Budget bills head to the governor

Budget bills head to the governor

Flush with more than $3.6 billion in extra cash, the Legislature wrapped up its budget deliberations on Thursday with more than two weeks left before adjournment, sending Gov. John Bel Edwards a package of bills that fund state government services next year while setting aside billions of dollars for construction and maintenance projects. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports that this year’s budget debates had a very different tone than in previous years, perhaps because there was enough money on hand to satisfy most lawmakers’ priorities. 

“This has been the fastest and the quietest budget debate that I can recall,” in 20 years, said Jan Moller, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Budget Project, which looks at fiscal legislation from the perspective of low- and moderate-income families. While not happy with many of the choices made by lawmakers, Moller said by and large money is being spent to help people with one-time investments for highways, bridges, higher education, teacher pay raises and other projects. And legislators did so without repeating the same mistakes, such as cutting taxes, made the last time the state was so flush with cash.

Steven Procopio and Melinda Deslatte of the Public Affairs Research Council, in a guest column for The Advocate, complain that legislators set aside more than $100 million for “pet projects” in their districts without any public debate or scrutiny. 

In many instances, the House and Senate simply steered cash to a town, municipal agency or preferred organization with no details about how the money must be spent, giving the entity a blank check. Few, if any, of the projects were openly debated or discussed across weeks of lengthy budget hearings. They were added into the legislation with little acknowledgment during the amendment process.

The Illuminator’s Julie O’Donoghue combs through the fine print and notes that district judges, legislative operations and the staff of Attorney General Jeff Landry will also get more money next year. Not getting money: ordinary Louisianans, who will not be receiving rebates or one-time tax credits like the residents of at least 12 other states

Housing and criminal justice reform
Around 30,000 Louisianans are released from prisons and jails each year, and many of them have trouble finding stable, adequate housing as they return to their local communities. In many cases, formerly incarcerated people are prevented from renting a house or apartment based on inaccurate or incomplete background checks. New Orleans businessman Pres Kabacoff, in a letter to The Times-Picayune, writes in support of Rep. Matthew Willard’s House Bill 1063, which seeks to address the problem.

Fortunately, in the last session of the state Legislature, impediments to gaining employment were removed by the “Fair Chance Hiring’’ law, which prohibits discrimination for arrests and allows the applicant to see the background check. This session, House Bill 1063 by state Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, intends to provide similar protection to applicants with a record applying for housing. … Potential tenants have the opportunity to provide additional explanations about their backgrounds on applications and the right to be assessed as an individual and then reapply. It’s a process change that costs landlords nothing and simplifies and standardizes property management.  

Louisiana maternal mortality rates 
The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries, and Louisiana has one of the highest rates of maternal death in the country. In Louisiana, four Black women die from giving birth for every one white woman – compared to a 3-to-1 national ratio. Politico’s Sarah Owermohle reports that social determinants of health play a major role in this shameful disparity, and that Sen. Bill Cassidy is among those working to address the issue. 

Cassidy, one of four physicians serving in the Senate, acknowledged during the interview that several reported reasons for high maternal mortality rates in his state, including racial bias in care, higher rates of preeclampsia among American Black women — a serious high blood pressure condition that is the leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide — and the difficulty for women especially in rural areas to easily and quickly get to medical care. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation, meanwhile, is out with a new report that surveyed 41 states and the District of Columbia on what maternity services they cover through their Medicaid programs. Tucked inside last year’s American Rescue Plan Act was a provision that allowed states to offer a full year of postpartum Medicaid coverage for new moms, instead of the 60 days currently covered by the program. Last month, Louisiana became the first state to take advantage of this opportunity. 

Child care benefits economy 
Millions of families lost critical support, like the expanded Child Tax Credit, when Congress failed to pass the Build Back Better package last December. While there are talks about another economic package, it is expected to be significantly smaller than legislation the House passed last year that sought to ensure low- and middle-income families pay no more than 7% of their income on child care. But new legislation from Sens. Patty Murray and Tim Kaine aims to expand and improve child care in every state. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Sharon Parrott explains how the proposal would benefit families and expand the economy. 

By helping more parents work, expanding access to affordable child care can expand the economy as well. While the labor market overall has rebounded robustly since the early days of the pandemic when tens of millions of people lost jobs, the share of non-elderly adults who are either working or looking for work has not yet fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, which themselves were still below the peak post-World War II rates experienced in the 1990s expansion. Expanding access to affordable, quality child care can raise labor force participation and that, in turn, would increase the economy’s capacity to supply goods and services and accommodate a higher level of consumer demand without adding to inflation.

Number of the Day
$546 million – Balance of Louisiana’s “rainy day fund,” enough to keep state government running for 20.4 days. The median U.S. state has 34.4 days of reserves on hand. The Legislature set aside another $174 million in rainy-day funds this year. (Source: Pew Trusts and Legislative Fiscal Office)