Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Edwards agenda; A House divided?; GOP candidates hold poverty forum; and Higher education in the spotlight


The Edwards agenda

John Bel Edwards was sworn in as Louisiana’s 56th governor shortly after noon, and wasted no time  laying out a governing agenda aimed at improving the lives of Louisiana’s less fortunate. As the Advocate editorial board notes, the speech mirrored the themes he laid out as a candidate:


If anyone wondered whether John Bel Edwards meant what he said on the campaign trail, he decided to make it clear by repeating it in his inaugural address — explicit promises to push for a higher minimum wage and expanded public insurance coverage for the working poor. And if amid the pomp and ceremony of the inauguration, the new governor’s statements were not surprising, they included a plea for support across party lines in the Legislature…


Although very politely acknowledging outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal, Edwards focused on the unstable budget that he inherits. It is a structural budget deficit, he said, that hobbles Louisiana’s efforts to deal with problems across the realm of state government. “If we don’t fix our chronic state deficits, we can’t fix our other problems,” Edwards said. “Those are the facts.” As a candidate, Edwards decried cuts to higher education under Jindal. As governor, he said he would reverse that course, but as with so many other of his priorities, the crux of the matter will be money. “Our top priority must be stabilizing the budget,” Edwards said. We agree with him, although we also agree that there are other issues inevitably facing the incoming administration.


He promised by Tuesday an executive order that will begin the process of expanding Medicaid health insurance coverage for the working poor, as authorized under the federal Affordable Care Act but until now blocked by Jindal and the Republican-led Legislature. That is a positive move with good budgetary implications in the short term, as the “Obamacare” law provides for generous cost-sharing for new Medicaid patients. Louisiana is a poor state and health care is expensive; the health of our workers is fundamental to the success of our economy.


You can read the full speech here. A press conference to announce movement on Medicaid expansion is scheduled for 1:30 pm at the Capitol.


A House divided?

Although Monday was supposed to be all about the new governor, many eyes at the Capitol were focused on unusually public battle to become House Speaker.  It was the first contested race for speaker since the mid-1980s, reports Julie O’Donaghue with The Times-Picayune/Nola.com, and it didn’t go well for the new governor:


The Louisiana House of Representatives broke ranks with Edwards and picked a Republican, New Iberia Rep. Taylor Barras, as their speaker with 56 of the 105 House members votes. Edwards had been backing another candidate, New Orleans Democrat Walt Leger.”Ultimately, they executed the vote in an almost entirely partisan way. But everyone has indicated to me they want to move forward in a bipartisan way,” Leger said.


Louisiana governors almost always have a heavy hand in selecting the state House speaker. It is very unusual for a governor to not get his pick for speaker, and the move sets a tone for what might be an unusually partisan term. Though Edwards is a Democrat, the majority of members in the Louisiana House are Republicans. “We made history here in Louisiana because we have elected an independent speaker,” said Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, head of the Republican caucus. “We are going to try to have an independent Legislature.” Barras is from Acadiana and has served in the Louisiana House since 2007. Like a few other state lawmakers, he switched from the Democratic party to the Republican party a years ago.


GOP candidates hold poverty forum
Six major Republican candidates for president met over the weekend at a forum hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan to discuss poverty. While the spotlight put on one of the critical issues facing the country is welcome, many of the supposed solutions put forth by the candidates left much to be desired, according to Robert Greenstein with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To the contrary, many of the ideas floated are likely to increase hardship and stifle opportunity:


Unfortunately, the candidates also said much that was disappointing.  They sometimes misrepresented basic facts and research about poverty and anti-poverty programs.  Some advanced proposals that would likely increase poverty and hardship rather than reduce them.  While various candidates and Speaker Ryan talked about “results” and “impacts,” and Ryan has elsewhere called for “evidence-based policymaking,” some speakers advocated ending programs that have been shown to be successful — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) — and offered proposals that conflict with the evidence. In addition, while many GOP candidates have called for deep tax cuts that would sharply shrink federal revenues, and many have also called for balancing the budget, no candidate or other speaker explained today how they could pursue these goals without severely cutting basic assistance for the poor.

Candidates at the forum misrepresented the safety-net’s impact on poverty and work, says Greenstein. But contrary to myth, safety-net programs have been very successful at reducing poverty, while having little to no negative impact on employment. Given the evidence, proposals to dismantle anti-poverty programs is clearly not the right path.


Higher education in the spotlight

One of the new governor’s top priorities is restoring stability to Louisiana’s public colleges and universities. But that could also mean  making some changes to the TOPS scholarship program, which ballooned in cost during the Jindal years as rising tuition replaced state general-fund support. As Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate reports, the ideas being floated to restructure the program are ones that have been debated before.


Some lawmakers have pushed for changes in the TOPS educational requirements, but those proposals have all failed to gain significant traction at the Capitol. A 2014 effort that sought to raise the ACT score or grade-point average failed after it faced backlash from vocal TOPS supporters. But last year, legislators instead pushed through a bill that attempted to unlink TOPS from tuition as a way of reining in its costs. As colleges and universities adopted yearly tuition hikes, the average per-student cost of TOPS has swelled from about $2,800 in 2008 to $5,500 in 2015. Under that proposal, which Jindal blocked, the state Legislature would have to approve any future increases in the value of TOPS scholarships — effectively stopping the automatic increases that have been tied to the tuition hikes.


Number of the Day


$5,500 – Average per-student cost of a TOPS scholarship in 2015 – up 96 percent since 2008 (Source: The Advocate)