Lots of money, no debate

Lots of money, no debate

The Louisiana Legislature will sometimes spend hours in loud, passionate public debate over relatively trivial issues. But when it came to distributing an unprecedented amount of state and federal revenue through the annual budget process, lawmakers made all the major decisions behind closed doors. As The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports, the Senate spent just 30 minutes on Wednesday disposing of nine “money” bills that include next year’s operating budget, the capital construction budget, and bills that spend surplus dollars and federal pandemic recovery money.  

For the first time in years, the Louisiana Legislature has to account for more than $3 billion of extra money because tax proceeds are better than expected from a booming economy, hurricane recovery spending, and federal dollars to help rebound from the COVID pandemic. Hoping to avoid the pitfalls that led to years of deficits the last time the state was so flush – following recovery spending after the 2005 hurricanes – the Democratic administration and the Republican-majority Legislature tried to funnel much of the additional money into one-payments that would lower retirement debts, add to savings accounts to tap on a rainy day, boost a wide array of neglected infrastructure projects, and take care of maintenance that has been long deferred.

The budget bills still have to go back to the House, which is expected to agree with changes made by the Senate. That means the only remaining drama is whether Gov. John Bel Edwards will exercise his line-item veto authority to kill individual spending priorities that he doesn’t like – and, if so, whether the Legislature will vote to overturn those vetoes. 

States have more time prepare for PHE unwind
An estimated 15 million Americans could potentially lose their Medicaid health insurance coverage when the federal government declares an official end to the public health emergency (PHE) associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. The PHE was scheduled to end on July 15, but the Department of Health and Human services has promised to provide 60 days’ notice before termination. Given that there are fewer than 60 days until the end of the current PHE, it’s almost certain it will be extended another 90 days. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Jennifer Wagner and Farah Erzouki explain, states now have five additional months to prepare for the unwinding and should use the time to ensure that eligible people don’t lose health their coverage:

Experimentation during the pandemic and preparation for the monumental task of unwinding have lifted up available strategies that simplify the process for enrollees, reduce burden on eligibility staff, advance racial equity, and improve program integrity by keeping eligible people on the program. … States can replace the poor customer service and inefficient processes that often plagued Medicaid programs before the pandemic with more efficient, people-centered approaches when the PHE ends. State experiences offer a host of strategies that are proven to work. By implementing approaches such as these, states can fulfill their responsibility to keep eligible people enrolled when the PHE ends and help those no longer eligible for Medicaid to transition to other coverage. 

The case for revolutionizing child care
More than 80% of human brain development occurs in the first three years of life, and decades of research have shown that early childhood experiences – positive and negative – leave indelible marks that play an outsized role in future outcomes. Still, the United States trails far behind the rest of the world in the investments it makes in young children, and is one of only six countries in the world without a national paid leave program. NPR’s Greg Rosalsky profiles Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon whose new book, Parent Nation, argues that the only way to address the problem is through large-scale public interventions.

In working with parents, often from low-income communities, she’s come to recognize that there’s only so much that focusing on the choices and behaviors of individual parents can do. She beats herself up a bit in her new book, calling her original focus on changing society by simply educating parents “naive.” She continues to champion strategies to educate parents on brain science and give them the tools to stimulate their kids’ brains. But more important, she now says, is tackling the structural forces in society that are stacked against parents. 

Cleaning up orphaned wells
Abandoned “orphan” oil and gas wells pose hazards to the environment and to surrounding communities. That’s why the new federal infrastructure law set aside $4.7 billion to clean up orphaned wells across the country. On Wednesday, Senate Bill 245 by state Sen. Bret Allain became law, positioning Louisiana to receive $200 million of that money to clean up the approximately 4,600 orphaned wells on state lands. The Louisiana Illuminator’s Wesley Muller has more

Louisiana is slated to receive an initial $25 million grant and can compete among 26 states for a share of $2 billion that will be allocated based on performance. States that are more economically efficient at fixing orphan wells can receive larger shares, Allain said. Prior to the new changes, the state could fix non-priority wells only if doing so did not limit the number of priority sites that could have been restored in a given fiscal year. Thanks to the new law, the DNR secretary now has the authority to package together more non-priority wells into attractive bid packages if doing so will decrease “in a cost effective manner” the total number of orphaned wells, the bill states. The state will receive an estimated $150 million on the low end, which Allain called a “modest” estimate and said it could be closer to $200 million. 

Number of the Day
– Percentage of Americans who live at least an hour’s drive of an extended family member (Source: Pew Research Center