Most states are investing less money in public infrastructure projects today than they were in 2002, even as the economy has rebounded after the recession. That’s according to a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Elizabeth McNichol, released Tuesday (CBPP). Louisiana is one of the few exceptions – public infrastructure spending is up slightly since 2002 when measured as a percentage of the overall economy. But lawmakers can continue to build on this progress by prioritizing new and increased investments in roads, public buildings, water treatment systems and other public works projects order to build a strong economy now and in the future. It’s especially important for states to make these investments, as federal infrastructure spending has fallen by half over the last 35 years.
Most state are in a relatively strong position to afford these investments. The nation’s economy has slowly recovered from the Great Recession, finally lifting state revenues above pre-recession levels, better enabling states on average to afford infrastructure investments. The long recovery has improved state revenues significantly, but the pace of state tax growth is slowing. In many states revenues remain insufficient to adequately cover the costs of needs and services such as education and health care, and still make the necessary infrastructure investments. These states will need to consider tax increases to preserve public capital that is crucial to long-term economic growth while meeting other needs.
As every Louisiana driver knows, the state has a massive backlog of transportation needs that continue to languish because of the state’s failure to raise its gasoline tax. More than two dozen states have raised their gasoline tax since 2013, and another half-dozen are contemplating doing so this year. But Louisiana’s tax hasn’t budged since 1990, and has lost much of its purchasing power since then. With the Legislature short of the two-thirds majority needed to raise the tax, Sen. Barrow Peacock has proposed an alternative: gradually diverting revenue from the state’s sales tax to the Transportation Trust Fund. While this would raise money for transportation, it would do so by creating shortfalls in other programs, most likely health care and education. State Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson laments the lack of political will by the Legislature, despite a push from a 70-member organization called the Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads. The Advocate’s Will Sentell:
“These people are going to leave the Legislature in June and go start running for office,” he told reporters. Wilson made his comments during and after an appearance at the Press Club of Baton Rouge. The Legislature can only debate general tax hikes in alternative years, and 2019 is a fiscal session, which means it could legally happen this year. Wilson said it is no accident that fiscal sessions coincide with election years. “I think it was designed to make it hard to raise taxes right before an election,” he said. Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon, including 20 cents in state charges.
Supreme Court to consider non-unanimous jury conviction
In 2018, Louisiana voters struck down a policy rooted in reconstruction-era white supremacy when they voted to require unanimous juries for criminal convictions. But while that change resulted in a comparatively fairer judicial system going forward, it did nothing to address inequities in past convictions. Now, the U. S. Supreme Court will consider overturning a criminal conviction by a non-unanimous jury vote in Louisiana. The case involves Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 2016 on a 10-to-2 jury vote and sentenced to life in prison. The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes reports:
In rulings in 1972, the court said the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which recognizes the right to a “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury,” does not mean states must require a unanimous jury. At the same time, the court has required unanimity in federal trials. The question is similar to one the court faced earlier this term, when it ruled the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, not just the federal government. … [Ramos’s] attorneys said Louisiana’s law was a Jim Crow attempt to diminish the impact of African Americans serving on juries. … Louisiana opposed Ramos’s request. “Thousands of final convictions in these two states could be upset if such a new rule were later declared retroactive,” wrote the state’s attorney general, Jeff Landry (R).
When a state or local government decides to subsidize a large scale manufacturing project with tax breaks and other preferences, they do so with the knowledge that the factory being built will stay put for the foreseeable future. That’s not always the case with technology jobs, which are far more mobile than manufacturing jobs since the industry depends on finding talented workers rather than access to raw materials and transportation routes. Baton Rouge is learning this lesson the hard way with IBM, as The Advocate notes in an editorial:
The company is a welcome part of downtown Baton Rouge, although it has had some difficulty in meeting its original commitment of 800 jobs, made to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. Gov. John Bel Edwards obligingly renegotiated the deal, and the company faces a summer deadline to meet 800 jobs. The company fell well short of that 800-job goal when it came due in 2017, employing 572 at the deadline. … Is this the shape of things to come? Edwards and Jindal before him have noted that some of the taxpayer subsidies for tech companies have been paid to computer science programs at local colleges, helping to ensure a talent pipeline — whether for IBM in Baton Rouge, CGI in Lafayette, or DXC in downtown New Orleans, to name the most prominent and successful deals closed in the last decade. But the reality of a knowledge economy is that the shifts are far faster in an increasingly global marketplace, and government, interested in place-based development, is paying out tax money for permanence that the private sector may not be able to deliver.
Discrimination in medical cannabis
As movements to legalize medical and recreational uses of marijuana have become more active in the South, activists are increasingly concerned that people of color are being left out of the conversation around legalization. As a result, critics fear, they may also be left out of the economic opportunities that legalization would offer. Critics cite the lack of diversity in the industry, the lack of traction to lessen punishment for cannabis possession and the fact that laws in the only two Southern states that have legalized medical cannabis, Arkansas and Florida, don’t allow the drug to be prescribed for sickle cell disease, which disproportionately affects African Americans. Max Blau from Pew Trusts reports:
Black legalization advocates also fear that even if medical cannabis becomes legal, white politicians won’t regulate licensing and permitting in a way that ensures equitable opportunities for people of color. “Without that, it’ll be more of the same,” said Dr. Felecia Dawson, a board-certified physician who closed her Georgia-based OB-GYN practice to focus on advocating for medical cannabis. “Legislators will keep people of color … from the benefits of cannabis.” Nationally, research suggests that medical marijuana use is more common among whites with high incomes, perhaps in part because of the long history of racial disparity in drug enforcement. … “Cannabis is medicine — it should be available to all,” Jones Bonner said. “Because there’s going to be economic benefit to states, that benefit should be spread to all constituents of a state regardless of color. There will be bars and boundaries to exclude people of color.”
Number of the Day
20 million – Approximate number of people who have gained health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The 9-year-anniversary of the law is March 23. (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)