A good starting point

A good starting point

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget recommendations to the Legislature would make meaningful progress on many fronts. Public-school teachers and college faculty would get modest pay increases. Providers of home- and community-based services would see higher reimbursement rates, which is a critical step to ensuring there are enough people available to care for vulnerable Louisianans who wish to remain at home.  But there are critical areas where the plans fall short, most notably in how it would spend the $2.8 billion in surplus “one-time” funding that won’t be available in future years. LBP’s Jan Moller explains

Congress allocated those federal relief dollars with the idea of helping the people and communities most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, which are disproportionately Black and low-income. That means putting money aside to address the affordable housing crisis that has affected many Louisiana communities. It means making a downpayment on a paid leave program so that workers who get sick – or have to take time from work to care for a family member – are able to do so without losing income. It also means paying bonuses to the frontline workers, such as teachers and retail workers – who kept business running during the public health emergency, and making sure they have the services and resources needed to retrain for new jobs that pay higher wages. 

The Advocate’s Blake Paterson reports on the governor’s plans for the $2.4 billion in “one-time” revenue:

Kicking off the debate, the governor’s chief budget architect, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, detailed Edwards’ priorities for those funds in a presentation before state lawmakers Tuesday, calling on legislators to “seize the moment” and utilize the one-time cash for one-time needs. The investments proposed are substantial: $500 million to construct a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge; $559 million to upgrade sewer and water systems statewide; $450 million to pay off state debts to FEMA; $550 million to replenish the trust fund that pays jobless claims; $100 million to build a new Interstate 10 bridge in Lake Charles; and millions more for other projects.

Julie O’Donoghue of Illuminator notes that legislators are on board with the broad outlines of the governor’s plan, but are likely to pick apart the details. 

Edwards and legislators both want to prioritize bridge and road construction and pay off state debt, but they don’t agree on the specifics of the plan yet. “Everyone in the room has a different idea on how to spend the money,” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said at a budget hearing Tuesday.

Bold action coming to “Cancer Alley”
The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that the Biden administration will aggressively enforce air quality rules in the South, including in Louisiana. EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated these actions are in response to the countless complaints he heard from residents about lack of clean water, fresh air and proximity to chemical plants. Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate has the story

Citing an example of the agency’s stepped-up enforcement, Regan also announced that EPA issued a notice of violation on Monday to Nucor Steel Louisiana’s direct reduced iron plant, also located in St. James. It requires the company to address unauthorized emissions of hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid mist, and its exceedance of permitted limits for sulfur dioxide emissions.

Closing the Black employment gap
At the beginning of his term, President Joe Biden vowed to focus on closing the unemployment gap for Black people. But a year into the Biden presidency Black employment continues to lag the national average, with Black women at a particular disadvantage. A true recovery from Covid-19 will require policymakers to invest in communities of color to close this gap. Yahoo’s Ben Werschkul reports

Immediately before the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate stood at 6.0%, double the 3.0% rate for white Americans. At the peak of the lockdowns, both numbers spiked in roughly equal measure — with the Black unemployment rate peaking at 16.7% in May 2020. But the recovery for Black Americans has lagged over the past two years. As of December 2021, the Black unemployment rate stood at 7.1%, still well away from pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, white Americans enjoy a 3.2% unemployment rate, almost matching the rate pre-pandemic.

The cost of the American Dream
Juan Sorto was 6 years old when he immigrated to the United States. He went on to become the first person in his family to go to college. But now, after obtaining a masters degree and beginning a Ph.D. program, he’s facing $205,513 in student loan debt. For many first-generation Latino students like Jaun, a college degree symbolizes the American Dream, but too often that dream is crushed by debt. Ayelet Sheffey of Business Insider has more:

While Sorto knows he voluntarily took on debt, experts agree the student-loan system is confusing and bureaucratic. It can lead borrowers seeking financial assistance on their education down a road of compounding interest and a lifetime of debt. The $1.7 trillion student-debt crisis grows each day, and data shows that it disproportionately impacts Latino borrowers and other communities of color. Scholarships for low-income students and loan-forgiveness programs for public servants barely make a dent in the lifelong debt millions of people carry in pursuit of the American Dream.

Number of the Day
$3,639 – The gap between the average Louisiana teacher’s salary and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) average (Source: The Advocate via Southern Regional Education Board)