Budget bills on the move

Budget bills on the move

Louisiana’s state budget is in better shape than many feared at the outset of the pandemic, largely due to quick federal action that provided much-needed relief to struggling families and state and local governments. On Thursday the Louisiana House approved a $36.4 billion spending blueprint for the 2021-22 fiscal year that keeps state programs intact and makes some long-overdue reinvestments in public education. An enhanced federal Medicaid match also allowed lawmakers to avoid cuts. But even in a good budget year Louisiana still has many unmet needs in early childhood education, public health and workforce training. Blake Paterson of The Advocate has the highlights

The legislation includes $800 pay bumps for secondary and elementary school teachers and $400 increases for school support staff. That’s twice what Edwards, a Democrat, proposed in his initial budget — but falls short of the $1,000 raises for teachers and $800 raises for support staff lawmakers that legislative leaders promised.  Edwards pitched his proposal as a historic investment in higher education and his recommendation to increase funding for college and universities by $80 million made it through the legislative process largely unscathed. Those dollars will go towards pay raises for faculty, fully funding TOPS and additional resources for the state’s need-based financial aid program.

The House also advanced several companion budget bills that allocate surplus dollars from the current and previous fiscal years, and spend the first $925 million in federal aid that Louisiana received from the  American Rescue Plan. The AP’s Melinda Deslatte:

The proposal would steer $400 million to the state’s bankrupt unemployment trust fund, $300 million to water system upgrades, $90 million to broadband expansion, $55 million to ports, $50 million to grants for small businesses and nonprofits, $10 million for the logging industry and $4.5 million for movie theater operators. Another $15 million would pay for technology upgrades at the Louisiana Capitol, even though lawmakers are sitting on their own unspent surplus.

Expungements should be automatic
People who’ve paid their debt to society after being convicted of crimes often have a tough time finding jobs and housing thanks to their criminal record. That’s why expungement, which seals a person’s criminal record, can be a critical tool to helping people get back on their feet. But getting an expungement in Louisiana is a convoluted and costly process that takes a particular toll on low-income ex-offenders and people of color. House Bill 604 and House Bill 232 would make expungements automatic for some offenders, giving many Louisianans a chance at a clean slate. The Advocate writes in support of this legislation

Indeed, the current system places the steepest burden on those who are least equipped to pay the price and jump through all the necessary hoops. … Just as important is what the proposals don’t do. They don’t extend the right to expungement to those who are not now eligible: people convicted of sex offenses, most violent felonies, and misdemeanor stalking and domestic abuse and battery. Otherwise, expungements are generally available to people with arrests that didn’t result in convictions, with misdemeanor convictions dating back five years, and with felony convictions 10 years after completion of a sentence. The records would remain available to law enforcement and government agencies, as they are now.

Interference threatens Louisiana safety net
Covid-19 has shone a light on the value of a strong public safety net. When people lost their jobs and often the employer-sponsored health insurance that covered them and their families, programs like Medicaid, SNAP and unemployment insurance were there to catch them and prevent families from falling into even more dire straits. Some state legislators, however, assisted by national lobbying outfits, are trying to limit access to these vital programs by promoting a narrative of waste, fraud and abuse. And, it is hurting families and kids. Wesley Muller of Louisiana Illuminator has the latest on one such effort, Senate Bill 225 by Sen. Mike Reese that would slash Louisiana’s already lowest-in-the-nation unemployment benefits: 

Testifying in support of the bill was Joe Horvath with the Foundation for Government Accountability, a national lobby that opposes Medicaid, unemployment and other federal programs. The group spearheaded a movement to kick 3.1 million people off food stamps by, among other things, holding classes that taught state legislators ways to suggest food stamp programs were full of fraud, according to a Vox Media article.

Joe Biden visits Lake Charles 
Nearly 250 days since Hurricane Laura – followed by Hurricane Delta – made landfall as one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland, Lake Charles residents are still waiting for long-term aid from Washington. President Biden’s visit to the area to promote his infrastructure investment plan provided an opportunity to highlight the ongoing needs of residents as they recover and rebuild. Mike Smith of The Advocate has the story:

What is needed now, they say, is a long overdue disaster relief package from the federal government. Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said the city has more than $230 million in housing needs alone, and an analysis commissioned by the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana found that around half of all housing in Calcasieu was damaged in some way. (…) Local officials certainly support building a new bridge, but they hope it doesn’t keep other pressing concerns from being addressed.

Number of the Day
2.3 million – The number of U.S. workers experiencing 52-weeks or greater of unemployment as of March 2021 compared to 532,000 workers in April 2020. (Source: Economic Policy Institute)