Poverty and opportunity in the Deep South
If you read one thing today, click on The Washington Post’s searing look at the town of Tunica Miss., where the gambling industry was supposed to be the ticket out of poverty in a region that’s long been one of the most destitute in the country. But 25 years after the casinos came, stark racial divisions remain and the social safety net remains deeply frayed as much of the new tax revenue was squandered on property tax cuts for the county’s wealthiest residents.
It is a downbeat reality for a region that for much of the second half of the 20th century was actually closing its gap with the rest of the country, helped by the federal war on poverty and the end of legalized segregation. But during the past 15 years — and particularly since the Great Recession — the catch-up has stalled. By some measures, it has reversed. … But the troubles in the Deep South go well beyond race to include frayed state finances, which have eroded the safety net for the poor, as well as public school underfunding, which leaves those who can afford it scrambling to private schools. And it extends to a growing technological divide that has left significant rural areas without access to the digital world; a rise in single-parenthood, which is a major indicator for generation-to-generation poverty; and the decline of rural job opportunities in states that have long relied on agriculture rather than on urban hubs.
Anti-tax ad draws fire
The conservative moneymen who fund the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity (AFP) are unhappy about the Legislature’s decision to include new revenues as part of this year’s budget deal, and have started airing radio ads around Louisiana criticizing lawmakers who voted for the package. That drew a sharp rebuke from The Advocate’s editorial board, which notes that the revenue measures wouldn’t have been necessary if legislators hadn’t driven the budget into a ditch with irresponsible tax cuts and corporate subsidies.
It seems cruel to criticize lawmakers who lacked the spine to oppose Jindal for years for now growing backbones enough to seek to balance the budget for real, instead of through gimmicks and short-term fixes, as AFP so rightly puts it. We’d have liked to have seen more budget cuts in some areas in 2015, but many of the expenditures of state government are, like the tax credits and exemptions, precious to politically influential groups and their lobbyists. Few lawmakers are brave enough, and the Governor’s Office certainly wasn’t brave enough, to cut back on political benefits such as state aid for the pay of local police or eliminating state funding of local construction projects or cutting back on the state-maintained roads that in other states are the responsibility of local government.
College teaching is increasingly part-time
Cost-cutting in higher education has led colleges around the country – and particularly in Louisiana – to turn increasingly to part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses. An investigation by the Alexandria Town-Talk finds that colleges save money by resorting to adjunct faculty because part-timers don’t collect benefits such as health care and retirement.
Higher education institutions in Central Louisiana come near the 50-percent mark with part-time faculty — 57 percent at Louisiana State University of Alexandria and about 40 percent at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. Louisiana College, a private Baptist school in Pineville, declined to provide data for this story. From Lafayette to Monroe, students find a similar situation, which likely is done to cut costs. Salaries and benefits often are the largest cost for any company, and as state funding has dropped, universities have turned to not filling open positions and even eliminating vacant faculty lines. Higher education funding in Louisiana has been cut 42 percent since 2008, according to a national analysis released in May by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Joshua Stockley, president of the Faculty Senate at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said the increase in adjuncts at universities is a Louisiana trend.
Ballard: No relief for roads
If there’s one thing state legislators could agree on this year – at least in theory – it’s that Louisiana needs to stop diverting money from its Transportation Trust Fund to pay for non-transportation needs such as the salaries of state troopers. Such practices are a major reason Louisiana’s roads are in such deplorable shape, and politicians in both parties agree that “trust” needs to be put back in the trust fund. But as The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports, a package of bills designed to address the problem won’t provide much help in the foreseeable future.
The package didn’t actually raise any new revenue. Lawmakers just shuffled existing money around and made those dollars easier to access for transportation projects — one of these days. “The money won’t be flowing in. It’ll be more like a trickle,” said Ken Perret, head of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, a statewide group of engineers, contractors and businessmen. Seven bills and two constitutional amendments later, it all boils down to the Transportation Trust Fund — the key pool of dollars for bridges and highways — receiving about $20 million this year. The state needs $12 billion to address projects that would, say, free up the daily gridlock on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Number of the Day
2.5 – Percentage of tax revenue from gambling in Tunica, Miss. that was used for social programs that benefit the poor (Source: Washington Post)