Don’t scrap TOPS income data

Don’t scrap TOPS income data

When Louisiana made deep cuts to higher education in the early 2010s, tuition at public colleges and universities skyrocketed and the value of a TOPS college scholarship grew accordingly. Today the state spends upwards of $300 million per year on tuition for qualified students – including many who hail from wealthy families that could easily afford to pay for college. Now Sen. Bodi White has a bill – Senate Bill 81 – that would remove the requirement that TOPS recipients report their family income. An Advocate editorial explains why this is a bad idea: 

(R)equiring students to report their family income and other demographic information is not much of an imposition in return for four years of free college tuition. And knowing who is getting the scholarships enables future leaders to make informed decisions. In a typical year, TOPS helps more than 50,000 students pay for college, so there will never be a shortage of support. The program’s founders decided to keep statistics on who was getting the money so taxpayers could weigh the success of the effort. There is no reason to stop that now.

Putting kids in adult jails
Children who commit crimes – even heinous ones – belong in the juvenile justice system and not an adult jail, where they would be more likely to face assault by older inmates and less likely to get rehabilitated. That was part of the logic behind a 2017 reform measure where Louisiana joined 40 other states that have said adult jails should be reserved for adults. Now a bipartisan effort is underway at the Legislature to unravel that reform, when they should be doing the hard work of improving the state’s troubled juvenile justice system. The Advocate’s James Finn reports

Youth advocates and some veterans of the juvenile justice system warn that returning to the old system will once again subject youth to higher rates of sexual assault and other forms of violence. And they argue it likely won’t do much to curb crime, nor will it make prosecutors’ lives easier. They cite a recent report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor that found that, in over a third of cases where Louisiana placed kids in solitary confinement, the isolation lasted longer than the seven-day maximum under state rules. And they point to a March investigation by ProPublica, The Marshall Project, and NBC news that found youths in a state facility in Avoyelles Parish were held in solitary confinement in squalid conditions. 

The Illuminator’s Julie O’Donoghue has a longer look at Louisiana’s failed, decades-long efforts to take a more therapeutic approach to juvenile justice by modeling an approach used in Missouri.

In 2003, Louisiana lawmakers passed legislation that was supposed to implement the well-known “Missouri model” of juvenile justice, which emphasizes holding incarcerated youth closer to their homes in smaller facilities with less security and a focus on rehabilitation. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal even hired Missouri’s retired director of youth services to consult with Louisiana on juvenile justice issues. He also shuttered Jetson, in part because the facility was considered inadequate for the state’s new approach. Still, Louisiana never made the investment into juvenile justice services needed to fully adopt the Missouri model. Hurricane Katrina derailed initial plans to get the new model up and running, and a few years later Jindal ended up slashing the juvenile justice office’s funding when Louisiana faced continuous budget shortfalls. 

Return of the “fiscal hawks”
The “fiscal hawks” in the Louisiana Legislature came together in the years after the Great Recession, when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal was using increasingly desperate measures to keep the state budget from imploding. Led by Rep. Brett Geymann of Lake Charles, the “hawks” campaigned against the use of “one-time” revenues to pay ongoing expenses of state government, and were successful in achieving some modest reforms. Geymann is now back in the House after a four-year hiatus due to term limits, and today the state’s finances are in much better shape than when he left. As Mark Ballard reports for The Advocate, he is now trying to block the state from using newly recognized revenue to increase teacher pay. 

It basically blocks using extra money expected to be “recognized” by the REC on Monday to add another $500 to proposed pay raises for educators or any other expenses that will become part of the annual operating budget and have to be paid in the future. … Geymann has three other bills and a constitutional amendment working its way through the system that would control how surplus dollars are spent. Other legislators are pursuing similar bills that restrict how money is categorized and used. For instance, state Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, wants to start weaning the state off the proceeds of the increased state sales tax, which is scheduled to end in 2025 and nearly $450 million used to pay ongoing bills drops off.

Reality check: The massive budget shortfalls of the 2009-18 period were caused in large part by two major tax cuts. Legislators are on their way to repeating those mistakes with bills that seek to cut or redirect more than $400 million per year in sales-tax revenue.  

Streamlining access to the safety net
More than half of Americans will experience poverty at some point in their adult lives. And when that happens, government safety net programs are supposed to provide help with food, shelter, medical care and other basic needs. But far too often these programs come with unnecessary administrative barriers that make them difficult to access. A new report by Justin Schweitzer of the Center for American Progress looks at the problem – and lays out solutions that can bring us closer to a more equitable economy. 

Worst of all, administrative burdens perpetuate inequity because they tend to be most heavily placed on supports for low-income people, rather than those that serve the population as a whole. As a result, more often than not, administrative burdens fall hardest on people of color, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ people, and the elderly. Consequently, they come with significant economic costs, not savings: The economy is weaker when those who are eligible for support are prevented from receiving it, excluding people and communities from spending, safety, and stability.

Number of the Day
6,188 – Number of times solitary confinement was used against juvenile detainees in Louisiana in 2019 and 2020. (Source: Louisiana Legislative Auditor)