The package of bills that make up the state budget is expected to start moving through the House this week after weeks of sometimes contentious hearings. As The AP’s Melinda Deslatte reports, the tenor of this year’s budget debate is markedly different from the recent past, for one simple reason: there is money available to spend, whereas in recent years the battle was over where to apply cuts.
Lawmakers are pushing tax breaks that could play well back home and fund pay hikes for municipal police officers and firefighters. They’re seeking spending boosts to councils on aging and sheriffs, and increased money for local health care providers. They want roadwork, bridge improvements, and economic development projects to show voters. In addition, legislators want to steer more dollars to education programs that help children anywhere from birth through college, after nearly a decade of flat or reduced state financing for early childhood, K-12 public school and higher education programs.
The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the bills this morning (Monday), with action by the full House expected on Thursday.
Election-year session politics
The last time Louisiana lawmakers met for a “fiscal” session – in 2017 – the talk was all about tax reform. Gov. John Bel Edwards, aided by recommendations from a high-profile task force, had laid out ambitious plans for reworking the state’s tax structure by getting rid of unorthodox tax deductions and lowering overall rates. The plans went nowhere. This year, some similar ideas are gaining some traction in the lower chamber. But as the inimitable Jim Beam reports in the Lake Charles American-Press, none of these ideas are expected to cross the finish line.
What a surprise it was then to see some of those earlier tax reform bills on the House Ways and Means Committee agenda last week. Reps. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, and Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, sponsored most of them as they had done in earlier sessions. Then came an even bigger surprise. There was some discussion about the legislation, but most of it whizzed through the committee and was sent to the full House for debate. It didn’t take long to find out why. “Those bills aren’t going anywhere,” one member of the committee said.
School funding in the spotlight
The biggest battles over the budget in the final month of the session are likely to occur over education spending. Gov. John Bel Edwards wants $140 million in new money for K-12 education – $101 million to cover pay raises for teachers and support workers, and an additional $39 million for school districts to cover the rising cost of pensions, health insurance and other priorities. Republicans in the Legislature are pushing back against the money for school districts, and would rather see the cash go to other priorities. As The Advocate’s Will Sentell reports, this is not just a partisan split, but a debate between the House and Senate.
The Senate Education Committee, in a signal to the House, voted 6-1 on Thursday for a resolution – SCR 3 – that includes both the $39 million increase and $101 million to pay for the teacher pay raises and $500 boosts for support workers. … The House Education Committee voted last month to return the same funding plan endorsed by the Senate committee to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and for BESE to strip out the $39 million. … The Edwards administration says savings in the state Department of Health, and $15 million in state agency cuts, will pave the way for the $39 million increase.
As LBP’s Neva Butkus pointed out in a 2018 report, without adequate increases to the school funding formula, poorer districts will continue to fall further behind their wealthier peers.
Adequate state funding for education, particularly in Level 1 of the formula, is vital to reducing funding disparities between low-income and wealthier school districts. Research has shown that state funding reforms are crucial to closing achievement gaps between students in low-income and median-income districts. Short-term or one-time funding increases have little impact on student test scores, because they do not allow school districts to make significant changes and long-term investments. Stable, adequate state funding is crucial to closing learning gaps because it allows schools and districts to make significant and lasting reforms as opposed to one-time purchases.
Rich parish, poor parish
Debates over local control over things like taxes and wages have been one of the underlying themes of this legislative session. Corporate lobbyists are pushing legislation to strip away local control over industrial property taxes, while progressives are trying to overturn a state law that prohibits cities and parishes from establishing wage and labor standards on their own, without going through the Legislature. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard zooms out and notes that Louisiana’s economy can look very different depending on where someone lives in the Pelican State:
While Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is running for re-election this fall, trumpets the state’s economic strides, his GOP opponents focus on the state’s comparatively high unemployment. They’re both right, but they both rely on figures influenced by the declining fortunes of small-town Louisiana: Republicans skew north, Edwards looks south. Statewide Louisiana’s unemployment rate in March was 4.7%. Alabama and Arkansas were at 3.7% unemployment. Texas was at 3.8%. But consider that East Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Jefferson/St. Charles parishes had a 3.4% unemployment rate, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Houston, which has more residents than all of Louisiana, was at 3.8%. And the Texas counties near the Sabine River had unemployment rates between 5.5% and 7% as compared to Louisiana parishes of Calcasieu, 3.1%, and Cameron, 2.9%, just across the state line. What throws off Louisiana’s performance are northeast and central Louisiana, where West Carroll Parish hovers at 10.2%, East Carroll just a little less. Madison, Tensas and Franklin parishes each are nearly double the state’s average.