Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Board of Regents wants tuition authority; Affordable Care Act enrollment up 80 percent; Good roads cost money, bad roads cost more; and Wal-Mart will raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour


Board of Regents wants tuition authority

As Louisiana’s higher education leaders craft plans to deal with budget cuts that are likely to cripple some campuses next year, one old idea may gain new traction. As The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp reports, the Board of Regents wants the authority to set tuition rates without interference from the Legislature. Louisiana is currently the only state where tuition hikes require a two-thirds vote by the Legislature (although the 2009 GRAD Act gave colleges limited authority to raise tuition if they meet performance benchmarks).


The state regulates tuition costs under a constitutional amendment Louisiana voters passed in 1995, requiring a legislative super-majority for hikes on fees state agencies charge. The proposed constitutional change to exempt tuition from that requirement first would need approval from two-thirds of the state Legislature and would then go on a ballot for Louisiana voters to ultimately decide.


One problem critics see with making that change is that the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is tied directly to tuition prices. TOPS, which costs the state about $200 million each year, covers in-state tuition for Louisiana high school graduates who meet certain academic requirements. Two years ago the Board of Regents considered filing a lawsuit to challenge whether tuition is covered under the 1995 law. Higher education leaders ultimately dropped that push and opted instead to forgo the courts.


Even with up to $400 million in cuts bearing down on colleges and universities, the idea has faced strong opposition in the past and is unlikely to pass in an election year. The Regents will unveil their full list of legislative priorities on Monday.


Affordable Care Act enrollment up 80 percent
The “open enrollment” period for families to buy health insurance using tax credits made available as part of the Affordable Care Act ended last Sunday and now the preliminary results are in. Enrollment in Louisiana hit 184,532–an increase of more than 80 percent over last year. But as’s Bruce Alpert reports, even as many are gaining insurance for the first time, a lawsuit pushed by far-right groups is trying to take away the tax credits that make coverage affordable for working families.


[The] most serious challenge is in the courts, with the Supreme Court scheduled to hear a case March 4 on whether the act allows federal subsidies for insurance purchased through the federal exchange. The law mentions subsidies for state-run marketplaces, but Louisiana and 36 other states declined to set up their own exchanges, requiring its residents to use the federal marketplace. The Obama administration says the clear intent of Congress was to allow the income based subsidies for anyone signing up for Affordable Care Act insurance. If the court rules against the administration, the Urban Institute said large numbers of currently enrolled Americans would no longer be able to afford coverage.


In Louisiana, nearly 9 in 10 people buying insurance through the Marketplace received a tax credit that reduced their monthly premiums by an average of 75 percent, which brought the average premiums down to $107 a month


Good roads cost money, bad roads cost more
Louisiana has some of the worst roads in the country, and the ninth-highest rate of “structurally deficient” bridges.  As Kenneth Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, writes in a letter to the Lafayette Advertiser, the Transportation Trust Fund that voters approved in 1989 is no longer up to the job because of too little revenue and too many raids by the Legislature:


Until recently, that fund was a stable — albeit inadequate — source to finance construction and maintenance projects for roads, bridges and ports. However, the per-gallon tax was not protected from the effects of inflation, and the original 16-cents-per-gallon tax has lost half of its buying power. The cost of construction has continued to increase, and thus we have a multibillion dollar backlog of transportation needs in the state…This fiscal year, more than $200 million TTF dollars have been used to help balance the state budget. This action decreases funding for desperately needed highway construction projects to relieve congestion, improve safety and help make Louisiana economically competitive with Texas and other states.


Perret says the solution is to look at new sources of revenue to shore up both the state general fund and the TTF. While no one likes to pay more in income or gas taxes, it is well worth it considering the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates poor roads is costing drivers $408 a year in additional repairs and other costs–a substantial “hidden tax.”


Wal-Mart will raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour
After years of protest by workers and others that its labor practices kept families on the brink of poverty, retail giant Wal-Mart – America’s largest private employer – announced this morning that it would raise its starting wage to $10 an hour by next February  and adjust its pay scale accordingly, while also giving workers more control over their scheduling. As Bryce Covert with ThinkProgress reports, an estimated 500,000 workers will get a raise under the new policy, which will put $1 billion into workers’ pockets. As CEO Doug McMillion put it, “We’re strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences.”


Number of the Day

$10The new starting hourly wage at Wal-Mart, America’s largest employer (Source: ThinkProgress)