Voting hour changes, tax rebates among new laws

About two dozen new laws go into effect with the dawning of 2013, including those that reduce voting hours and beef up fraud-fighting in a program that provides food benefits to the poor.

Yet others provide tax rebates for those who donate to certain private and parochial school tuition organizations, and aim at keeping sex offenders out of public libraries.

Backers say the tax rebate of up to 95 percent of what donors give would provide another option for low- and middle-income students to escape failing public schools.

The law changes were among the 876 approved by the Legislature. Most went into effect soon after the session ended. Others had later implementation dates included in them for a variety of reasons.

Louisiana voters will notice several changes in the New Year.

Polls won’t open until 7 a.m., instead of the traditional 6 a.m. for future Saturday elections. The polls will still close at 8 p.m.

The Legislature voted to shave an hour off voting times after Secretary of State Tom Schedler sought relief for precinct workers and provided statistics showing that few people showed up during the first hour of voting.

The first election with the new 7 a.m. start time is a special March 2 election to fill a Louisiana House vacancy created with the resignation of state Rep. Clif Richardson, R-Central, according to state Elections Commissioner Angie Rogers.

Voters should also find it easier to understand what they are voting on when local governments pursue bond and tax propositions as well as issues such as one approved last fall on the issue of whether there should be term limits for school boards.

Rogers said the new law requires propositions to be written in the form of a question in “simple, unbiased, concise and easily understood language.” The text can be no longer than 200 words.

Currently, the propositions are summarized and can be no longer than 400 words.

Another change is designed to “more accurately reflect” the political affiliation of candidates and voters, said Rogers.

“Everybody on the ballot will have a description now,” she said.

Those who are members of a recognized political party — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Reform and Green — will have that affiliation on voting machines, voter registration cards and other identifications like today. Voters who have registered as members of other non-recognized parties will have an “other” designation. Everyone else will have a “no party” moniker.

“Previously, only recognized parties and no party had a designation on the ballot,” Rogers said.

Meanwhile, major fraud-fighting changes are occurring in Louisiana’s “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” called SNAP. The program previously was known as Food Stamps.

SNAP benefits that averaged $297.94 went to 431,345 households in November. The federal benefits cost $128.5 million in November alone.

“We think we are probably the first in the nation having a mandated reporting law,” said Trey Williams, communications director for the Department of Children and Family Services.

The law requires state agency employees, SNAP retailers and their employees as well as adult household members of benefit recipients to report potential abuse or face a fine of not less than $250 or more than $5,000.

“It could be someone decided to sell their benefits or possibly not including everyone on their card,” said Williams.

The new law also increases penalties for unauthorized use of SNAP or access devices to not less than a $5,000 fine nor more than $1 million or imprisonment of six months to ten years, or both.

“This is in those situations where larger amounts have been stolen,” said Williams.

Williams pointed to a recent case in Lake Charles where an individual had created a business and was paying benefits 50 cents to the $1. “He had defrauded the government over $1 million,” Williams said.