A salute to pragmatism

A salute to pragmatism

Former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, mostly absent from public life since leaving office in 2004, has entered hospice care at his home in Franklin. Nola.com | The Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace looks back at an earlier era, when a spirit of pragmatism prevailed in Baton Rouge and new investments in education were a priority for both parties: 

He infuriated anti-tax purists in his party by successfully campaigning for the Stelly Plan, a progressive swap that eliminated state sales taxes on essential goods and slightly raised income taxes. The idea was to shift the burden at least somewhat away from poorer residents toward those who could afford to pay a bit more, to stop relying on temporary taxes that were renewed so regularly they were basically permanent, and to build some predictability into the system. The budgetary chaos we’ve seen since Foster’s harder core ideological heirs eliminated the income tax part of the equation sure suggests he was on to something. And rather than starving government, Foster championed spending where it could make a difference, particularly in education. On his watch teachers got pay raises, pre-kindergarten education expanded, the immensely popular TOPS scholarships were expanded, and state colleges and universities were generously funded.


The teacher pay gap is widening
Public school teachers in Louisiana continue to be paid less than their peers in other Southern states, and the gap is getting a lot wider. Nola.com | The Advocate’s Will Sentell reports that the average Louisiana teacher was paid $50,923 in the 2018-19 school year – which is more than $4,000 below the Southern regional average. The gap between Louisiana and the rest of the South grew 74% from the previous year, despite efforts by Gov. John Bel Edwards to prioritize teacher pay raises. 

(T)he $1,000 raises that won legislative approval in 2019 were on the low end compared to what other states were doing. “It equals to basically a cost-of-living raise that would happen in other professions,” said Megan A. Boren, who studies teacher salaries and other issues for the (Southern Regional Education Board). Pay in South Carolina last year rose by up to 10.6%, $3,000 in Georgia and $2,000 in Florida, according to the survey.


Financial aid increases college completion rates
Adequate financial aid for low-income students attending a four-year college has a significant impact on that student’s completion of their degree. In a groundbreaking study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers evaluated the impact of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (STBF) in Nebraska, which awards scholarships to 4,000 first-time college students attending Nebraska’s state universities every year. The study found that the students who received the scholarship had an 8.4 percentage point increase in six-year degree completion over their peers:

The size of these effects varies with applicants’ background and demographics: generally, the applicants who benefit the most are from groups that have been historically underrepresented in post-secondary education. These groups include Nonwhite and first generation applicants, as well as applicants with low ACT scores and high school GPAs. … Importantly, this increase is concentrated among groups that are less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree without financial aid, such as Pell-eligible applicants, Nonwhite applicants, and applicants with lower high school grades and test scores. Evidence suggests that aid awards increase degree attainment mainly by increasing early full-time enrollment in a four-year college. 


States lose billions in sales tax revenue
State and local governments rely heavily on sales taxes to fund vital services. But with consumer spending down as people stay home due to Covid-19, governments are struggling to find the revenue to pay for the road maintenance, parks and public safety programs that communities need to thrive. Unlike the federal government, state and local governments must maintain balanced budgets, meaning any revenue shortfall must be met with additional revenue or spending cuts. According to Louise Sheiner and Sophia Campbell at the Brookings Institution, the aggregate sales tax revenue lost could be astounding: 

There were large increases in purchases of food at the grocery store, which is typically not subject to the sales tax, and large declines in spending at restaurants and hotels, which are often taxed more heavily than other things. In aggregate, sales taxes look to decline $49 billion this year, $45 billion next year, and $46 billion in 2022, in part reflecting lower price levels and in part because of changes in demand. Looking across the states, the largest percentage declines are projected in the District of Columbia (18 percent) and Rhode Island (16 percent), while the smallest declines are in Alabama, Idaho, and Arkansas (4 percent, 5 percent, and 6 percent, respectively).


Programming notes:
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Number of the Day
3,000 The number of Louisiana families who are safe from eviction because of the Louisiana Emergency Rental Assistance Program. (Source: The Advocate)