Monday, February 22, 2016

Monday, February 22, 2016

What do Republicans want?; Students "freaking out" about TOPS; Fixing public defense; and The minimum wage and the South

What do Republicans want?
That key question frames the lengthy Sunday story by The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges summarizing the first week of the special session called by Gov. John Bel Edwards to address Louisiana’s historic budget crisis. GOP leaders in the House have made it clear they don’t want to raise taxes – and haven’t identified specific spending cuts they’re willing to live with. So with barely two weeks left before lawmakers must adjourn, it remains unclear what type of deal might be crafted to get the 70 votes needed to raise revenues.


“They haven’t identified one contract they want to reduce, one statutory dedication that they want to eliminate,” Edwards said. “They haven’t proposed one specific cut. I can’t tell you I oppose anything that they’re proposing to me because they have not proposed anything to me yet.” Nor have Republicans laid out the structural changes they want, which involve pensions for state employees, state spending on highways and bridges, ways to reduce fraud in the Medicaid program and drug sentencing laws.


Why no plan? It turns out that restructuring the budget and making cuts is a lot more difficult than they thought:


House Republicans were supposed to provide those specifics on Friday, “but pulling together all the ideas is harder than I thought,” state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said Saturday. Harris, who heads the Republican House delegation, said he and colleagues were working over the weekend to get their plan to the governor on Monday. “Nobody has stopped working,” he said.


Students “freaking out” about TOPS
The news that Louisiana’s merit-based college tuition program will face drastic cuts if legislators refuse to raise tax revenues has come as a shock to many New Orleans-area students and families who were counting on the TOPS program to pay for their higher education. As Danielle Dreillinger of Times-Picayune reports, the popular program will likely remain intact for elite students. But it’s the middle-of-the-road students – especially from low-income families – who will have trouble affording their education under the worst-case scenarios being considered in Baton Rouge.


But most seniors aren’t stars. And almost all the students Woods and McGrath work with come from struggling families. There’s the federal Pell Grant for low-income students, which need not be repaid. But it’s less than $6,000 per year. Most (KIPP) Renaissance grads’ parents can contribute “next to nothing,” McGrath said — just small, unexpected expenses such as a housing deposit. If there’s even a $1,000 or $2,000 gap in students’ financial packages, the families must borrow money. That’s not always possible, Woods said, because loans require good credit.


Fixing public defense
Public defender offices across Louisiana are struggling to stay afloat – and some offices have already announced plans to close unless new dollars are found. As The Advocate’s editorial board rightly notes, it’s not the kind of topic that usually gets the public stirred up. But it’s nevertheless critically important for a functioning judicial system.


We worry that the public safety interest is suffering. If a defendant doesn’t have a lawyer, disposition of cases takes longer. Louisiana’s taxpayers pay more for housing people in jails. If, as the public defenders argue, the system breaks down, the lawsuit alleging an unconstitutional criminal justice process in New Orleans will only be the first of many across the state. This is not simply an issue of constitutional rights but of the process by which the legal system determines guilt or innocence and serves its larger purpose of protecting both public safety and individual freedoms. Leaders at the state and local level have to figure out a way to make the system solvent.


The minimum wage and the South
A showdown is brewing in Birmingham, Ala., over who has the right to establish a minimum wage – the city or the state Legislature. As The New York Times reports, the city of Birmingham wants to establish a $10.10 hourly minimum wage. But the state Legislature is trying to follow Louisiana’s lead by prohibiting municipalities from setting their own wage.


The Alabama Senate is expected as soon as this week to consider a proposal, which the House approved overwhelmingly last week, that supporters believe would effectively end Birmingham’s ambitions for its own minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. Birmingham officials have reacted angrily and plan to consider a proposal on Tuesday that would put the city’s wage mandate into effect the next day, before Republicans could complete work on the bill making its way through the Legislature. It is unclear what, exactly, will come after this week’s machinations, although partisan hostilities and legal arguments seem certain. At the least, the outcome is poised to reshape economic policy in this state and lead to refined strategies in the national debate about income inequality.


Number of the Day

$1.7 billion – Amount in corporate income and franchise taxes that the state couldn’t collect in Fiscal Year 2014 due to tax exemptions (Source: Louisiana Legislative Auditor).