The politics of public health

The politics of public health

New Orleans, like most American cities, has a long list of infrastructure in need of repairs and upgrades. And the city’s plan for hosting the 2025 Super Bowl – and the millions of dollars in tourist revenue that comes with it – depends on completing $450 million of planned renovations to the Superdome. But the Dome upgrades, along with dozens of other projects, were temporarily mothballed on Thursday by Republicans on the State Bond Commission, who are in a snit over public health measures taken by city leaders and the New Orleans Saints to control the latest surge in Covid-19 cases. The projects put on hold include upgrades to public schools, parks, health care facilities and the Port of New Orleans. The vote is part of a broader push to censure those who act to protect the vulnerable, and plays politics with public health as more Louisianans die preventable deaths. The AP’s Melinda Deslatte has the story.

Houma Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, the Republican budget committee chairman who sought to pull financing for many of the New Orleans projects, acknowledged after the meeting the city’s vaccine requirement was one of several reasons. … He and other Republicans on the commission offered little explanation in follow-up interviews beyond citing various unnamed concerns about projects. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ two representatives on the Bond Commission were the only members to oppose the delay.

Times-Picayune sports columnist Jeff Duncan traces the hijinks to Attorney General Jeff Landry, and writes that the delay could ultimately hurt the state’s efforts to strike a long-term deal that keeps the Saints in New Orleans. 

In case you missed it, Landry on Tuesday called the Saints’ “no-refunds/no-opt outs” policy “completely unacceptable” and said that “taxpayers should not continue to fund their projects with policies like this.” He also called on Louisiana Treasurer John Schroder and the state’s bond commission to “oppose any request for the Dome until these ticket holders are refunded or given ability to opt out.” … If anything, the Saints should be praised rather than criticized for their hardline stance. In the middle of a major health crisis, anything that encourages more Louisiana residents to get vaccinated should be championed.

A bad deal on unemployment (cont …)
The “compromise” that boosted Louisiana’s maximum unemployment benefits by a paltry $28 a week in exchange for an early end to enhanced federal unemployment benefits—including all benefits for gig workers—seems like a worse bargain for the state every day. Now, with a fourth wave of Covid continuing to depress the state’s tourism economy, new evidence suggests that states that cut federal unemployment benefits early also cut off a key driver of economic activity, leaving their economies worse off than their more compassionate peers. Ben Casselman reports in the New York Times:

The researchers estimate that workers lost an average of $278 a week in benefits because of the change, and gained just $14 a week in earnings (not $14 an hour, as previously reported here). They compensated by cutting spending by $145 a week — a roughly 20 percent reduction — and thus put less money into their local economies. “The labor market didn’t pop after you kicked these people off,” said Michael Stepner, a University of Toronto economist who was one of the study’s authors. “Most of these people are not finding jobs, and it’s going to take them a long time to get their earnings back.”

Double the Pell Grant
The Pell Grant program is a key source of support for college students from low-income backgrounds, but the grant amount itself has not kept up with the rising cost of tuition. For many students, grants from other sources often make up the gap between tuition increases over time and the smaller increases in Pell aid. So does that mean that today’s Pell Grant is enough to help those students complete their degree? Not quite. As Jason D. Delisle explains in a blog for the Urban Institute, increases in the cost of living for college students mean that even with more aid from other sources, low-income students still have less help than before:

Though rising grant aid has offset much of the increase in tuition for low-income Pell recipients, the total cost of attendance for these students has still increased substantially since the 1980s. […T]he net price for the total cost of attendance for low-income Pell students nearly doubled, from $6,798 in 1987 to $13,366 in 2016. This is because both tuition and living expenses have increased faster than inflation at these institutions, and although larger grants have done much to offset the former, they have been insufficient to offset the latter. (Grants are typically applied to tuition before living expenses or are often restricted to covering tuition costs in the case of institutional and state grants.)

A win for St. James Parish
Activists in St. James Parish, most of them Black, have fought a lengthy battle against a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics plant planned for their community. Now, they have found a powerful ally in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which on Wednesday announced that it would not permit planned construction to go forward without a full environmental impact evaluation—a process that can take years to complete. As The Guardian’s Oliver Laughland reports, the decision marks a major win for RISE St. James and other advocates.

The planned $9.4bn petrochemical facility, owned by Formosa Plastics, would roughly double toxic emissions in its local area and, according to environmentalists, release up to 13m tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants, to become one of the largest pollution-causing plastics facilities in the world. The 14 separate plastic plants, spread over a gargantuan 2,300 acres of land in St James Parish, could also emit up to 15,400 pounds of the cancer causing chemical ethylene oxide. On Wednesday, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for granting construction permits under the Clean Water Act, announced it would commission a full environmental impact statement, which advocates say could delay future construction for a number of years.

Number of the Day
2,094 – Number of student Covid cases reported in 528 participating Louisiana schools between Aug. 9 and Aug. 15, the first week of school in many districts. That is the highest weekly total since the pandemic began. Only one-third of Louisiana schools responded to the survey, which means it is likely an undercount. (Source: Louisiana Department of Health, via The Advocate)