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Louisiana Illuminator

Abortion-ban states pour millions into pregnancy centers with little medical care

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Abortion-ban states pour millions into pregnancy centers with little medical care

by Anna Claire Vollers, Louisiana Illuminator
August 24, 2023

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Louisiana Republican state Sen. Beth Mizell looked for a way to address her state's abysmal record on infant and maternal mortality, preterm births and low birth weight. Louisiana has one of the nation's strictest abortion bans, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

Mizell and her colleagues borrowed an idea from neighboring Mississippi: a state tax credit program that sends millions each year to nonprofit pregnancy resource centers, also called crisis pregnancy centers. They're private anti-abortion organizations, often religiously affiliated, that typically offer free pregnancy tests, parenting classes and baby supplies. They are not usually staffed by doctors or nurses, though some offer limited ultrasounds or testing for sexually transmitted infections.

“I see [pregnancy resource centers] as a touchpoint for pregnant women who may not know where to go for services or where to begin,” Mizell said. Louisiana has roughly 30-40 pregnancy resource centers scattered across the state. “If we don't use everything with an open mind to give women the services they need, we're only hurting women in our state.”

Legislators in states with some of the strictest abortion bans are pouring millions into pregnancy resource centers, painting them as solutions to poor birth outcomes and the lack of access to adequate prenatal and postpartum care. But while Republican lawmakers have increasingly positioned pregnancy resource centers as a backstop for maternal health care, critics say those taxpayer dollars should be used to shore up more comprehensive medical and social services.

Mizell's bill, which was signed into law in June and went into effect Aug. 1, allows both individuals and corporations to claim an income tax break for donations made to pregnancy resource centers, which the law calls “maternal wellness centers.” The tax credits are capped at $5 million per year. Mississippi passed a similar tax credit law last year and expanded its cap this year to $10 million annually.

In 2017, Missouri became the first state to issue tax credits for donations to pregnancy resource centers and it recently removed its limit on how many tax credits the state can issue. Alabama, Kansas and Nebraska considered their own tax credits in this year's legislative sessions.

The tax breaks are much larger than those awarded for donations to most other types of charities.

Some critics of Louisiana's new law question its cost, when so many residents struggle to get prenatal care.

“We have many areas around the state where there are no obstetricians, no birthing centers and it's very difficult for people to get access to prenatal care,” said Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, a reproductive rights advocacy organization.

“I think these centers are trying to rebrand as being maternal care centers. But they're not providing any actual medical services. They're not licensed. They're not regulated. Is that a good value for $5 million a year of Louisiana's tax dollars?”

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‘What could be bad?'

Matt Mitchell, the CEO of Oasis Medical Center in Corinth, Mississippi, calls his center “the best first stop for pregnancy concerns.”

Located in the rural northeast corner of the state, Oasis is a pregnancy resource center that does not offer comprehensive medical care, but does provide pregnancy tests, non-diagnostic ultrasounds, testing for sexually transmitted infections, adoption referrals, parenting classes and community resource referrals, all for free.

Mitchell doesn't think his center's role has changed since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he told Stateline in a written statement, “but I think more people are aware of the important role we play.”

The Southeast is home to about 900 pregnancy resource centers, more than a third of the national total, according to the Crisis Pregnancy Center Map created by University of Georgia researchers Andrea Swartzendruber and Danielle Lambert.

“From a public health perspective, I think awareness about what crisis pregnancy centers are, their mission and goals, is really low,” said Lambert. Her work with Swartzendruber has focused on the public health impact of pregnancy resource centers, which they found tend to be more common in states with abortion bans.

“When we talk to policymakers and advocacy groups,” Lambert said, “the narrative is, ‘What could be bad about helping women who are in need and pregnant?' They have images on their websites of people in white coats.”

Swartzendruber has noticed a “significant increase” recently in the number of pregnancy resource centers that offer limited, non-diagnostic ultrasounds or have changed their names in ways that suggest they provide health care. “But we've found on the whole, the services they're offering aren't in line with national medical standards,” she said.

Louisiana's new tax credit law requires “maternal wellness centers” to provide certain resources to their clients, including a list of the closest OB-GYNs, as well as information on applying for Medicaid and federal food assistance programs. And, as with the Mississippi and Missouri laws, the centers can't be associated with abortion providers or refer clients for abortions.

“If I had put a requirement on the bill that they had to have a licensed medical provider there, I wouldn't have had buy-in from the pregnancy resource centers because that's too much of a financial burden on them and that's not the role of the center,” Mizell said.

Critics of pregnancy resource centers say they often use a bait-and-switch approach, targeting vulnerable women by offering “abortion consultations” or “pre-abortion screenings” that spread false claims about the dangers of abortion. Swartzendruber and Lambert said they've documented instances of centers providing misinformation about reproductive health, including about contraceptives.

From a public health perspective, I think awareness about what crisis pregnancy centers are, their mission and goals, is really low.

– Danielle Lambert, University of Georgia researcher

Some centers, such as Oasis in Mississippi, offer “abortion reversal” treatment. It's a controversial practice that uses doses of the hormone progesterone to stop a medication abortion after a patient has completed the first part of the two-step abortion process. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says the treatment is not supported by science and does not meet clinical standards.

A small 2019 study designed to test the effectiveness of abortion reversal was halted after three of the 12 participants required a trip via ambulance to the hospital to be treated for severe bleeding.

But Mizell said she hasn't seen evidence of danger or misinformation from the centers.

“I just think it's a paper tiger of an argument,” she said. “We have 40-something of these centers all over the state, including in the rural areas. They're not intimidating, and they have all of these buckets of information available and can point the pregnant person in the right direction.”

More bang for your buck

The tax credit programs are structured to make donations to pregnancy resource centers far more lucrative for donors than contributions to other types of charities, said Lillian Hunter, a research assistant at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center who has studied how states have amended their tax policies in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling that struck down constitutional protections for abortion.

This is because a tax credit allows filers to reduce their taxes owed, as opposed to reducing their taxable income.

If you're a Louisiana resident and you donate $500 to a pregnancy resource center and apply for a state tax credit, you'll reduce the total amount of state taxes you owe by $250, because the tax credit for that donation is 50% of the donated amount. If you donated that same $500 to any other charitable organization, you'd save yourself just $21.25. This is because your donation would reduce your taxable income by $500, and Louisiana's top state tax rate is 4.25%.

“It really privileges this type of donation over donations to every other charity,” Hunter said. And while a handful of states have tax credits for other types of charitable donations, “they're not typical.”

 

For example, Missouri offers a 50% tax credit for donations of $100 or more to diaper banks. Its tax credit for donations to pregnancy resource centers is 70%, which means a donation of $100 to a diaper bank would result in a $50 reduction in state taxes, but the same donation to a pregnancy resource center means a $70 reduction.

After Missouri lawmakers removed the limit on how many tax credits the state could issue for donations to pregnancy resource centers, Missouri authorized more than $7 million in tax credits for the centers in the first quarter of 2022, according to an analysis by ProPublica. That jump was more than three times higher than in any other quarter.

In Mississippi, Mitchell said donations to his center increased after the state passed its tax credit law last year, and he hopes more businesses and individual taxpayers will take advantage of the expanded tax credit this year.

Transparency and oversight

It's hard to say what the impact of the tax credits will be on birth outcomes. States with strict abortion bans and high numbers of pregnancy resource centers, mostly in the Southeast and Midwest, already tend to be states with some of the worst birth outcomes.

“My biggest concern is that states enact these tax credits and don't invest in programs that we know work, like expanding earned income or child tax credits,” said Hunter, the research assistant at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. They might spend less on maternal health or food assistance programs, she said, “because they already have something they can point to that they're doing to help families.”

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The principal author of Mississippi's tax credit expansion this year was Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, a vocal opponent of abortion rights. Last year, he twice blocked bipartisan efforts to expand Medicaid coverage in Mississippi for mothers up to 12 months postpartum.

Aside from the new tax credit programs, at least 18 states directly fund pregnancy resource centers through state grants and by funneling federal welfare dollars to them — and many have bumped up their funding, according to Equity Forward, a research and watchdog group focused on reproductive rights.

Some notable increases in state spending on pregnancy resource centers from 2022 to 2023 include Florida's increase from $4.5 million to $25 million and Tennessee's from $3 million to $20 million, according to Ashley Underwood, director of Equity Forward.

The cascade of funding is thanks, in part, to organized national pregnancy center groups that “shop tactics across state lines,” she said. She pointed out that Louisiana's law even requires pregnancy resource centers to be affiliated with a national pregnancy center organization before they can go on the state-approved donation list.

The Louisiana law also requires pregnancy resource centers to self-report that they meet the criteria to be eligible for tax-credit donations, including that they offer information about local obstetricians and how to apply for government assistance programs. But the law does not give the state department of health regulatory authority over the centers.

“I just think that if our tax dollars are being put towards this, whether it's a direct program or a tax credit program, there needs to be more requirements that they show they're actually doing something to improve maternal health outcomes,” Lift Louisiana's Erenberg said.

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This article was first published by Stateline, part of the States Newsroom nonprofit news network with the . It's supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and X.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Louisiana Illuminator

Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2024-02-22 05:00:54

Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
February 22, 2024

Companies that receive major breaks on their local property taxes to invest in large industrial projects in Louisiana will no longer have to set hiring goals to get the incentive, plus they won't need approval from local taxing authorities if the governor is in favor of their proposal.   

Gov. Jeff Landry signed an executive order Wednesday that upends the standards and approval process that's been place for the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) since 2016. The signing took place during the governor's appearance at a Louisiana Association of Business and Industry luncheon, according to the Baton Rouge Business Report

“This program is about capital investment. It is not about job creation,” Landry said.

Since 1998, Louisiana has awarded more than $20 billion in local tax breaks to industry through its Industrial Tax Exemption Program, according to an Ohio River Valley Institute analysis. 

Flow from the ITEP spigot slowed significantly in 2016 then-Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order that required local approval of industrial tax exemptions. He also reduced the tax break available from 100% of property taxes to 80% and inserted a job-creation requirement for companies. Landry's order keeps the tax reduction at the same level.

The executive order he signed Wednesday also condenses the process for companies to receive local approval on their tax exemptions. Previously, each local body that collects property taxes had to approve tax breaks independently with a separate public hearing. For example, a parish school board could approve the tax exemption, but a parish council or sheriff could reject it. The business would then receive a partial tax break.  

Landry's new arrangement calls for a single parish industrial board, which would include representatives from the taxing agencies, to consider ITEP applications. Its vote would apply to all local agencies that receive property taxes, meaning companies would get approval a total tax break or none.

The executive order also upends the sequence of approval to award industrial tax exemptions, placing ultimate power in the governor's hands. Local approval has been necessary for an ITEP request to advance for consideration to the state Board of Commerce and Industry, a 24-member panel of appointees from business groups and the governor. 

Now, under Landry's order, companies will first submit their applications to the Board of Commerce and Industry. If their request is approved, the state panel will then notify a parish industrial board that it must hold a public hearing on the application within 45 days.

However, the order says little about what weight the local recommendation has in the ITEP approval process or how it factors into the governor's decision.

“Input from the Local ITEP Committee is important for consideration of an industrial tax exemption; however, it should not unduly delay the ITEP application process,” the order reads.

In an email, the Illuminator asked Landry spokesperson Kate Kelly about the governor's ability to override a local ITEP vote.

“The governor is the final say,” Kelly said.

Together Louisiana, a coalition of church and civic groups, has been highly critical of the state's generous ITEP giveaways. In a statement Wednesday, the group questioned whether Landry's order turned the incentive program into “a gift.”

“If a corporation gets a tax exemption, not to bring in a new plant or create jobs, but just as a public subsidy for its routine capital investments — investments, that is, that would have happened anyway — the result is not economic development. It's the opposite,” the Together Louisiana statement said. 

“In that scenario, local communities don't get new economic activity, but they still lose the millions in tax revenue from their schools, roads and police,” the statement continued. “They lose jobs — the teachers, construction workers, sheriff's deputies and others who would have provided the services that went unfunded. And their property taxes start going up, to fill the holes in the tax base left by each new round of gratuitous giveaway.”

Without any job requirements, companies can now apply for tax exemptions for most any large-scale investment in Louisiana. Landry's order does specify that maintenance expenses, environmental compliance upgrades and replacement parts that are not part of an extensive restoration do not qualify for ITEP awards.

The order goes into effect for all ITEP applications moving forward, effective Feb. 21, but does not apply retroactively to applications or exemptions.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Louisiana Illuminator

Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

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lailluminator.com – Piper Hutchinson – 2024-02-21 16:51:56

Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

by Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

Three Louisiana criminal justice reform advocates have asked a state court to prevent the Legislature from discussing several proposals until more public testimony is heard on the bills. 

Their petition was filed Wednesday in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge by Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Experienced, Ronald Marshall, chief policy analyst with Voice of the Experienced, and Erica Navalance, a staff attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative. Read the full petition below. 

They contend House Administration of Criminal Justice Chair Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, has irregularly limited public input over two days of hearings during a special session on crime policy. The agenda for the session features a string of bills, with Gov. Jeff Landry's support, that call for harsher consequences for criminals.   

The committee enacted a rule to limit each public commenter to three minutes and cut off public debate after proponents and opponents of a bill each testified for one hour. The three-minute rule is a common practice at the Capitol, but overall time limits are seldom used. 

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Committee members said they supported these rules to get through testimony more quickly. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the committee had a full schedule of bills that attracted a large number of public comments. The special session doesn't have to end until March 5, but leaders have suspended the rules several times in order to expedite hearings on bills rather than letting them lay over for a day between hearings. 

House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Matthew Willard of New Orleans and other Democrats have criticized Republicans for fast-tracking legislation that would almost totally reshape Louisiana's criminal justice system, giving the public limited opportunity for input. 

The court petition seeks to prevent the full House of Representatives from discussing the bill until the House Criminal Justice Committee holds another hearing to allow more public comment. The complainants say they traveled to Baton Rouge to testify, but the committee's time limits prevented them from speaking. 

House Speaker Phillip Devillier, R-Eunice, defended the committee, arguing two hours of discussion per bill is reasonable, and that the Legislature is allowed to suspend the rules to advance bills. 

The complainants want to pause debate on four bills: 

House Bill 4, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carenco, which limits post-conviction relief opportunities. House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, which expands the methods by which Louisiana executes people and shields records related to executions from public viewHouse Bill 9, by Villio, which eliminates parole in almost all circumstances House Bill 10, by Villio, which limits good time credits and credit for time served

 

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

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lailluminator.com – Jennifer Shutt – 2024-02-21 16:26:30

Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

by Jennifer Shutt, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

President Joe Biden expanded his push to eliminate student loan debt Wednesday, saying during a speech the initiative is part of a campaign promise to address the “broken” system.

“While a college degree is still a ticket to a better life, that ticket is too expensive,” Biden said. “And too many Americans are still saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for a college degree.”

Biden, who made his remarks while on a trip to California that also included fundraising for his 2024 campaign, argued that canceling student loan debt not only helps those who receive the benefit directly, but those in their communities.

“When people's student debt is relieved, they buy homes, they start businesses, they contribute, they engage in the community in ways they weren't able to before and it actually grows the economy,” Biden said.

The latest round of student debt forgiveness includes nearly 153,000 borrowers and a total of $1.2 billion in debt, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

Those receiving loan forgiveness are enrolled in the Saving on a Valuable Education or SAVE repayment plan, have been paying back their loans for at least 10 years and originally took out less than $12,000 in loans.

This week's actions bring total student loan cancellation by the Biden administration to $138 billion for nearly 3.9 million people, according to the fact sheet.

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Repayments tied to income, family size

The so-called SAVE Plan allows borrowers to set their student loan repayments based on their income and family size, not the amount of student loan debt they hold.

“The SAVE plan ensures that if borrowers are making their monthly payments, their balances cannot grow because of unpaid interest,” according to the White House's fact sheet. “And, starting in July, undergraduate loan payments will be cut in half, capping a borrower's loan payment at 5% of their discretionary income.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a call with reporters Tuesday there are about 7.5 million people enrolled in the SAVE Plan and that 4.3 million don't have a monthly payment.

“Many SAVE forgiveness recipients come from lower- and middle-income backgrounds,” Cardona said. “Many took out loans to attend community colleges. Some were at high risk for delinquency and default. That's why the actions we're announcing today do matter.”

Cardona said those eligible for this round of student debt cancellation would receive an email from Biden telling them about the move.

New FAFSA rollout criticized

Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said in a written statement the latest round of student loan forgiveness is misguided.

“The Biden Department of Education has been unable to fulfill their basic responsibilities mandated by Congress and essential to families, like implementing FAFSA,” Cassidy said, referring to the application college students fill out to access student aid, including grants, scholarships and loans.

The Biden administration's efforts to revamp the form have been marred by delays and errors. 

“Instead, they have spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing their student loan schemes to shift someone else's debt onto taxpayers that chose not to go to college or already paid off their loans,” Cassidy added. “This is unfair, manipulative and a cynical attempt to buy votes.”

Cassidy is the ranking member on the U.S. Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, often referred to as the HELP Committee.

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Supreme Court decision

Biden, speaking at the Julian Dixon Library in Culver City, California, criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for blocking his original student loan forgiveness plan. 

“Early in my term, I announced a major plan to provide millions of working families with debt relief for their college student debt,” Biden said. “But my MAGA Republican friends in the Congress, elected officials and special interests stepped in and sued us. And the Supreme Court blocked it. But that didn't stop me.”

Biden said the justices' opinion in that case led him to “pursue alternative paths” for student debt relief, which includes the announcement he made Wednesday.

Canceling some student loan debt, Biden said, is about giving people a chance.

“That's all we're doing … giving people a chance, a fighting chance to make it, because no one who is willing to work hard in America should be denied the opportunity to have that chance.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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