; now it’s paying 10 percent.

Remember that when Edwards brags about signing 375,000 people up to the Medicaid expansion.

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Today’s Last Thing? Why, here’s Today’s Last Thing.

It’s Billy Crystal giving a eulogy at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. Whatever you think of Ali, this might be the best eulogy anybody’s ever given.



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