Louisiana has one of the most generous college scholarship programs in the country – TOPS – which covers in-state tuition for anyone who finishes high school with a 2.5 grade point average and a 20 or above on their ACT. But as The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports, it’s a different story for students in the state’s community and technical colleges. The vast majority don’t qualify for TOPS, and pay higher tuition than students in neighboring Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas. Four states are already offering free community college tuition as an investment in their future workforce, but Louisiana doesn’t appear ready to join their ranks.
In the fall of 2016, a total 61,059 students enrolled in the 15 community colleges run by LCTCS. Nearly every one of those students used their own money or loans or various grants to pay for their education. “Look,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo in a recent interview, “if you funded every student who is currently in the two-year programs, it would cost $191 million, basically, to make it tuition free. So it’s a very interesting question. If it’s the graduates of the two-year programs that are basically fueling our economy, then is the $300 million being spent on TOPS the best use of our money?” Rallo posited.
Legislators are far more interested in the future of TOPS than in making community college affordable. The Advocate’s Will Sentell reports on a 10-member task force that will be looking at the program starting next month.
Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, another newly-named member of the task force, said the panel needs to find ways to get TOPS money to needy students, including those from families who have never had a college student. “I want to make sure we give them every opportunity to go to college and be successful and not worry about paying for college,” Carter said. Earlier this year, Carter sponsored legislation — House Bill 390 — that would have revamped the way TOPS money is allocated during funding shortages.
Pre-tax vs. post-tax benefits
Much of the energy from progressives in recent years has focused on raising the minimum wage (“fight for 15”) and pro-family policies such as paid leave and overtime policies. While these are no doubt important, The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell writes that such “pre-tax” policies financed by employers often don’t help workers as much as “post-tax” benefits paid for by government.
“Pre-tax” policies — such as the minimum wage, overtime and fringe-benefit requirements — help increase workers’ paychecks, with employers (and sometimes workers themselves) generally footing the bill. “Post-tax” policies, by contrast, involve redistribution of income and wealth through the tax code and social safety net. Think: the earned-income tax credit (EITC), food stamps, housing vouchers, health insurance subsidies. They are about boosting living standards on the back-end, with the taxpayers paying. Relative to other rich countries, the United States relies very little on these post-tax tools. If you look at America’s income inequality before taxes and transfers, it’s not great — but it’s still about on par with France, Germany and Finland. If you look at income distribution after taking into account tax and transfer payments, we suddenly become the second-most-unequal developed economy in the world, behind Mexico. In other words, high inequality in the United States says more about our taxing and spending choices than our paychecks.
Budget gap is $1.5 billion
The state’s Office of Planning and Budget has made it official: The budget gap for the 2018-19 fiscal year is $1.5 billion. That is the difference between the revenue Louisiana expects to collect next year and the cost of maintaining state government services at current levels after accounting for inflation. The major reason for the gap is the $1.1 billion in temporary taxes that are set to expire on July 1. But the AP’s Melinda Deslatte reports that some Republicans don’t agree with including the inflation factor as part of the budget gap.
Those expense increases are largely driven by $227 million in new anticipated Medicaid costs, such as a $141 million back-owed debt to health providers from former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration that Edwards and lawmakers have continued to delay. Other increased costs are expected for a new pay scale structure and raises approved for thousands of rank-and-file state employees, prisoner housing and growing enrollment at K-12 public schools. Nearly $100 million of the shortfall estimate is tied to expected cost hikes for state agencies’ health care, insurance and retirement expenses and other general inflation increases.
Sue Lincoln of WRKF-AM has more on the Legislature’s chronic myopia in dealing with the state’s budget problems.
As Monroe Representative Marcus Hunter observed near the end of this year’s legislative session, many of his peers in the House spend their time in Baton Rouge, “Sitting here with their head in the sand, thinking about today and just trying to get through this budget and get home.” Republican Representative Blake Miguez of New Iberia admits he has noticed the myopia, as well. “We always discuss what can we do to solve the budget shortfall today, so we can constitutionally balance our budget today,” Miguez says.
Perception and reality at DOTD
The standard argument from opponents of raising Louisiana’s gasoline tax – which has lost nearly half its purchasing power since it was last increased in 1990 – is that too much of it is used to pay for administration instead of “turning dirt” on highway projects. The AP’s Melinda Deslatte deconstructs that misleading argument in her weekly column:
Those citing the 11 percent figure are using only the state gas tax dollars, which doesn’t account for the full financing in the transportation department. It leaves out the $816 million in federal money and the $323 million from state bond sales. Also, they seem to be including most, if not all, salaries as administrative costs. Wilson said that assumes every person who works in his department is a bureaucrat at a desk, rather than an employee working on road and bridge projects. Of the 4,200 employees in the agency, Wilson said more than 3,400 of them are doing operations, safety and maintenance work: filling potholes, mowing grass, hanging road signs, repairing guardrails and striping roadways. He said that’s road and bridge work, just as much as new construction — not an administrative cost. “That’s not pushing paper. That’s actually making the roads safe, keeping a road open, picking up debris after a flood. That is a direct service,” Wilson said.
Number of the Day
$1.5 billion – State budget shortfall estimate for 2018-19 fiscal year (Source: Office of Planning and Budget via AP)