Recapping the 2019 Legislature

Recapping the 2019 Legislature

Public school teachers scored some key victories. Business lobbyists took some tough losses. The budget and tax debates were mostly quiet, allowing unexpected issues such as child marriage and cauliflower rice to dominate headlines. Those are some of the key takeaways from the two-month legislative session that wrapped up on Thursday. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard notes that last year’s revenue compromise made this year’s budget debate much easier than in years past:

People with developmental disabilities will see their programs funded higher than previously. Early childhood education could get $20 million in new money. Councils on aging and motor vehicle offices throughout the state will get a boost, along with a host of other areas. House Republican leaders also successfully cut out about $700 million in “excess budget authority,” or money that agencies don’t expect to come in from the federal government and other sources. That was an effort to pare down the total budget figure to about $30 billion.

Gambit’s Clancy DuBos tallies up his annual “winnas” – including Gov. John Bel Edwards, public school teachers and New Orleans tourism leaders – but notes that the “loozas” include poor people who won’t get a much-needed pay raise:

Once again, the House killed several bills that would require equal pay for women. The House also killed a proposed sales tax exemption on diapers and feminine hygiene products. Lawmakers likewise quashed an attempt to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Many (though certainly not all) women also oppose abortion restrictions.

The inimitable Jim Beam of the Lake Charles American-Press thanks the Senate committees that killed off attempts to roll back last year’s tax compromise:

Republican conservatives tried to bring an earlier end to a 7-year, 0.45 percent state sales tax increase that was approved last year. They said the existence of a budget surplus means citizens are overtaxed, which is a stretch of their wildest imaginations. Louisiana is one of the 10 lowest taxed states in the country. A Senate committee spared us of what would have been a monumental mistake when they derailed those bills.

The Advocate’s editorial board points out that lawmakers could have – and should have – done better:

While we believe (Gov. John Bel Edwards has) been more in the right over budget matters, he cannot be happy with a sales-tax increase that falls heaviest on working families. For them, at the checkout counter, it is a dear-bought stability at the State Capitol. Nor have legislators much to show for the crying needs for long-term tax reform, nor for the slow-motion crisis in retirement debt, nor for consistent funding for early childhood education. The latter, however, got more funding as the session went on, a gain from Edwards’ earlier proposals.

The Advocate’s Will Sentell writes that the session’s biggest surprise was a bill by Rep. Tanner Magee of Houma, which allocates nearly $700 million in BP settlement dollars to transportation projects across the state.

The work will be financed by revamping how the state spends $690 million in settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill. It replaces a 2014 law that directed the annual payment by BP of about $53 million to go 45% percent to the Medicaid Trust Fund, 45% to Louisiana’s rainy day fund and 10 percent to the Health Trust Fund. Redirecting the dollars sparked little discussion in the House or Senate.

The downside, of course, is that future legislators won’t have that financing stream available to fill up the rainy-day fund, which will be needed when the current economic expansion fizzles out and red ink returns to the state budget.


Bills will come due
It’s not uncommon for state legislators – especially in an election year – to pass legislation sought by various interest groups but to defer spending to fund that legislation until future years. Such was the case this session, as lawmakers locked in new money for district attorneys, judges and sheriffs and created a new Medicaid benefit for children with disabilities whose families make too much money to qualify under current rules. The AP’s Melinda Deslatte:

Despite improved revenue collections, the Legislature didn’t have enough money to cover all the items on its wish list. Rather than say no to officials and constituencies back home, lawmakers who ended their regular session Thursday backloaded some spending plans to hit after the new term begins in 2020. “This is the first year we had a surplus in our budget, and it’s an election year. The combination of those factors, everybody realized it’s a great strategy to ask for more funding,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.

This mode of legislating satisfies politically important constituencies – and sometimes authorizes programs and outlays that do some real good – but truly investing in Louisiana will require a meaningful commitment to raising revenue for the programs and services that benefit all Louisianans.


Charter school backlash
Charter schools have long been touted by their supporters as an antidote to “failing” public schools. But after decades of unbridled expansion – including a complete takeover of the New Orleans public school system – charters are facing a backlash from communities across the nation, as Jack Schneider, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, explains in The Washington Post:

But much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather than results. … Today, however, the grand promises of the charter movement remain unfulfilled, and so the costs of charters are being evaluated in a new light. For the first time in two decades, even as the number of charter-bound children rises (the schools will educate between 20 and 40 percent of American students by 2035, according to one projection), the opposition is gathering momentum.


The economic benefits of food assistance
President Donald Trump is proposing to cut $220 billion next year from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, on top of $845 billion in Medicare cuts and $25 billion from Social Security (note: these cuts won’t be approved). Conservatives argue that spending on safety-net programs hurts the economy by discouraging people from working. But as Alexia Fernandez Campbell reports for Vox, the administration’s own research proves the opposite.

Economists at the US Department of Agriculture found that government spending on food stamps has been pretty effective in stimulating the economy since the start of the Great Recession. And more specifically, it has been most effective in helping rural America, the kinds of places where voters overwhelmingly supported Trump in the 2016 election. Researchers found that every $22,000 in tax dollars spent on food stamps between 2001 to 2014 created about one job. Grocery subsidies, which families usually spend right away, immediately pumped money into rural supermarkets and small businesses (and their employees) at a time when jobs were scarce.  One job for every $22,000 tax dollars may not seem like a lot, but it is when you consider that the federal government spends about $70 billion a year on food subsidies for low-income families.


Number of the Day
44.9 million – Number of Americans who were kept out of poverty by government safety-net programs in 2017 (Source: