Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Southern University in shambles; Tax proposals every year?; Work mandates and; K-12 infrastructure needs work

Southern University in shambles

Every college and university in Louisiana has felt the brunt of budget cuts ordered by the Legislature in recent years. But as columnist Bob Mann learned on a tour of Southern University’s campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s most prominent historically black university has been particularly neglected.

That Southern’s infrastructure has apparently suffered more than other Louisiana universities – LSU’s threadbare campus appears sparkling by comparison – causes one to wonder how different the school’s condition might be if the majority of its students and faculty were not African-American…A report released in February by the Legislative Auditor noted that 21 buildings “had life safety code deficiencies cited by the Office of the State Fire Marshal.” Nineteen have been cited by the fire marshal 73 times…If you are a disabled student, good luck getting to one of the library’s upper floors. Because of the broken fire alarm, the school cannot operate its three elevators… Plumbing back-ups plague other buildings. Last year, for example, an inch of sewage flooded the first floor of Stewart Hall, the home of the College of Education, Arts and Humanities…Mold, roof leaks and broken or malfunctioning air-conditioning systems are constant problems in other structures… Ray Belton, Southern’s new President-chancellor, told me he hopes Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emphasis on the disrepair of college campuses means Southern will soon get funds to begin addressing its most critical maintenance needs. “We want faculty to be afforded an environment that aligns with their aim to impart knowledge,” Belton said, adding that students also need safe spaces to learn and live.


Tax proposals every year?
Lawmakers hands are tied when it comes to raising revenue this regular session because the Louisiana Constitution only allows tax measures to be introduced in odd-numbered years. That means a budget that funds $750 million less in services (higher education and healthcare will take the hit) will have to be passed by the close of the session June 6. Two bills are headed to the full Senate that would allow legislators to raise revenues every year. The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp explains.

“Sometimes, like this year, we’re going to have tremendous financial situations pop up,” said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored Senate Bill 25 — one of the two bills that are now heading to the full Senate for consideration. “Short-sighted special sessions to deal with our regular fiscal matters just doesn’t make sense.”…State lawmakers met in a 25-day special session in the run up to the regular session’s start, costing taxpayers at least $1 million, to consider budget measures…Now, state leaders are bracing for yet another special session when the regular session ends in June to address the remaining $750 million gap in the state’s finances for the budget that begins July 1…“If we would have had this bill last year, we wouldn’t have had a special session and saved the taxpayers some money,” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport. Without the revenue-generating measures, Edwards’ administration is currently putting together a budget that reflects the $750 million shortfall because the budget has to be balanced by the end of the regular session. That means action taken during a special session later this year could render the budget document drafted this session worthless before it takes effect.


Work mandates
The House Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation Wednesday that’s designed to take away federal food assistance from 31,000 working-age Louisiana adults without children. House Bill 594 by Rep. Jay Morris of Monroe would require legislative approval for the waiver of work requirements for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) recipients. Currently, such waiver applications only need the governor’s approval. The bill now heads to the house floor. Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press was there.


For 19 years, Louisiana has had a federal waiver of a requirement that childless adults ages 18 to 49 work 20 hours per week or be enrolled in a job training program to receive the food aid. Edwards got federal approval to keep that waiver in place. Republicans have criticized Edwards’ decision, saying the food assistance should only be a short-term safety net. “We’re a hard-working state, and I think we need to continue to incentivize work,” Morris said. “Not getting up and doing something is just bad for the brain and bad for society.” Edwards’ chief lawyer, Matthew Block, told the committee the governor wanted to ensure Louisiana has enough job training and placement services before mandating work requirements. “We’ve been working on an executive order that we will be rolling out in the next couple of weeks to address this very issue,” Block said. Morris said the governor’s order might make his proposal moot, “but until we see what’s in it, I wanted to move forward with the bill.”


Elizabeth Crisp of the Advocate has reactions to the bill.

Stand With Dignity, a grass-roots group that was involved in the lawsuit challenging the work requirement, had organized hunger strikes and circulated petitions to raise attention. On Wednesday, Colette Tippy, of Stand With Dignity, said she was not aware of Edwards’ executive order plans. The Louisiana Budget Project, an advocacy group that also opposed Jindal’s effort to instate the work requirement, opposes the bills that would require legislative action to seek federal work requirement waivers. Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said he couldn’t comment on Edwards’ executive order because it hasn’t been finalized. “We think it would be counterproductive to take away needed federal food assistance from people who can’t find jobs in our struggling state economy,” Moller said.


K-12 infrastructure needs work
A new report from the 21st Century School Fund reveals that the nation is $46 billion a year behind on building and repairing high quality K-12 schools. Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that many children are placed in environments unsuitable for learning, and the problem is greater in low-income school districts.

The wealthiest school districts spent almost three times as much per student on school facility improvements than the poorest districts between 1995 and 2004, according to a separate study of almost 150,000 school improvement projects.  As a result, a higher percentage of public schools in poor areas need repair than those in wealthier places, the National Center for Education Statistics has noted (see chart). Further, when states allow their school buildings to fall into disrepair and fail to keep up with the need for new school construction, they add to the damage from other state funding cuts to schools, as my colleague Jared Bernstein points out.  Most states provide less non-capital support per student for elementary and secondary schools — in some cases, much less — than before the Great Recession, as we detail in a recent paper.  Even worse, some states are still cutting. Reversing this decline is key to creating good jobs and promoting full economic recovery.  It’s time for states to recognize the short-sightedness of these trends and prioritize investment in all aspects of K-12 education.


Number of the Day
35 – The number of employees devoted to maintaining the 140 buildings at Southern University (Source: Times Picayune)