Next stop: the voters

Next stop: the voters

Louisiana legislators have been patting themselves on the back for their work during the session, led by an agreement on a complicated tax swap package that would trade a longstanding income-tax deduction for lower tax rates on people and corporations, with the biggest cuts going to those with the highest incomes. Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press reminds us that two key stops remain before it can take effect: Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk for a signature or veto – and approval by voters in an Oct. 9 statewide referendum. 

Voters who thought they might have a light election year without statewide or congressional positions up for grabs instead will face nine proposed constitutional amendments passed by lawmakers. The House and Senate created a statewide election specifically to get amendment decisions from the public, rather than wait for the 2022 election. Voters will make decisions on property tax adjustments, levee districts’ taxing authority, state investments and allowable political activity by civil service workers. But most important to legislative leadership are sales and income tax proposals.

While the tax swap is part of a complicated multi-bill package that awaits the governor’s (expected) signature, Deslatte notes that the bills are all tied to a single constitutional amendment with ballot language that does a misleading job of explaining what’s at stake. 

But the ballot language doesn’t really incorporate all that — or even explain that the public would be voting to give away a tax break it currently receives. Instead, the proposal facing voters will read: “Do you support an amendment to lower the maximum allowable rate of individual income tax and to authorize the legislature to provide by law for a deduction for federal income taxes paid?”

More money, fewer problems
The Legislature’s semiannual “fiscal” session was marked by more than its share of angry exchanges over hot-button social issues, and lawmakers nearly came to blows on the House floor on multiple occasions. But on the big-ticket items – approving a budget and overhauling the state’s tax structure – there was less rancor than usual. The Advocate thinks that’s because legislators, for a change, had plenty of financial resources at their disposal. 

The state is enjoying a solid rebound in tax collections as the economy has reopened. At the same time, federal pandemic relief bills provide literally billions over the next year or two for the governor and legislators to divvy up. We won’t say that harmony entirely ensued. But that’s pretty much the case in the State Capitol. With the close of the session on Thursday, there will be a great deal of work to be done to figure out all the implications of major legislation, and the governor is apt to veto some of the non-budgetary work of what is officially a financial session.

Capitol bureau chief Mark Ballard offers a similar take:

A few years ago, legislative lion John Alario, then Senate president, had to wipe away tears as he left the chamber, having witnessed a scrum of legislators bickering over an increase in sales taxes to balance the budget during the last 90 seconds before adjournment. The difference this time? “Money,” Rep. Randal Gaines said flatly. … The budgetary discipline imposed by Edwards produced more than enough revenues to pay the bills and a spending spree as COVID-19 restrictions eased boosted sales tax revenues, creating a surplus. Then billions of pandemic relief came in from the federal government to help refill a lot of empty pots. “It’s just like in your family, when you have enough money, there’s a relief and you can focus on the stuff you’ve been putting off,” Gaines said.

Rich school, poor school
President Joe Biden is proposing $20 billion in new spending on high-poverty public school districts as part of an effort to reduce the longstanding funding gap between wealthier, mostly white school districts and poorer districts that primarily serve students of color. The New York Times’ Kevin Carey reports that the money would be used both to directly address funding disparities and to incentivize states to make policy changes that create more equity. 

For the last two decades, federal K-12 education policy has mostly focused on improving the schools built on an uneven financial foundation by establishing consistent academic standards and holding schools accountable for student test scores. Those policies have fallen far short of their goal of closing the gap in test scores between white upper-income students and their peers. The Biden plan could be the first serious effort in more than a generation to repair the foundation itself. In the past, critics have questioned whether equitable school funding would actually improve educational results. But a strong academic research consensus has emerged in recent years that more school funding really does improve education.

Who defines discrimination? 
The Louisiana Legislature tried – and failed – to bar public schools from teaching about America’s history of systemic and institutional racism. Jarvis DeBerry of the Louisiana Illuminator writes that the debate was part of a broader pattern where conservatives either made light of discrimination or suggested that the people in need of protection are the ones who are already the least vulnerable. 

In this session, members of the Legislative Black Caucus seemed to be constantly explaining to their White colleagues that Black and White Louisianians inhabit different realities. When Sen. Jay Morris (R-West Monroe) argued that requiring Louisianians to properly train and obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon is an imposition, Black Caucus leader Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) told him that police are unlikely to look innocently upon Black men who cite “constitutional carry.” But that didn’t change Morris’ mind or stop the Legislature from passing a bill allowing permitless carry. At the heart of the failed attempt from Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette) to stop teachers from pointing out how racism has shaped society is the idea that lessons about racism victimize White children by making them feel bad.  Meanwhile, our state’s disciplinary statistics show Black children are harmed by racism itself.

Number of the Day
$23 billion – Amount of additional funding received by school districts where more than 75% of the students are white, compared to districts where more than 75% are nonwhite – even though there are more students in predominantly nonwhite districts. (Source: EdBuild via The New York Times)