Curtain rises on the Legislature

Curtain rises on the Legislature

The Legislature begins its three-month session on Monday with plenty of money available to invest in the state’s priorities and with conservative majorities ready to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards on everything from taxes to vaccine mandates. At the center of the debate is the fate of more than $3 billion in surplus cash and pandemic relief money that lawmakers are free to spend mostly as they wish. The Advocate’s Tyler Bridges sets the scene

In all, Edwards and legislators have $3.4 billion in one-time money to spend, about 10 times the normal amount. Edwards and legislative leaders agree they want to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2008 when the state Treasury was overflowing with revenue generated by recovery spending after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Legislature and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal cut taxes believing that doing this would generate enough investment to pay for itself with increased tax revenue. That didn’t happen, and Edwards was saddled with a $2 billion deficit when he took office.

The newspaper’s editorial page likes the governor’s budget proposals, but notes that legislators face a complex task in dividing it up: 

Every kind of federal aid has some sort of string, or many strings, attached. In this year’s highly irregular cases, perhaps three or four different legislative instruments may be needed to spend the money legally, as Edwards’ budget chief Jay Dardenne outlined earlier in the spring. That can be a challenging environment for leaders. “The level of one-time (federal) spending proposed could require a two-thirds legislative vote to breach the state’s constitutional cap on expenditures, which could add complications to the debate,” the Public Affairs Research Council noted.

Gambit’s Clancy DuBos wonders how the battle over redistricting will bleed into the regular session as legislators try to override Edwards’ veto of congressional maps that failed to add a second majority-minority district: 

It will be interesting to see if JBE can convince a House member or two to break from the Speaker on the override votes — because (House Speaker Clay) Schexnayder has leverage of his own. He doles out committee assignments, and those who displease him may find themselves reassigned to the appropriately named retirement committee (or to some other obscure outpost). Schexnayder was blindsided when the House sustained JBE’s vetoes last year. The Speaker would love to turn the tables this go-round. That could put some House members in the middle of an intense political crossfire.

The fight over social studies standards
The political fights over how issues of racism and systemic oppression can
be taught in public school are likely to resurface at the Legislature this
spring. Rep. Ray Garofalo, who was deposed as chair of the House Education Committee last year, is back with a new bill that would simultaneously require instruction on Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and forbid its contents from being taught in schools. But The Advocate’s Mark Ballard writes that Louisiana’s curriculum fights may be less intense than what other states have seen thanks to new statewide social studies standards that omit any mention of “critical race theory.”

After hearings last summer on the new curricula attracted dozens of angry parents, state Superintendent Cade Brumley stormed talk radio promising on show after show that patriotic history, not critical race theory, would be taught to Louisiana children. About 2,000 members of the public weighed in on the curricula being drafted — an exercise that’s usually ignored. … That’s why of the 91 education bills filed for consideration during the upcoming session, only three measures deal with curricula — and none mention critical race theory.

Make good use of the surplus
Louisiana is hardly the only state with its finances in good shape after a tumultuous two years of pandemic. Dozens of states are experiencing revenue growth and budget surpluses thanks largely to robust federal pandemic aid and direct payments to families that helped millions of households stay financially afloat. Unfortunately, more than a dozen states are using this temporary revenue surge as an excuse to enact permanent tax cuts that could soon force them to cut important services. Ed Lazere of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why this remains a terrible idea: 

The deep tax cuts several states are considering would fritter away the opportunity to use the short-term surpluses to help residents and strengthen state economies. Research shows that state tax cuts don’t produce the economic boom their proponents promise — especially tax cuts focused on higher-income residents, such as cutting the top income tax rate. In contrast, using one-time surpluses to help residents or to invest in services that strengthen the state’s economy — such as in education, housing, or infrastructure — could have long-term benefits when properly designed and targeted.

Tackling the teacher shortage
A recent state report found that more than 50,000 Louisiana public school students go without their regular teacher each day – a consequence of an ongoing teacher shortage that has grown more acute during the pandemic. Fewer people are choosing teaching as a profession, and increasing numbers of teachers are either uncertified or teaching outside their subject areas. Legislators are hoping to tackle the problem by luring retired teachers back in the classroom by allowing them to collect a higher percentage of their pensions. The Advocate’s Will Sentell reports

Under current rules, teachers can only earn 25% of their annual retirement pay if they return to a school system job. (Rep. Rick) Edmonds wants to boost that to 50% of their pension. The measure would only apply to those who retired by Dec. 31, 2021, which he said is aimed at preventing a surge of teachers who want to take advantage of any new policy. The more lenient rule would also be capped at three years, which he said will allow time to see if the change works and if the shortage eases.  

On tap: The Didja Know? Podcast previews the 2022 Legislature
The Louisiana Budget Project’s podcast is back for the legislative session. In our newest episode, LBP executive director Jan Moller and public affairs director Davante Lewis talk about the major issues legislators face as they head back to the Capitol. Click here to listen, or subscribe to Didja Know? wherever you get your podcasts. 

Looking ahead:
The Legislature gavels in at noon on Monday. Gov.. John Bel Edwards is expected to address a joint session of the House and Senate shortly thereafter.  

Number of the Day
74,000 The number of retired Louisiana teachers who would be eligible to return to work under more generous rules regarding pension benefits being considered by the Legislature (Source: The Advocate).